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Championship’s Yorkshire revival gives football its northern soul back

It did not take Garry Monk long to start second-guessing the inevitable question. Why on earth did the former Swansea City manager want to risk his career at Leeds United, a chaotically run, fallen giant emblematic of Yorkshire’s footballing rust belt?

As if working for Massimo Cellino, Leeds’ eccentric owner, was not bad enough, had Monk not read Gary Neville’s analysis of the national game’s changing topography? “The north is being cut adrift in English football and I fear the damage may be permanent,” wrote the former Manchester United captain turned pundit last year.

Neville identified Manchester as “an island” in a wider “sea of decline” featuring particularly scant hope for clubs inhabiting England’s largest county. But like Carlos Carvalhal at Sheffield Wednesday and David Wagner at Huddersfield Town, Monk had no time for an apocalyptic message echoed by a wider, if largely southern-based, consensus.

Where others simply saw a wasteland with little but proud, although increasingly distant, histories to recommend its clubs, that trio detected irresistible potential. With their teams all currently well placed to qualify for the Championship play-offs – and automatic promotion still a real possibility for Huddersfield in particular – the great Yorkshire revival seems firmly under way.

“Yes, people did keep asking why,” says Monk. “There were those who advised me not to take Leeds and perhaps I could have got a job somewhere perceived as less of a risk but this is a massive club which has to be turned round. Would you get the same sense of achievement elsewhere?”

A combination of the 50% stake in Leeds bought by Andrea Radrizzani, an Italian media mogul who talks about “when”, not if, they return to the top tier and the 22 goals by Chris Wood, Leeds’s New Zealand striker ensures optimism at Elland Road has never been as high since the club fell out of the Premier League in 2004.

Three years earlier Leeds had reached the Champions League semi-finals as their future apparently diverged dramatically from that of Sheffield Wednesday, who had dropped out of the top division in 2000. In reality both clubs were destined for stints in the third tier before entering lengthy periods of convalescence, with Wednesday’s recovery accelerated by Dejphon Chansiri’s takeover.

A Thai businessman whose family firm ranks as the world’s largest producer of canned tuna, Chansiri received confirmation of the project’s potential when more than 40,000 Wednesday-ites cheered Carvalhal’s side on at Wembley last May as they narrowly lost the play-off final against Hull City.

Since his appointment as manager in 2015 Carvalhal has quietly breathed new life into a side bolstered by the nous of the former Chelsea midfielder Sam Hutchinson and Adam Reach’s impressive wing play. After completing his coaching badges alongside José Mourinho, the 51‑year‑old managed Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas but regards the Hillsborough job as far from a step down.

An intriguing character, Carvalhal has written a coaching manual entitled “Soccer – Developing a know‑how”. If it seems doubtful that it will provide bedside reading for Jordan Rhodes and company, – a typical, sample, excerpt reads “tactical periodisation is a practice concept that has a conceptual matrix” – the Portuguese’s rather more intelligible verbal messages are being well executed by a team described as “very good” by Rafael Benítez after Wednesday beat Newcastle United in front of 52,000 at St James’ Park on Boxing Day.

Huddersfield have not only also won on Tyneside but are presently making Benítez’s leaders – not to mention second-placed Brighton – decidedly nervous. The 3-2 win on Tuesday night at Rotherham United – currently bottom and the glaring exception to the White Rose renaissance – represented a fifth straight Championship victory for David Wagner’s side. Wagner described Huddersfield’s typically indefatigable performance as “a big statement” showcasing many of the qualities that persuaded him to reject a job offer from Wolfsburg in December.

The 45-year-old German’s high‑tempo pressing style may have sometimes seemed slightly naive last season but the rise in home crowds from an average 12,000 a year ago to the current 20,000‑plus reflect its ongoing refinement into ruthlessness. Like Carvalhal and Monk, Wagner is no stranger to left-field thinking and nurtured formidable team spirit during a pre-season “wild” camping and canoeing trip in Sweden.

It involved players not only being deprived of footballs but toilets, running water, electricity, beds, the internet and mobile phones. Food, meanwhile, had to be fished, picked or hunted from source and cooked on open fires.

Pronouncing the adventure “a 100% success”, he explained it had imbued a “small dog” of a club with the “fighting” mentality required to fulfil its owner, The Card Factory founder Dean Hoyle’s dream of leading Huddersfield into the Premier League. “When I was offered the job, the first thing my wife asked me was: ‘Where is Huddersfield?’” recalls Wagner.

It is perhaps a measure of Yorkshire’s footballing rebirth that its three leading Championship managers are now thoroughly familiar with a very different question. “When?” they are asked repeatedly. “When will we be promoted?”

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