TO a county that boasts 11 league titles and a host of Cup triumphs both at home and abroad, a promotion race that increasingly looks like culminating in three Yorkshire sides slugging it out in the Championship play-offs sounds like small beer.
But, such have been the slim pickings for White Rose football over the past decade or so that the presence of Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town in the top six is very much cause for celebration.
Just who will be popping the champagne corks at Wembley come May 29 remains to be seen with Reading and, increasingly, Fulham looking to have a big say in who claims the passport to untold riches that is a place in the Premier League.
For now, though, all three challengers from within the Broad Acres can bask in the glow of a season that is continuing a long overdue revival in fortunes for a county that last season saw both Hull City and Middlesbrough return to the top table of English football.
“Yorkshire derbies are great,” said Kyle Bartley ahead of today’s lunchtime showdown between Leeds and Wednesday at Elland Road.
“It is good for the county that football is back at the level it used to be around here – and where it should be.”
The crowds have gone up massively this season and that is down to results and our performances. Getting a sell-out crowd at Elland Road is how it should be.Leeds United’s Kyle Bartley
Leeds and Wednesday, with a combined seven league titles to their names, have perhaps been the most spectacular indicator of how Yorkshire football lost its way early in the new Millennium.
Both slipped out of the Premier League before then falling even further, spending three years apiece in League One.
In spite of the clubs’ respective pulling power in terms of attendances and rich history, not so long ago there seemed little prospect of this cycle of decline ending any time soon.
Then, though, Dejphon Chansiri arrived at Hillsborough two years ago and everything changed. Last season brought a first appearance at the rebuilt Wembley and, although the day ended in disappointment courtesy of Mohamed Diame’s wonder goal for Hull, the noise generated by a 40,000-strong travelling army of fans reminded the Premier League what it had been missing since the Owls’ relegation in 2000.
United’s own revival came courtesy of Garry Monk’s arrival last summer and Bartley points to today’s likely 35,500-plus crowd as proof of the togetherness that is driving the West Yorkshire club forward.
“The crowds have gone up massively this season and that is down to results and our performances,” added the loanee defender. “Getting a sell-out crowd at Elland Road is how it should be.
“The manager spoke about the need for us all to be together at the start of the season and our fans have been brilliant, they have really pushed us on.
“We needed to make Elland Road a fortress and, on the whole, we have managed to do that quite well.”
Today will bring the third meeting between two of Yorkshire’s representatives in the play-off places inside a little over a month. After both the Owls’ win over Huddersfield and Leeds’ defeat at the John Smith’s, there was plenty of talk about the teams meeting again come May.
No doubt, today will bring similar chatter regardless of the result but Bartley insists it is far too early to consider any game as a dress rehearsal for either a play-off semi-final or final.
“It is not about what might happen later in the season,” said the 25-year-old.
“The manager is big on stressing how important the next game is and that we can’t look too far ahead.
“We have 13 difficult games ahead. We take those one by one, and see where we end up.”
United’s last derby outing at Huddersfield, of course, ended in a mass confrontation between the players and staff after Monk had clashed with David Wagner.
Both head coaches and their respective clubs were charged by the Football Association and punishment is likely to follow. For Bartley, however, the manner in which the Leeds players backed up Monk following the contretemps with his Terriers counterpart was an indication of their togetherness.
“The derbies here in Yorkshire are fiery,” said Bartley, a veteran of derbies in Glasgow and south Wales. “It is clear the games mean that little bit more to supporters and the clubs.
“We backed each other up at Huddersfield, that is important. Having said that, we need to keep a cool head (today). We need to keep 11 players on the pitch.
“That is where the experienced boys come in, trying to help the others out. Having said that, you do need that fire in your belly to make sure you put in a good performance.”
The 2-1 defeat at the John Smith’s Stadium earlier this month began a stumble in form that has seen Leeds take just four points from as many games.
To bounce back today, United will have to shackle a team whose attacking options are plentiful. Fernando Forestieri, Jordan Rhodes, Sam Winnall,. Steven Fletcher and Gary Hooper are all at Carlos Carvalhal’s disposal, meaning Bartley and company will have to be at their best.
“Sheffield Wednesday have spent a lot of money and have a lot of strikers with good pedigrees,” added the defender, who is one booking away from a two-game ban. “For us, though, if me, Pontus (Jansson), the back four and Rob (Green) do our jobs then we will be fine.
“I think their expectations are a lot higher than us, especially with the money that they have spent in the summer and, obviously, again in January.
“They will have a lot more pressure on their shoulders and, hopefully, we can go out and just try and express ourselves.”