IT is time that Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United returned to the top flight, believes the man who managed both clubs ahead of tomorrow’s lunchtime Championship derby at Hillsborough.
The clubs last contested a Premier League derby in April, 2000. A week-and-a-half later, Wednesday were relegated. It is so long ago that Howard Wilkinson was a few months away from being named caretaker manager of England’s national team for the second time.
Leeds followed Wednesday down in 2004 and Yorkshire’s biggest clubs became lost in the wilderness.
Wilkinson managed both clubs, leaving Hillsborough for Leeds in 1988 and famously taking them to the last title before the advent of the Premiership.
“I’d like to see the situation change, for Leeds and for Wednesday,” he said. “It’s a long time since this was a Premier League game, that’s true, but my view on that has always been very simple.
“If you look at the crowds, the history of the clubs and the potential they’ve shown over the years – the things they’ve done over the years – then they’re great candidates for the Premier League but you need more than that to get there.
“In the end it’s about everything – players, finances, the way a club’s run, the way a team’s managed.
“I can’t say I’m surprised that either club’s been in the Championship for so long because the longer it goes on the more people come to expect it. But disappointed?
“Yes. I’m disappointed about it because I understand the potential.”
Wednesday – almost 16 years on from their demise under Peter Shreeves – released theirs under Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri, who took charge 12 months ago, and are seventh, two points from the play-offs, with four wins from five.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, thought seriously about buying Wednesday, or at least spoke with Milan Mandaric about the possibility, before he began arranging his majority purchase of Leeds in early 2014. The two-year anniversary of that takeover will fall in April and it is hard to know if Cellino would draw any satisfaction from the months in between.
Steve Evans, Leeds’ head coach and the sixth employed under Cellino, has dangled the play-offs in front of the Italian ever since he replaced Uwe Rosler in October but 12 points adrift and 10 behind Wednesday, that target will disappear if United lose at Hillsborough tomorrow. There are some who think it went with Tuesday’s stoppage-time defeat at Ipswich Town. Others feel Leeds were never genuinely in the running.
Tomorrow, still, is the first time for a while that a derby between the clubs carries more significance than merely local rivalry.
Wednesday could move up to fifth at full-time. Evans was not joking when he described the fixture as “must-win” and an away win would at least allow him to cling to his own sense of optimism, with the bottom starting to drop out of sixth-placed Brighton’s season.
Wilkinson said Evans was right to persevere. “Leeds aren’t out of it,” he said. “If you’re realistic then 12 points is a lot to make up with half of the season gone. The statistics would say that it’s very hard from here but it’s difficult to categorise the Championship, the same as it is the Premier League this season. Is not black-and-white in terms of ruling teams in and out.
“The right attitude is to go at it for as long as you can. But I’m not saying it won’t be difficult. I think Leeds will know full well that it’s going to be difficult. They’d rather be where Wednesday are.”
It frustrates Wilkinson that the county does not have a single representative in the Premier League.
“People in Sheffield would tell you that the Sheffield derby is their biggest game.
“My view as someone who’s been in this business all his life is that the higher you go up the leagues, the bigger the games get.
“Wednesday’s games with Leeds were massive games in the Premier League and I’d like that to be the case again. It’s Yorkshire football I feel sorry for. I want Wednesday up there, and Leeds and Sheffield United. I want clubs like that in the Premier League, punching their weight. It’s time they were.”