Kevin Henning looks at one of the hotbeds of British football and wonders whatever happened to the Tykely lads?

On Saturday 3rd April 1993, I witnessed a scene at Watford Gap service station that I would reminisce about until the present day. On that spring morning in ‘93, I was on the way to represent my school on a football tour in Spain. Our coach driver had decided to stop at one of the busiest service stations in the south of England on FA Cup semi final day. The semi final in question was the Steel City derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United and Watford Gap was a sea of red and white and blue and white stripes. The Owls were at that time, regarded as one of the top clubs in the newly formed Premier League. They had a team packed with Internationals such as Des Walker, Chris Woods and John Harkes and had more than a little flair blended in through the likes of Chris Waddle and David Hirst. That season, the Hillsborough side made it to both domestic cup finals only to be denied an historic double by George Graham’s ruthlessly efficient Arsenal team. Despite Wednesday edging the Wembley showpiece, their neighbours United more than held their own in the Premier League with a 14th placed finish. Both league derbies that season were 1-1 stalemates and it was an optimistic time for both Sheffield clubs.

Less than two years earlier, fellow Yorkshire inhabitants Leeds United had been crowned the Champions of England after a single season’s consolidation in the top flight following promotion from the second tier. Leeds played stylish football with a gritty determination reminiscent of their 1970’s pomp. Batty, McAllister, Strachan and Chapman were rolling back the years for the Peacocks’ faithful and reminding the nation of the glorious team of the ’70’s.

This successful period for Yorkshire football wasn’t confined to these three clubs however, they were backed up by cameo appearances in the Premier League by Barnsley and Bradford City. Huddersfield Town in their state of the art new McAlpine Stadium also banged loudly on the door of the big-time during this time, although they remained locked out. The county was proudly holding it’s own in the beautiful game.

Peter Ridsdale’s “living of the dream” sent Leeds United spiralling towards a self-inflicted oblivion.

As the Millennium changed though, the white roses began to wilt. The Blades had fallen only a year after their Wembley defeat and haven’t returned to the top flight since 1994, Wednesday dropped out of the Premier League in 2000, Barnsley and Bradford City only managed three seasons between them and Huddersfield never actually made it. Then Peter Ridsdale’s “living of the dream” sent Leeds United spiralling towards a self-inflicted oblivion in a fiasco involving Majestic nightclubs and marine fish tanks, from which they’ve never recovered. Hell, even Scarborough play on local parks nowadays after the dizzying heights of the fourth division.

Yorkshire football has never been weaker. Sure there have been a couple of rays of sunshine such as Hull City’s brief dine at the top table during which the Tigers bloodied a fair few of the big boys’ noses, Doncaster Rovers’ re-emergence after almost disappearing from the football map is worth noting as well. None of the clubs mentioned however, seem even close to a return to the big-time. In the years since the demise of Leeds, the North West has established itself as the true hotbed of English football. Manchester United and City look set to share the major prizes between them for a good number of years, Liverpool and Everton continually finish in the upper echelons of the Premier League, Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers have all established themselves as mainstays in the top flight and even Burnley and Blackpool have had a go at it.

A Steel City derby is an occasion that deserves to be given a wider audience.

So what went wrong for Yorkshire? Hard times have fallen on the entire nation. Just up the North-Eastern coast, Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough have all witnessed a dip in attendances but have dug deep and in the case of the Tyne-Wear duo, seem to be seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe one could point to the region’s affinity with Rugby League and wonder whether it can support both games at the top level. Mention to any Hull City, Leeds United or Huddersfield Town supporter that maybe Yorkshire prefers egg-shaped balls though and you’re likely to experience the bluntness of a Tyke for your troubles.

It remains a mystery why one region should experience such a downturn in fortunes. The game needs these clubs to be competing at the top level. A Steel City derby is an occasion that deserves to be given a wider audience, Leeds United would surely command a place amongst any list of top 10 English football clubs and Hull City would be a welcome return if they were to come back looking to play the kind of attacking, fearless football that they first stunned the Premier League with before Phil Brown’s “What we have we hold, although we haven’t got anything yet” strategy became their Plan A. I personally feel that Huddersfield Town deserve a few hours in the sun and Bradford City should be rewarded for their constant drive to bring fans back to Valley Parade.

In the interests of giving Yorkshire a much needed shot in the arm, a Leeds United victory against their old enemy Manchester United tonight, would be more than welcome on this side of the Pennines.
If the county is ever going to return to the top table of English Football, this War of the Roses could just be the opening battle