AS HARD-FOUGHT and, in many cases, thrilling that clashes between these West Yorkshire neighbours have been in past years, it is hard to think of a league derby with more at stake than tomorrow’s high noon showdown for a long, long time.
Huddersfield Town and Leeds United sit tantalisingly close to the Premier League and the riches that come with a seat at the top table of English football, even allowing for there being a third of the regular season still to play.
Town have made a mockery of the pre-season odds that had David Wagner’s men down as one of the favourites for the drop, with Thursday’s stunning win over leaders Brighton & Hove Albion underlining their promotion credentials.
Leeds, meanwhile, have this season shaken off the tag of being the Championship’s biggest under-achievers to launch their own push for the top flight.
Tomorrow, therefore, promises to be a titanic clash in front of the live Sky cameras and what could be the biggest crowd of the season at the John Smith’s Stadium. Tommy Smith, for his part, is eager to build on what was arguably the best performance of Wagner’s 15 months in West Yorkshire.
“We are looking forward to the Leeds game,” said the 24-year-old to The Yorkshire Post. “First, it is the next game. But it is also Leeds and we want to get the right result.
“The big thing is we go into the game on a high after the Brighton game (on Thursday). The result and performance were really, really good and every single player put a massive shift in.
“To get a result against a team as good as Brighton, we were really, really thrilled. But that is gone now and we move on.
“There will be a lot of hype about this one, I am sure, because of where we both are in the league. But this is not a squad that will get swept up in that, not at all.”
These two Yorkshire rivals have met 67 times in league combat, but one would surely have to go back to the last season Town spent in the top flight for a clash with as much at stake as tomorrow’s televised affair.
Elland Road was the stage on the first Saturday of April, 1972, as Don Revie’s side, locked in a four-way scrap for the title, hosted a Terriers outfit desperate for the two points at the other end of the table.
Town had beaten Leeds earlier in the season but, without a win in the league since November and by now propping up Division One, slipped to a 3-1 loss in the return. Three weeks later, relegation from the top flight was confirmed and the Terriers have not been back since.
Now, though, there is a genuine belief that Huddersfield can finish a job that started in such stunning fashion with eight wins from the first 11 games. That stirring start to the campaign included a 1-0 win at Elland Road, the second time inside six months that Wagner’s men had claimed all three points at the home of their rivals.
“The win at Leeds was a big one,” added Smith, fresh from netting his first goal at the John Smith’s for the Terriers in the win over Chris Hughton’s Seagulls.
“It is always great to get one over your rivals but, in terms of the season, it kept things going after a good start. Mind, it is gone now. All that matters is how we do this time. We got three points against Brighton and now we want another three.”
Aaron Mooy’s winner in September at Leeds continued a recent trend in this derby clash that has seen the away side triumph in the last four meetings.
This means Town’s support has to look back to October, 2013, for their last taste of victory over United at home so three points tomorrow would be most welcome.
It will not, though, be easy for either side. Town have lost just once in 12 league and cup outings, while Leeds’s late winner at Blackburn means Garry Monk’s side have taken 37 points from a possible 48 to cement a place in the play-off places.
“Whether we are playing top of the league or bottom of the league, every game is the same,” said Smith. “We go into it looking to pose a threat.
“The coaching staff always devise a game plan for us and we try to put that on to the pitch. Whether that is Leeds or anyone, it doesn’t change.“
Such are the demands placed on promoted sides to conform to Premier League regulations that planning has to start early.
Which is why, as happens every year, officials from the top flight pay visits to clubs likely to figure in the promotion shake-up way before the run-in gets going.
As happened with Sheffield Wednesday last season, Huddersfield and Leeds have both had recent inspections.
All manner of areas will need revamping in the summer, including media and player facilities, if either club does go up, but any work would be a small price to pay for the £100m plus cash booty that accompanies winning promotion.
Such a sum, of course, is enough to have the respective accountants of Town and Leeds – and Wednesday, for that matter – suffering palpitations, but for the players it is all about the glory of competing against the very best. And to do that, Smith says, Huddersfield must remain as focused as they have all season under Wagner.
“We can win games ugly or, like against Brighton, play nice football and win,” he added. “That has been the key to how we have done this season.
“There is a long way to go and all we can do is keep trying to get the results we need, and see where that takes us”