MANCHESTER (Reuters) - It will be a Premier League game in all but name when Newcastle United face Leeds United at St James’ Park on Friday, with two of the traditional powers of northern English football seeking a return to the top flight.
Newcastle, relegated from the Premier League last season, are second in the Championship and well placed for an immediate return, while Leeds, in fifth place, will look to get through the play-offs and end their 13 years in the lower divisions.
The two clubs have histories that make them known well beyond their passionate local support bases.
Both are both former champions of England, with Leeds having won the last title before the creation of the Premier League in 1992.
They have both won European trophies - Leeds twice capturing the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the forerunner of today’s Europa League, while Newcastle won the same competition in 1969.
In more recent years, the clubs have featured in the Champions League, which Newcastle’s Spanish manager Rafa Benitez won as manager of Liverpool in 2005.
While Benitez and Newcastle have quickly healed the pain of relegation with a strong challenge for direct promotion this season, life outside the Premier League has been tough for Leeds.
The financial troubles which caused the team’s relegation from the top flight in 2004 were also to blame for a slump into the third tier (League One) for three seasons, until they returned to the Championship in 2007.
It has hardly been smooth progress since, with instability at both boardroom and managerial level reflected in lower half finishes in the past five campaigns.
But manager Garry Monk has succeeded this year in keeping the team well within the play-off positions throughout the campaign, even if he is wary of raising expectations of promotion this season.
“That will always be the ambition of the club, it’s a huge club. The ambition will always be to get this club back in the Premier League. But it doesn’t just happen,” he said this week.
“That’s what we are trying to do. But we are not thinking about that, we are only thinking about this weekend. Overall we have exceeded expectation, the group has improved massively.”
Newcastle won the corresponding fixture at Elland Road in November 2-0 thanks to two goals from their impressive striker Dwight Gayle, who misses Friday’s match due to injury.
The match drew the first sell-out crowd for Leeds in several years and Monk believes his team were overawed by the occasion.
“Maybe we played the occasion a little bit and didn’t have our full focus on the football. We want to go up there and make sure we don’t make the same mistake,” he said.
Newcastle are well used to playing in front of their capacity 52,000 home crowd and their squad still has plenty of top-flight experience.
Benitez knows the job has to be finished off but believes Newcastle have a bright future ahead of them.
“The fans are incredible, the stadium is superb, the staff, everything is in place to allow this club to achieve great things,” he said recently.
“But first we have to reach the target, we have to remain focused on only one thing and that is securing promotion”.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Mark Trevelyan