Revival of Rotherham restores Yorkshire pride
Steve Evans drums up feelgood factor while Leeds and Sheffield stagnate
Sunday 03 August 2014
It was Yorkshire Day on Friday, but whether many football fans in God's Own County felt inclined to join in the celebrations is a moot point. After all, in Yorkshire's two biggest cities, Leeds and Sheffield, top-flight football is becoming a fast-receding memory.
The seven years since the relegation of Sheffield United – now a League One side – from the Premier League in 2007 is the longest period since 1892 without top-flight representation from either of these two cities, and for Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday events this summer offer little reason to believe this exile will end in 2014- 15.
Up at Leeds, Massimo Cellino – the convicted Italian fraudster whose takeover was finally ratified in April – has sold last season's 28-goal top scorer, Ross McCormack, to Fulham and appointed a continental-style head coach, David Hockaday, with no managerial experience in the Football League.
Wednesday, meanwhile, have spent the summer in limbo as owner Milan Mandaric's proposed sale to Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov, announced on 10 June, has dragged on and on, leaving manager Stuart Gray unable to complete several transfer deals amid the uncertainty.
Set against this pair, the rude health of Championship newcomers Rotherham United shines like a beacon. Leeds and Wednesday can still draw big crowds – their highest attendances in 2013-14 surpassed those at Hull City, Yorkshire's solitary Premier League side – but their long-suffering supporters could be forgiven envious glances at the ambition and direction provided by Rotherham's owner, Tony Stewart.
Six years ago, shortly after Stewart's arrival, the South Yorkshire club kicked off the League Two season with a 17-point penalty and as temporary tenants at Sheffield's Don Valley Stadium. Today they are entering their third season at a new home, the New York Stadium, and preparing for a first Championship campaign since 2005 buoyed by the "feelgood factor" that Stewart – owner of a local lighting company – has brought with his £30 million investment.
As manager Steve Evans tells The Independent on Sunday: "He said when he first took over he would bring Championship football in five years. He is in the office every morning till early evening and drives such a momentum. We've got a fantastic infrastructure, with a new stadium and a chairman who has built that stadium with his own money."
In the wake of Rotherham's League One play-off final shootout win over Leyton Orient – their second successive promotion – Evans, the former Crawley manager, looked at the recruitment strategies of experienced Championship managers such as Mick McCarthy and Dave Jones. He then brought in 12 new players, most with Championship experience and all with "a little point to prove", including striker Jordan Bowery, signed for a club- record fee from Aston Villa.
This could hardly be more different than the recruitment policy of Leeds's owner, Cellino, who after offloading big earners such as McCormack has signed four players from Italy with no English football experience, with another two likely to follow. Next Saturday's trip to Millwall could prove some baptism of fire.
Rotherham's productive working relationship between owner and manager is something else Leeds may struggle to achieve given Cellino's record of sacking 35 managers in two decades running the Italian club Cagliari. "If you look at the successful clubs there is always a relationship between the chairman-owner and his manager," adds Evans. "The chairman wants what the manager wants and he wants what our supporters want."
This has evidently not been the case elsewhere in Yorkshire this summer. Paul Dickov had to rethink his transfer plans at Doncaster Rovers after the collapse of the planned takeover by One Direction singer Louis Tomlinson and businessman John Ryan.
At Hillsborough, manager Gray remains unsure what direction Wednesday are headed in, with Mandaric looking to sell after four years and, by his estimate, £30m invested in clearing debts. And then you have Leeds, who, after their post-Ridsdale meltdown, endured the damaging reigns of Ken Bates and then Gulf Finance House prior to Cellino's arrival. The Italian has since overseen a spate of redundancies at a club that had reportedly been losing £1m a month.
Ten years after Leeds's relegation from the Premier League, Paul Keat, secretary of the Leeds United Supporters' Trust, would be grateful for small mercies this season. "We just want some stability," he says. "We want a team we can shout for on a Saturday, something to be proud of, because there's been a lot of things within Leeds United that we've not been proud of."
Owner Massimo Cellino has spent the summer offloading staff to cut costs. He has sold top scorer Ross McCormack and signed four players from Italy. In a Yorkshire Evening Post poll, 85 per cent of fans were against his appointment of head coach David Hockaday, who was previously manager at Forest Green Rovers.
Entering a 15th season of Premier League exile, they face another period of struggle unless Azeri businessman Hafiz Mammadov's takeover goes through in time to let Stuart Gray add firepower to a team who scraped 16th place last term thanks to the goals of loanees Connor Wickham and Matty Fryatt.
Owner Tony Stewart took over a club in administration six years ago but £30m later has brought a new stadium and Championship football. Manager Steve Evans has added experience with 12 new signings and admits that while consolidation is the goal, Stewart dreams of "doing a Wigan Athletic".
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