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Monday, June 20, 2011

It Takes An Einstein

With Keith Hill taking the reins at Championship side Barnsley, Nobes looks at the prospects for the Yorkshire club and their new boss.

Keith Hill left Rochdale to succeed Mark Robins as manager at Oakwell

The departure of Mark Robins from his post at Barnsley has been one of the more surprising managerial changes of the close season.

After all, the 41-year-old had just guided the Reds to 17th in the Championship standings - their highest position in five years since their return to the second tier.

It was a campaign bereft of the usual battle against the drop, with the Reds ending up 14 points clear of the relegation zone and also collecting their most points at that level since 2000.

They also remained undefeated in derby games against local rivals Sheffield United and Doncaster to finish as the highest placed club in South Yorkshire.

The sale to Wolves of winger Adam Hammill, a played signed by Simon Davey but from whom Robins managed to coax consistent performances as well as goals, helped bring the club half a million pounds.

However, a disagreement between the manager and owner Patrick Cryne - believed to centre around the playing budget - saw Robins put on gardening leave and given a year's notice of his contract. Eventually the manager resigned.

In Robins' defence, he can look back on pride at his 20-month spell at Oakwell and could perhaps feel aggrieved he wasn't given greater resources to further improve the team.

Critics will point to how the football on display could often lack the zest demanded from the terraces - illustrated by declining attendances - but he oversaw a definite progression from the days of battling the drop under Davey.

It's hard not to see how his career prospects wouldn't have been enhanced by his time at the club, and Robins is sure to secure another Football League position in the future.

For the club he leaves behind though, the future direction remains unclear - even with a protracted and sometimes messy search for Robins' successor having come to a close with the appointment of Keith Hill.

The 42-year-old Lancastrian has earned his chance in the Championship after orchestrating a remarkable turnaround in fortunes on the other side of the Pennines at Rochdale.

So often the butt of jokes for their prolonged stay in England's basement division, Dale were fighting the drop to the Conference when Hill took over as manager in 2006.

The transformation in results, as well as playing style, was dramatic. Along with assistant Dave Flitcroft, he presided over a surge up the League Two table brought about with a vibrant and attractive attacking style.

That progress was continued with two appearances in the play offs before, finally, Rochdale ended their long wait for promotion in 2009. Hill had written his name into the club's history books.

Not content at that, Dale defied a summer of upheaval in the transfer market and set about taking League One by surprise. They ended up finishing 9th, just three points off the play offs and equalling the club's best ever League placing.

Hill had once again marked himself out as a rising managerial star, qualities that have attracted Barnsley enough to give him his chance in the Championship - in the hope he can deliver something similar at Oakwell.

No-nonsense and straight-talking, there's something traditionally northern about Hill. During his side's chase against Notts County for the League Two title in 2009, he blasted that, if Dale couldn't catch up with their big-spending rivals, the taxman one day would.

That honesty and determination will go down well with Reds fans as he sets about proving that, while following in Steve Parkin's footsteps in swapping Dale for Barnsley, he won't endure the same fate of relegation that Parkin did in 2002.

Mark Robins made steady progress during his two seasons at Barnsley

His approach to playing the game the right way and to attack should certainly provide comfort to fans who famously serenaded Danny Wilson's promotion team of 1997 with the praise that it was "just like watching Brazil."

The board too, in their search for Robins' successor, also recognised that under the former Rotherham boss the football had become "staid" and "defensive." They're unlikely to see something similar under Hill's tutelage.

The hope is that he will deliver both the excitement and results which the Oakwell hierarchy are in search for, in their attempt to escape, what they themselves, have branded a "rut."

They have simply concluded that something different is required: a different approach, a different kind of manager, a different kind of product.

Indeed, in a refreshingly candid communication with fans via Barnsley's official website, the club even drew on the inspiration of Albert Einstein, citing his definition of insanity - doing the same thing over again and expecting a different outcome - as being part of their thinking.

While it would therefore be wrong to suggest they're insane, the appointment of Hill still represents something of a risk - as admittedly does the hiring of any new manager.

He is an unknown quantity in the Championship and will have to adjust to a new club and new playing level at the same time. Delivering attractive football and Championship results also proved the undoing of Andy Ritchie at Oakwell in 2006.

Hill has experience of adjusting to a new level with Rochdale 12 months ago, however. His subtle change in tactics to a 4-1-4-1 formation that brought the best out of captain and midfield general Gary Jones also demonstrates a shrewd mind.

His capturing of young defender Craig Dawson from Non League Radcliffe Borough is also typical of his promoting of youth and eye for a bargain. Dawson is now in the
Premier League at West Bromwich Albion.

The nurturing of talent like Will Buckley, Glenn Murray, and David Perkins during his time at Dale also helped bring in valuable money to the Spotland coffers. They are qualities that should come in use as he works with modest second tier resources in South Yorkshire.

It's hardly surprising either that two of his first signings have been to capture Chesterfield's leading scorer from League Two last year in Craig Davies along with a reunion with Perkins from Colchester.

It's the kind of financial prudence and emphasis on youth that, for a club looking to cut debt and manage its budget more effectively - particularly with a drop in TV revenue from next season - badly needs.

Naturally, such talk begins to raise doubts over the club's standing in an increasingly competitive second tier.

The example of Preston - another club who looked to cut costs with the gamble of a young manager in Darren Ferguson - should serve as a warning. North End will be lining up in League One from August thanks to Ferguson's mismanagement.

No club has spent more years at Championship level than Barnsley, but history is no guarantee of a club's future standing on the English football ladder.

There will be fans too, who rightly point to the success of Burnley and Blackpool - two sides of comparative stature to the Reds - in reaching the Premier League in recent years and ask "if them, why not us?"

In the case of those two Lancashire sides, both defied the financial odds to secure elevation via the play offs - largely thanks to exceptional management from Owen Coyle and Ian Holloway respectively.

Barnsley will be hoping their bold decision to break free of their malaise under Hill has similarly positive consequences. Not that you'd need Einstein to realise that.

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