As a Bury lad who would bleed Manchester red even if biology dictated otherwise, Gary Neville really should not care about Yorkshire football. He should not care and yet he does care, writing two years ago this month that ‘the demise of Premier League clubs in Yorkshire’ should be a cause for national concern.
‘Children today wouldn’t think of Leeds United as a great football club. Or Sheffield Wednesday,’ wrote Neville mournfully. Not for him the glee of seeing his beloved Manchester tower over a bedraggled Leeds; as a proud northerner, socialist and philanthropist, he knows the value of football to an economically ravaged county over five million proud people strong. England thrives when Yorkshire thrives; English football thrives when Yorkshire football thrives.
Two years later, children may still be struggling with the concept that Leeds or Sheffield Wednesday are great football clubs, but that concept now feels closer than alien. Leeds are top of the Championship for the first time since their ignominious relegation in 2004, and both Sheffield clubs in a top six that reads like a tour around the UK’s industrial heartlands, taking in Cardiff, Preston and Wolverhampton. With Huddersfield Town improbably sitting between Tottenham and Liverpool in a nascent Premier League table, it finally feels like there may a crack in the curtains allowing in the weediest rays of light. Yorkshire football is by no means back, but it is twitching; hands are being tentatively squeezed and eyelids are fluttering.
You may expect a Huddersfield Town fan to revel in the sometimes self-inflicted crises of Leeds United, but such tribalism is for those who think the 20-minute train journey to Leeds is ‘going travelling’. Yorkshire folk are contrary, and I am comfortable with tutting at Leeds victories but then quietly smiling as I see their name back at the top of a table (below ours, of course).
We are fans that sing “we all hate Leeds scum” and yet chant “Yorkshire…Yorkshire…Yorkshire” at an even greater volume. I laughed when David Wagner referred to Robert Green joining from “the other club near Huddersfield”, but there was no laughter when the greed of a few threatened the very existence of a once-great football club.
Over 31,000 people were at Elland Road on Tuesday night, the bumper crowd testament not only to their unenviable status as sleeping giants or the unexpected excellence of this Thomas Christiansen team, but also an acknowledgement from Leeds’ latest owners that they should not take the loyalty of a still-substantial support for granted; fans could see them beat both Burton and Birmingham for less than £30 and there are more ticket offers planned. This club is finally united in something other than name. It has been too long.
When Neville wrote those words about ‘the demise of Premier League clubs in Yorkshire’ he was staring at a table containing no clubs from the region, with Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield all mired in a miserable mid-table Championship cluster. Hull and Middlesbrough were both doing significantly better – and would be promoted that season – but those clubs are on the periphery of both Yorkshire and the Premier League. Nobody saw their one-season sojourns in the top flight as a resurgence for Yorkshire football. But this season feels different.
Central to that sea change has been the willingness of Huddersfield and Leeds to embrace life outside the provinces, with the Terriers managed by a German and counting an Australian, a Dane and a Beninese among their key players. The only Yorkshiremen are in the stands and the boardroom.
Meanwhile, Leeds are owned by an Italian, managed by a Danish-born Spanish international and boast a Swede as their talisman. There is little that feels provincial about football in West Yorkshire in 2017. Except the fans and their accents at Elland Road, as they sing Marching On Together as if they might possibly be marching towards some kind of triumph rather than another slow death.
It may yet all end in disaster, with the Tigers tumbling down the division like Mike Phelan’s Tigers and Leeds losing ground to leave thousands of Yorkshire folk shaking their heads and muttering that they “bloody knew is was too good to be true”, but for now allow us all to dream that the children of tomorrow will know that this vast, wonderful county has some truly great football clubs.