Stuart Rayner – Why Yorkshire football needs to provide platforms for rising talent

It has been a good summer for Yorkshire football, less so the club season it followed.

At Euro 2020, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kalvin Phillips and to a lesser extent Dominic Calvert-Lewin showed Yorkshire can still produce top international footballers. Not just men either. Rachel Daly, Millie Bright, Lucy Bronze and Ellie Roebuck were part of the Great Britain squad knocked out of the Olympic quarter-finals yesterday.

But what have we to show for all that hard work on training pitches in Sheffield, Barnsley, Leeds, Harrogate and York? Only one of the nine, Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips, actually plays for a Yorkshire team – the county’s only top-division team in men’s or women’s football.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In fairness, you can throw in Phillips’s team-mate Liam Cooper, who played for Scotland, too. Wales’ Daniel James was also born in Hull, but is another who plies his trade beyond the county, for Manchester United.

Jewel in the crown: England's Kalvin Phillips. Picture: Getty Images

It is not a great hit rate considering there were nine non-English players at the Euros who played for Yorkshire clubs.

Leeds were one of the success stories of last season, an upwardly-mobile club with a team playing football neutrals want to watch. Barnsley had a remarkable 2020-21, reaching the Championship play-offs, Hull City won League One and Harrogate Town consolidated in their debut Football League campaign.

But Sheffield United had an embarrassing year, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham made it a relegation hat-trick for South Yorkshire and having promised much in the first half of the season, Doncaster Rovers disappointed badly in League One. Huddersfield Town are going backwards and League Two Bradford City are not punching their considerable weight. Sadly, for a second Covid-ravaged season non-league football was rendered largely irrelevant.

The map of Women’s Super League clubs has nothing on the right-hand side of the country north of Leicester, which considering the make-up of the league has been decided by franchising rather than purely football is not good enough for a sport trying to spread its appeal.

Poor training facilities was abone of contention between Sheffield United and former boss, Chris Wilder . Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

But we have to admit we have not been good enough either.

It was only last summer that Leeds, an historically proud producer of outstanding male footballers, achieved category one academy status, recognising Thorp Arch as one of the country’s best places to learn to play the game with all the benefits and privileges that come with it.

That Sheffield United, who produced Walker, Maguire and Calvert-Lewin, do not have the facilities to earn that status was an embarrassment to then-manager Chris Wilder and the hierarchy’s slovenliness in upgrading them did nothing to improve his relations with them. This month, Oliver Norwood spoke from the dressing room about how the training ground still badly needs improving.

Middlesbrough have a category one academy but unless they or the Whites fancy taking you on, Yorkshire’s top players must go elsewhere to be coached by the best.

Sheffield Wednesday manager Darren Moore will hope to lead the Owls straight back into the Championship at the first attempt. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA

That it is over a decade since a Yorkshire team spent more than two consecutive seasons in the top flight – nearer two decades since there was more than one – shows why when our best young players do make the breakthrough at their local clubs, they often feel they have no choice but to leave. It is the same but worse in women’s football where Championship Sheffield United are the only club in the top two divisions.

Particularly in these post-Brexit times when signing players from abroad has deliberately been made harder Yorkshire should be producing top footballers for ourselves, not others.

If they want to broaden their horizons like Harrogate-born Daly has by playing in the United States then great, but they should at least get the choice. How much talent is being wasted because they are not?

That Brighouse Town finished above the likes of Leeds, Barnsley and Bradford in last season’s abandoned Women’s National League is huge credit to them, but should scarcely be possible if the professional men’s clubs supported women’s football anything like as well as they should.

Leeds are at least rebuilding bridges after the days when Ken Bates pulled the plug on what was then a top-flight women’s club and cut it adrift but it has taken a shamefully long time.

Many of us blessed to come from God’s Own County like to pat ourselves on the back and these Olympics and the European Championship have given us plenty of opportunities, but it is high time more of our clubs began providing our footballers with the platform they deserve.