Leeds United lead Yorkshire’s Championship sextet into football’s new normal

The weekend Leeds United have been waiting three months for has finally come around.

For football fans across Yorkshire there will be excitement at seeing their teams play again – nervous excitement in most cases – and the Elland Road squad appear to have been looking forward to it as much as anyone.

The thought of their team playing in Cardiff, against opponents they do not traditionally fare well against, might not have been so enticing in mid-March, even on the back of five straight victories. But now the mood is very different.

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Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City players could have been forgiven for wondering what reception awaited them as they faced not just Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic but more importantly, their own fans, after humiliating defeats in their previous matches. Now those hammerings are distant memories and the supporters will be sat behind televisions and computers well out of earshot when the games are finally played today.

Liam Cooper (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

For Barnsley, too, it has been a chance for a reset, a nine-game sprint to the finish. They have given the rest a headstart – they are seven points behind Hull – but at least as a club they have pulled off great escapes before.

Huddersfield Town had just started to hit some form, albeit before a defeat at Elland Road, and Middlesbrough had ended a 12-match sequence without a win.

For all the talk of protecting sporting integrity, this is something very new, a season within a season played in totally different and very strange conditions. It seems only Sheffield Wednesday have nothing to play for, but with a points deduction for misconduct still possible, even they cannot take their foot off the gas. Many individuals in their squad have their footballing futures to play for ahead of manager Garry Monk’s summer refit.

Reservations and complaints have been expressed at boardroom and managerial level about either the restart itself, or its details, but all six sets of players need to approach it with the customary optimism of August, not the weariness some are inevitably feeling by the spring.

Liam Cooper, Leeds United captain. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

With that in mind, the positivity from Leeds, the straining at the leash to get back to the campaign despite knowing that if the season had been abandoned at this stage, it would have the happy ending the club craves, is refreshing.

This is not a club that fears “doing a Leeds”, but one which wants to consign last season’s collapse to the history books by adding another chapter themselves.

This weekend, it will all feel very strange. Being at the first Premier League game for 100 days was a real privilege, but it was weird and the football unedifying. With the losers more than likely in the relegation zone this evening, Hull and Charlton cannot afford to be as rusty as Aston Villa and Sheffield United were. If the Tigers get their first Championship win since New Year’s Day, Huddersfield will have to respond in kind at home to Wigan Athletic. Middlesbrough will need a pre-emptive strike when they kick the second-tier resumption of at home to Swansea City.

Yorkshire is over-represented at the wrong end of the table.

Individuals will have had their own personal tragedies, and the NHS and Black Lives Matter logos on their shirts are a reminder there have been far bigger things going on in the lockdown.

Thoughts will be on those not at the Riverside, the John Smith’s Stadium, the KCOM, Loftus Road and Cardiff City Stadium.

It will be the first time in decades Leeds have played without Norman Hunter thumping a desk or table in frustration, and Trevor Cherry will not be dropping in on Huddersfield, or following Leeds’s fortunes. Of the fans who cannot be there, some will never come back.

Matchgoing supporters have become an afterthought but in a world of only armchair fans, players will realise just how much they feed off their passion.

Some players will not be back either, having turned down contracts or, in the case of Mallik Wilks, on loan from Barnsley to Hull, been blocked by their clubs.

We still worry how many clubs will not return for next season.

Even though it will be artificial and tinged with sadness, and in spite of the fact many of you will be aching to be there in person to join the celebrations and inspire the players to new heights, enjoy it as best you can. This, after all, is what so many of us have been eager to get back to.

It will be imperfect, but when was matchday anything else?

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James Mitchinson

Editor