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Championship looms for Yorkshire clubs
Reaching a Wembley final has habitually been English soccer’s pinnacle, a moment to celebrate and savor. Yet when Yorkshire clubs Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United convene at the national stadium on Saturday afternoon for the League One playoff final, it will be with the desire of putting themselves back where they belong.
Sheffield is a proud heartland of the game, and the home of the world’s oldest club, Sheffield FC, founded in 1857. The northern city’s two major clubs have since emerged as United and Sheffield Wednesday, but the pair’s recent struggles have echoed the wistful opening scenes alluding to the decline of the city’s steel industry in 1997 film The Full Monty.
Wednesday has already been promoted, snatching the second automatic spot from its local rival in the season’s closing weeks and sealing it on the last day of the regular season, so United will be desperate to follow suit. United failed to win in its final three games, handing the initiative to Wednesday.
That costly run coincided with the aftermath of the imprisonment of 35-goal top scorer Ched Evans, convicted of rape on April 20 and sentenced to six years in prison. While we shouldn’t lose sight of the genuine victim in this awful situation, there is little denying that the verdict has been tricky to deal with for head coach Danny Wilson, on a human and sporting level.
United was the division’s most prolific side with 92 goals, but suffered a further blow when the experienced James Beattie received his second red card of the season in the last match of the regular league campaign at Exeter, ruling him out of the play-offs.
At least Wilson can look to veteran Nick Montgomery for a touch of locker room stability, after the midfielder returned to the side as a substitute in the semi-final second-leg win over Stevenage. After having suffered a season of injury difficulty which included a loan stint cut short at Championship club Millwall, Montgomery will be happy to try to bring his experience to bear, having already lost two play-off finals with the club – against Wolves in 2003 and Burnley in 2009.
The context was different then – United were playing for a Premier League place, rather than a return to English soccer’s second tier. The club was last relegated from the top flight in 2007, a season that still smarts in the red half of Sheffield after the club went down at the expense of West Ham’s survival.
The east London team benefited from a stellar end-of-season run fired by the incorrectly registered Carlos Tevez, whom United argued should not have been available.
An independent tribunal found in United’s favor in September 2008, awarding the club in excess of $30m in damages, which West Ham are scheduled to eventually finish paying back next year. That, on top of an $8m fine administered to West Ham by the Premier League, didn’t bring United’s top-flight place back.
Huddersfield had its own ambitions to reach English soccer’s summit in the late 1990s, when then-owner Barry Rubery spent heavily in an attempt to bridge the gap. The club fell short, dropped from the second tier for the last time in 2001 and needed Rubery to waive a $19m debt in order to avoid extinction after dropping to League Two in 2003.
Head coach Simon Grayson has even further reason to feel he needs to return to his rightful position in English soccer’s pyramid, having begun the season gazing towards the Premier League, 20 miles up the M62 motorway at Leeds United. His sacking by owner Ken Bates may have been brutal, but Grayson has gone into his new job with his eyes open. He was appointed in February after the surprise sacking of former Newcastle and Fulham player Lee Clark.
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Clark had been feted as one of the bright young things of English coaching, but paid the price for the club’s record 43-match league unbeaten run failing to yield promotion. If the nation raised an eyebrow, few Huddersfield fans complained.
It is easy to understand why the club expects more. In a sporting sense, the town lives in the shadow of Manchester, half-an-hour down the road to its west. The club’s infrastructure screams ambition, with the 25,000-capacity Galpharm Stadium having hosted concerts by the likes of REM and Bon Jovi.
Huddesrfield shares a place with United in the top four best-attended grounds in the division. Chairman Dean Hoyle has managed to repel advances for 38-goal striker Jordan Rhodes thus far, but will struggle to do so if promotion is not won this weekend. For the Wembley loser, the consequences will be hard to bear.
The League Two play-off final, 24 hours later, might be said to not carry quite the same degree of pressure. Southend and Torquay, the two sides that went into the final day of the league season with the chance of sealing automatic promotion, have both fallen by the wayside. Yet both Crewe Alexandra and Cheltenham Town have their own form, both for life in a higher division and for the occasion itself.
Crewe is a club apart in the English game, universally respected for its decades of achievement despite never threatening to trouble the top flight. The Cheshire town was famous only as a train-spotting haven before the arrival of head coach Dario Gradi in summer 1983. A former teacher, Gradi went on to manage the first team for an unprecedented 24 years, simultaneously building the club’s reputation as a virtually unparalleled cradle of youth development.
As well as producing England internationals Danny Murphy and Dean Ashton, Crewe spent the 1980s and 1990s mopping up cast-offs from other academies, notably that of Manchester United, and giving first breaks in the professional game to David Platt and Robbie Savage. The subsequent sales of players that had outgrown the club made Crewe a rare beast - a profitable lower-division club. That, and Gradi’s vision, allowed him to enjoy eight second-tier seasons with the club, between 1997 and 2002, then between 2003 and 2006.
The succession was always going to be tricky, and after the failures of Steve Holland and former Stoke boss Gudjon Thordarson, Gradi even came back to the helm of the first team in 2009, two years after moving upstairs to become technical director. He is more comfortable back in the presiding role now, after a good first season in charge by former player Steve Davis.
The crop of talent at Davis’ disposal is not quite vintage yet, but there are high hopes for the likes of 18-year-old top scorer Nick Powell and fellow forward Ajay Leitch-Smith. The latter scored a stylish goal in the semi-final second leg game at Southend, which stretched Crewe’s unbeaten run to a club record 18 matches. Most gratifying for Gradi is that Davis’ side is evolving in his traditional pass-and-move style.
As is the case for most modestly-sized lower-league clubs, Crewe’s story remains an aspiration for Cheltenham. The spa town’s club only achieved league status for the first in 1999, after 112 years of existence. Nevertheless, the Robins have packed plenty of experience into the time since, and the League Two play-off final holds little fear, with the club having had a 100% success rate after participating in 2002 and 2006.
Those finals were both at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, rather than Wembley, but this season’s exploits have filled Mark Yates’ side with confidence. Expected to be battling relegation into non-league, Cheltenham have surprised and delighted in equal measure, playing enterprising soccer.
Automatic promotion was even a possibility going into the season’s final month, but the playoff is no let down. Winning both legs against much-fancied Torquay has made skeptics sit up and take notice, and extended Cheltenham’s winning run to four. The availability of on-loan strikers Steve MacLean and the experienced Ben Burgess is a boost, and in left-sided forward Kaid Mohamed, Yates has one of the division’s most explosive attackers. Mohamed was also a key figure in AFC Wimbledon’s play-off promotion to the Football League this time last year.
The FA Cup final and the Championship play-off final may have already passed, but try telling these four clubs that these matches aren’t as important. Wembley will bring fans to the edge of their seats again this weekend.
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