AS combined ticket sales of around 54,000 vividly illustrate, today’s Yorkshire derby double-header in the Championship promotion race has clearly caught the imagination of the county’s football supporters.
With good cause, too, as the presence of Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off places plus Barnsley being set to enjoy their highest finish in 17 years means there is plenty to ponder right now.
In all of the derbies in the world, there are no favourites. Leeds have strong points that we must be careful about. But, like all the teams in the world, they have weak points and we will try to exploit those.Sheffield Wednesday boss, Carlos Carvalhal
Will Leeds or the Owls, both founder members of the Premier League in 1992, put more than a decade of punching below their weight firmly behind them and rejoin the elite come May?
Can David Wagner continue Huddersfield Town’s remarkable season and end a 45-year absence from the top table of English football?
Or will Barnsley, on the 20th anniversary of their only previous promotion to the top flight, come with a late play-offs dash for the second year in a row?
Only time will tell, of course, in terms of which, if any, of those scenarios come true but there is no denying the sense of anticipation that is building.
That much will be apparent at both Elland Road and Oakwell today as the latest instalment in an intriguing four-way White Rose scrap takes place.
First up is the lunchtime kick-off between Leeds and Wednesday. A bumper crowd of 35,500 is expected, the second highest for a fixture between these two old foes in almost 50 years.
“The derbies have been great to be involved in this season,” said United head coach Garry Monk. “All the teams are different in their approach, each game is a unique situation but they are the ones we look forward to.”
United have had mixed fortunes in derby football this season with their seven clashes against Wednesday, Huddersfield and Rotherham United having yielded four wins and three defeats. Carlos Carvalhal’s Owls, meanwhile, have won four of their five all-White Rose clashes this term.
The Portuguese said: “A derby, even if one team is in first position and the other is last, is still a derby.
“In all of the derbies in the world, there are no favourites. Leeds have strong points that we must be careful about. But, like all the teams in the world, they have weak points and we will try to exploit those.”
Half an hour or so after the final whistle blows at Leeds, the second derby of the day will kick off at Barnsley.
Oakwell’s biggest crowd of the season is expected for the visit of Huddersfield, who are chasing a seventh straight league win for the first time since 1982.
Something of a mutual admiration society was evident between the respective head coaches during the build-up as Huddersfield look to complete a league double over the Reds.
“Huddersfield have evolved during the season,” said Paul Heckingbottom, who will today serve a one-game touchline ban following his dismissal last month against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“We spoke to their staff after we played them away and they said some good things and how we had a real identity on the pitch. They spoke really well of us, which was pleasing because that is all I have been trying to do from day one.
“Watching them, I think they now have an identity. You could see what they were trying to do, but I think there were weaknesses before and it is credit to David and his staff and their understanding of the game in the Championship that they have adapted their ideas over time.”
Wagner, meanwhile, has continually played down Town’s chances of winning promotion this time around.
However, second-placed Brighton kicking off at tea-time against Reading means completing victory today over Barnsley would take Huddersfield to within a point of the top two for at least a couple of hours.
On the Reds, Wagner said: “When you see where Barnsley have come from and know what their budget is, they could be seen as a surprise package. But, after seeing them in the first three or four weeks of the season and how intelligent their manager is, it is not a surprise to me.
“They are consistently in the top ten, and they are dynamic with hungry, young players.”
It isn’t just the second tier where big crowds are expected in the county with Sheffield United likely to be watched by a 27,000-plus gate for the second consecutive weekend as Phil Parkinson’s Bolton Wanderers head to Bramall Lane.