THE more things change, the more they stay the same.
“It has got everything,” said the Leeds United manager ahead of hosting Sheffield United with promotion to the top flight the target for both clubs. “The situation lends itself to being Yorkshire’s match of the season.”
“We have just come out of the Third Division,” countered his Blades counterpart, buoyed by his side breathing down the neck of their neighbours from up the M1. “When you look at Newcastle and Leeds, and consider the experience they have got in their side and transfer fees paid, there is no way we should be competing with them.”
Take out the dated mention of the old third tier and substitute Norwich for Newcastle and these comments from almost exactly 29 years ago – uttered by Howard Wilkinson and Dave Bassett, respectively, ahead of the Easter Monday promotion showdown at Elland Road – could easily apply to today’s eagerly-anticipated meeting between these two old Yorkshire foes.
Back then, the two Uniteds were locked on 75 points. Leeds, as they had since deposing the Blades in December, were sitting on top of the old Second Division and just five games remained.
Newcastle United were three points adrift in third, but boasted a better goal difference than both Yorkshire clubs.
All wins are important. No win is more important than another at this stage of the competition.Marcelo Bielsa
Supporters from either side of this lunchtime’s divide will not need reminding that Wilkinson’s men ran out 4-0 winners.
What is often overlooked almost three decades on, however, is how that convincing victory for Leeds was far from the end of the story.
Bassett’s side responded with back-to-back wins, while Leeds drew at Brighton and then suffered a shock home defeat to Barnsley.
Even a last-gasp victory over Leicester City on the penultimate weekend at a highly-charged Elland Road was not enough to wrestle back the initiative due to the Blades having a game in hand.
Had that subsequent trip to Blackburn Rovers on the final Tuesday of the campaign been won – and Billy Whitehurst, straining every sinew of his being to reach the ball, headed agonisingly wide of an open goal in stoppage-time – then the Second Division title would have gone to Bramall Lane on the final day and not Elland Road. On such small margins can such vast rewards rest.
The importance of what Chris Wilder described as a “humdinger of a game” in midweek is clear but the result will not necessarily define this splendidly entertaining promotion race, a point the Blades chief has been at pains to stress all week.
“There are shades of 1990 with this game,” the 51-year-old told The Yorkshire Post. “I did not play that day but I was there.
“We lost 4-0 but look what happened afterwards that year. We both went up, Leeds winning at Bournemouth on the last day and us at Leicester.
“And we could have gone up as champions.
“I mention that (miss) to Billy every time I see him – though only from a distance!
“After that game, he was asking the Blackburn groundsman and the referee to measure the crossbar because he thought it should have gone in. Had it gone in, things would have been different.”
As the two Uniteds of Leeds and Sheffield did battle for promotion in the spring of 1990, Marcelo Bielsa was just embarking on a managerial career that finally brought him to England last summer.
He has seen most things during those intervening years and, like Wilder, is not about to fall for the hype surrounding today’s derby fixture.
“I get excited by games like this,” said the Argentinian. “But all wins are important. No win is more important than another at this stage of the competition.
“What I will say is, for me, the emotion that you get from big games is very important. And our players have enough experience to manage this kind of situation.”
Leeds are looking to complete the double over their south Yorkshire rivals. If they can repeat December’s 1-0 win then the gap between the two Uniteds will be stretched to five points with eight games to play. Not that this is unduly worrying Wilder.
“I am sure both sets of supporters would probably take the same outcome as back in 1990,” he said. “But there is one, possibly two or three others, who will have a say about that.
“Yes, this is a big game. But it is not season-defining. There is so much football still to play. People can get carried away.
“It only takes a week of football to turn things around. If Leeds beat us, they go five clear. That is two games, a week of football.”
Maybe the last word should go to the Blades fan, whose despair at losing to Leeds was captured in the ‘United’ documentary that BBC2 screened each week during that 1990 run-in.
“I just walked home in a daze,” said Keith Broughton after the Elland Road defeat. “I could not believe they had collapsed like that.
“We had been in the top two all season and now, to drop out with four games to go, is really bad.”
A little under three weeks later, that same fan and thousands of other Unitedites were celebrating a day they will never forget as a 5-2 victory at Leicester City brought promotion, just as Steel City rivals Wednesday slipped out of the top flight.
From utter dejection to unbridled joy in what, all these years on, feels like the blink of an eye. It is a lesson today’s two combatants would do well to remember, regardless of the result.