This weekend will see the Premier League’s first Yorkshire derby for 19 years when Sheffield United welcome Leeds to Bramall Lane on Sunday, or so the top-flight’s official website would have us believe.
That might come as a surprise to the inhabitants and supporters of Middlesbrough, given that they suffered a 4-2 defeat away at Hull City in April 2017, not long before both clubs from the edge of the county’s sprawling boundaries dropped down to the Championship.
Then again, not one of the contemporary newspaper match reports for that relegation six-pointer mentioned the words ‘Yorkshire’ or ‘derby’ at all, and perhaps that is understandable given that the Riverside and the KCOM Stadium happen to be 113 miles apart.
Such is the size of God’s Own County - the largest in England, no less - it can be difficult to define what a Yorkshire derby is. What we can say for certain is that the most fierce and keenly-felt rivalries exist between clubs in the county’s more densely-populated West and South.
Some 160,000 people regularly turned out to watch the eight professional clubs in those two regions before lockdown last season, yet have waited nearly two decades to see a pair of them play against each other in the top flight.
And for a snapshot as to why, you only have to go return to that very last meeting.
Back in May 2001, Bradford City fell to a 6-1 thrashing against Leeds at Elland Road on the penultimate weekend of the season. The defeat had no bearing on their Premier League survival - relegation had already been confirmed with defeat at Goodison Park a couple of weeks earlier - but it marked a bitter and painful end to what had been the most successful period in the club’s history.
Bradford’s then-chairman Geoffrey Richmond - born in Leeds, formerly the owner of Scarborough and a multi-millionaire after making his money in lighter manufacturing - oversaw two promotions in five years following his takeover in 1994. Richmond then witnessed a miraculous escape from relegation as Paul Jewell’s squad of veterans stayed up with just 36 points, a Premier League record low at the time.
But that was not enough. Richmond told Jewell that he was disappointed with the team’s performances and allowed his manager to leave for Sheffield Wednesday the following summer. It would be a costly decision - form and results nose-dived - but it was not nearly as costly as the chairman's lavish spending on the likes of Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and David Hopkin, or the decision to begin redeveloping Valley Parade.
A year after their relegation was confirmed, and amid the devastating collapse of ITV Digital, Bradford entered administration with approximately £13m worth of debt. Richmond never forgave himself for the spending spree that he would curse as “six weeks of madness”. The years since have seen three further relegations in all, with life in the doldrums only interrupted by 2013’s fairytale run to the League Cup final. Nevertheless, Bradford were still attracting the largest crowds in League Two last season.
As for Leeds, the tale of their decline hardly needs to be retold, but there is an eeriness about the fact that that 6-1 victory over Bradford came only three days after their Champions League semi-final defeat to Valencia, the high-water mark of the Peter Ridsdale era. Despite winning eight of their final nine games that year, Leeds finished fourth and failed to qualify for the Champions League for the following season. It was at that point which Ridsdale’s financial house of cards began to collapse.
Together, Leeds and Bradford are possibly the best examples of the vaulting ambition of Yorkshire football in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the problems that can arise from such ambition, but they are not the only ones. Sheffield Wednesday struggled to manage an expensively-assembled squad following their relegation from the Premier League in 2000 and have never returned. Two decades on, Wednesday have started their Championship campaign with a 12-point deduction for breaching financial protocols. Yet even clubs that have spent more prudently than others have had their hard times.
Sheffield United were largely sober and sensible in the dealings which led them to the Premier League during the mid-2000s but they too struggled to balance the books after losing their top-flight status. Huddersfield Town were model overachievers for a long while and made an admirable stab at being a Premier League club, yet they are now at something of a crossroads again and must be careful not to go the way of Hull. Barnsley - another former Premier League club - suffered horribly from the collapse of ITV Digital and now join Rotherham United in yo-yoing between the Championship and League One.
In fact, since that last top-flight Yorkshire derby 19 years ago, all of the clubs mentioned above have spent time in the third tier or below. Of all the county’s major teams, only Middlesbrough have avoided dropping down that far under the steady stewardship of Steve Gibson but - save a runners-up finish in 2015-16 and that one brief year back in the Premier League - they have become little more than reliably mid-table and mediocre Championship outfit.
Yorkshire has a population of more than 5.3 million and a rich football culture. This is the home of the world’s first football club. The county's fierce sense of independence led to the formation of its own international football association, and it is arguably the fourth mythical ‘footballing hotbed’ after the North West, London and the North East, yet it has had precious little influence on the top end of the national game in the 21st century.
That may be changing, at last. Both Sheffield United and Leeds have reason to believe that they can establish themselves as Premier League mainstays, particularly if they keep hold of the two most innovative coaches in the country outside of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Yet if the Premier League’s 'last' Yorkshire derby in 2001 acts as a reminder of where several clubs in the region went wrong, this first one in 19 years is at best only the beginning of a region’s long overdue revival.