Window of opportunity to steal a march on Yorkshire derby rivals

THE season of mists and mellow fruitfulness has already proved fertile on the derby front for some of Yorkshire's Championship contingent '“ and rather less so for others.

FLASHPOINT: Players exchange pleasantries during the Sheffield Wednesday v Barnsley clash at Hillsborough in December last year. Picture: Steve Ellis

Autumn has already yielded two remarkable White Rose affairs in their own way, both played out amid plenty of theatre at Hillsborough on successive Sundays and the stage will now be shared with other venues in the county in the coming weeks.

It may be foolhardy to confidently predict the outcome of a number of these forthcoming meetings with any degree of certainty, but one safe assumption is that drama is likely not to be far away.

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For all aspiring Yorkshire sides, two of whom in Sheffield United and Leeds United find themselves in the current play-off postions with Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough harbouring top-six designs at least, the importance of form against county rivals should not be under-estimated with the margins in a competitive Championship likely to be tight come May.

In full voice: Sheffield Wednesday fans saw their side finish top of the derbies table last season.

The unofficial Yorkshire Post ‘derby’ table certainly formed a juicy subplot to last season when three sides were firmly in the play-off mix and another, in Barnsley, flirted with the top six briefly in mid-season.

At the end of 2016-17, the Owls and Huddersfield Town were level pegging at the top with 16 points from eight matches, with Leeds just a point adrift followed by the Reds with 11 points.

Back to this season and after Wednesday took centre stage on bitter-sweet occasions against the Blades and Leeds just prior to the current international hiatus, so Barnsley, Hull City and Boro will be principally under the glare of exposure in the weeks ahead.

A window of opportunity after modest seasons so far is afforded each as they seek to answer one or two charges levelled in their direction already this season.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

For Paul Heckingbottom’s Barnsley, successive matches against Boro, Hull and the Owls may represent an onerous October agenda on certain levels, but the Reds should be consoled by a spot or two of recent history.

An evolving side and squad, the Reds understandably remain a work-in-progress given their multitude of new arrivals in the summer. Finding a ruthless edge, especially on home soil, has proved troublesome for swathes of this campaign and last term.

Yet Barnsley, who host Boro and Hull on consecutive Saturdays, boast a reassuring recent record against Yorkshire visitors to Oakwell, having reserved plenty of their best for such occasions.

Heart and persistence was very much in evidence in draws with high-flying Huddersfield and the Owls in 2016-17, while the Reds showcased their attacking verve in exhilarating fashion in stunning wins against Leeds and Rotherham, when both visiting sides were simply blown away by rampant second-half showings.

In full voice: Sheffield Wednesday fans saw their side finish top of the derbies table last season.

For Garry Monk and Leonid Slutsky, Oakwell represents a potentially hazardous venue given Boro and Hull’s crippling travelsickness since the beginning of last season – long before they arrived on the North Sea coast.

For Boro, who head down the A1 on Saturday with a grim record of one league win in 23 matches on their travels since August 20, 2016, Barnsley has been a location which has proved tumultuous in the past for a couple of Monk’s predecessors in Tony Mowbray and Gordon Strachan.

It is somewhat staggering that Hull’s away statistics over that same period are even more wretched than Boro’s, with the Tigers having not triumphed in their last 23 away league games.

Like Boro, Hull, who have taken a derisory five points from their last 69 away from home, will need no reminding that their form on the road will have to improve markedly if they are to make themselves heard towards the business positions of the Championship.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

Back-to-back trips to Carrow Road and Oakwell arrive on their resumption of league matters this month and after entertaining Boro on October 31, Hull will sign off before the November international break with a treacherous-looking trip to Bramall Lane.

The Tigers will also be afforded little respite following the November hiatus with games at Hillsborough and Elland Road pencilled in before Christmas, alongside trips to Millwall and Cardiff.

That same run-up to the festive season is also a burdensome one for Boro and, after visits to Oakwell and the KCOM Stadium in the coming weeks, engagements at Leeds and Wednesday are also among the daunting diary dates before Christmas.

Other stand-out Yorkshire meetings over the coming weeks also possess elements of suspense and fireworks in the run-up to the Bonfire Night festivities.

After being turned over in unceremonious fashion in front of the Sky cameras at Hillsborough on October 1, a televised outing with the other half of the Steel City in the Blades on October 27 should provide Leeds with an extra bit of incentive in 16 days’ time.

Unlucky not to take away anything in a controversial finish to their game at Middlesbrough in early-season, Chris Wilder’s side have flexed their muscles since with resounding, if contrasting, wins over Barnsley and the Owls.

Powderkeg, rather than powerhouse, was perhaps the best word to describe the last two meetings at Championship level between the Blades and Leeds, an incendiary fixture over the years at times.

Three players were dismissed in the league matches between the duo in 2010-11 and, if history counts for anything, it could also be a spicy occasion on the following day of October 28 when Barnsley visit Hillsborough.

Controversy has reigned during the Reds’ last three visits to S6, with five players – three from Barnsley and two from Wednesday – receiving their marching orders in this particular fixture, with visiting fans, in particular, left somewhat sore.

Derbies can often do that.