These are changing times in South Yorkshire football. Who would have guessed there would come a day when Doncaster Rovers and Barnsley would sit higher in the Football League than the two Sheffield clubs?
As Sheffield Wednesday, beset by long-term financial problems, languish in League One and United, regrouping under Gary Speed, lie two points above the Championship relegation zone, Doncaster and Barnsley are progressing nicely under two of the game's most promising young managers. Sean O'Driscoll's Doncaster are on the edge of the play-off places and Mark Robins's Barnsley are climbing the Championship table after two successive away victories.
While O'Driscoll has been building steadily over four years at the Keepmoat Stadium, Robins is in his first full season at Oakwell. The former England Under-21 international took over last September, when he was poached from Rotherham after two years in charge.
Robins replaced Simon Davey, under whom Barnsley had taken just one point in their first five matches. He steadied the ship as the club extended their four-year stay in the Championship with something to spare.
Barnsley are owned by Patrick Cryne, a long-term supporter who made his fortune as a co-founder of the software company iSoft. Cryne initially joined forces with Peter Ridsdale when the former Leeds chairman took charge seven years ago and became key to their future when Ridsdale left.
Cryne's support for Robins was evident in the manager's recruitment drive this summer. Barnsley paid Wolverhampton Wanderers £700,000 for Jason Shackell, while other key signings included Jay McEveley from Derby County, Jim O'Brien from Motherwell and Goran Lovre from Groningen.
Serbian Lovre is part of a strong foreign contingent that also comprises two Argentines, Jeronimo Morales Neumann and Hugo Colace, Chris Wood, a New Zealander on loan from West Bromwich Albion, and Diego Arismendi, a Uruguayan on loan from Stoke. Robins has played the loan market astutely, having recruited Kieran Trippier from Manchester City, Garry O'Connor from Birmingham, Matt Hill from Wolves and Paul Hayes, who returned from Preston.
The manager has also brought on young players such as Adam Hammill, a 22-year-old midfielder signed from Liverpool who has scored six League goals already this season. "Some of the boys are from academies and learning fast that this is a different ball game," Robins said.
Robins described Saturday's 3-1 win at Ipswich, which followed a 2-1 win at Preston four days earlier, as Barnsley's best since he took charge. "What a difference a week makes in football," he said. "A couple of weeks back we'd lost two games in the same space of time, against Coventry and Burnley. There was a massive over-reaction and that's the nature of the Championship.
"There will be a lot of clubs spending time down the bottom of the league this year because there's not a massive difference between the bottom and the top.
"It's been difficult for us and we've had a tough spell away from home, but we've got to make sure we kick on and take advantage of the six points we've just picked up."
Robins needs only to look at his own playing career to appreciate how quickly fortunes can change. It is said that Sir Alex Ferguson would have been out of a job at Manchester United but for Robins, who was rarely more than a bit-part player.
In January 1990, with United in the middle of an 11-match run without a league victory, there was talk that the manager's position was under threat. The FA Cup offered some solace during a dismal season in the league – United finished 14th – but Ferguson's team were looking shaky in the third round until Robins scored the only goal of the game at Nottingham Forest. Three months later Robins hit the winner in the semi-final against Oldham Athletic before United beat Crystal Palace to secure the first trophy of Ferguson's reign.
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