Paul Newman: Yorkshire rivals follow different routes to survival
The Football League Column: it would be a remarkable feat if Doncaster could survive in the Championship this season
The football map is forever changing but surely no part of the country has witnessed as big a shift in power over the last decade as Yorkshire. Consider the white rose county's fortunes only 11 seasons ago. Leeds United, who had just signed Rio Ferdinand for £18m, finished fourth that year in the Premier League, Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough settled for mid-table safety and even Bradford City were enjoying a season in the top flight.
In what is now the Championship, the 2000-01 season saw Sheffield United rebuilding under Neil Warnock, Sheffield Wednesday putting back the pieces after relegation from the Premier League a year earlier, Barnsley still licking their wounds after their own single season at the top and Huddersfield Town waging an unsuccessful fight against relegation.
Remarkably, of those seven Yorkshire clubs that occupied the top two divisions 11 seasons ago, only Barnsley are not playing at a lower level in the current campaign. The recent rise in the fortunes of Hull City and Doncaster Rovers, who were in the Football League basement division and the Conference respectively 11 seasons ago, has only partly retilted the balance.
While Middlesbrough, Leeds and Hull offer the best chance of Yorkshire representation in the Premier League next year, Barnsley and Doncaster are in the unlikely position of being the only clubs in the division that will host South Yorkshire derbies this season. The first was held on Saturday, with Barnsley making the most of home advantage to win 2-0 in front of a crowd of 11,783, the biggest at Oakwell this season.
For both, survival in the Championship would be an achievement. While Barnsley should be satisfied with their current mid-table position, Doncaster are bottom and already six points adrift of safety.
The two clubs have chosen to go down very different paths, almost amounting to role reversals. Under Mark Robins, who was appointed manager two years ago, Barnsley spent comparatively heavily and at one stage had a midfield comprised of an Argentine (Hugo Colace), a Uruguayan (Diego Arismendi) and a Serb (Goran Lovre). Robins' replacement, Keith Hill, is working mostly with home-grown talent, including Matty Done and Scott Wiseman, who followed the manager to Oakwell from Rochdale.
Hill had transformed Rochdale's fortunes in nearly five years in charge at Spotland. Putting his faith in team-building, fitness and analysis, the former central defender left in the summer after a season in which his side were in contention for a play-off place until the closing stages of the campaign.
Sean O'Driscoll, who was the longest-serving manager in the Championship until his dismissal by Doncaster less than two months into the season, had followed a similar policy. During five years in charge O'Driscoll had carefully constructed a well-organised team who, it could be argued, amounted collectively to more than the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, Doncaster's sizeable wage bill, which is said to be £8m a year, had been weighing down a club with the second-lowest average attendances (9,864) in the division.
Dean Saunders is now Doncaster's manager and is facing a very different challenge. An equally important figure at the Keepmoat Stadium is the agent, Willie McKay, who has an agreement with the club under which he brings in big-name players on short-term loan deals, with a view to putting them in the shop window.
The Doncaster line-up on Saturday included the Senegalese international striker El Hadji Diouf, who was released by Blackburn in the summer, the Congo international Herita Ilunga, who is on loan from West Ham, and Carl Ikeme, a goalkeeper on loan from Wolves. The French defender Pascal Chimbonda, who is a free agent after leaving Queen's Park Rangers earlier this year, was another recent arrival, though Robert Pires was reportedly among those who have turned down the chance to don the red-and-white hoops this season.
With such a disparate group of players it would be a remarkable feat if Doncaster could survive in the Championship this season, though the chances of further Yorkshire representation next year are looking good. Huddersfield, who on Saturday set a Football League record by extending their unbeaten run to 43 matches, and the two Sheffield clubs currently fill three of the top places in League One.
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