Down but not out: Will Yorkshire and Lincolnshire clubs bounce back?

Luke Varney and James Harper
The Owls and the Blades will meet in the third tier of English football this season for the first time in 31 years

The new football season is normally a time for optimism, hope and dreams of silverware.

Yet, for one part of the country, supporting your local team has largely become a labour of love with little to cheer.

The majority of clubs in Yorkshire and neighbouring Lincolnshire have lurched from well-publicised financial disaster to despair in recent years, tumbling down the divisions and, in several cases, out of the Football League altogether.

It's not always been this way, though.

Only a decade ago the region boasted 13 League clubs, seven of which were in the top two divisions. That number has since eroded to 10, with none in the top flight and only four playing as high as the Championship. And of those 10, six are former Premier League members.

For the first time since the 1979/80 season, both Sheffield clubs find themselves in English football's third tier, while across the county border Scunthorpe are now Lincolnshire's sole Football League representative.

So why have things turned so sour?

Howard Wilkinson, former Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday manager, believes the hard times are directly linked to the days of over-spending and administration that have blotted the history books of many of the region's clubs.

"What's important is leadership, long-term thinking, long-term strategy, stability and continuity," said Wilkinson.

"When you've got threats of administration, clubs looking for buyers, you just don't get continuity and you don't get long-term planning, and that is the thread in and around many of the clubs in this area."

Wilkinson saw evidence of this "hand-to-mouth living" during his spell last season as temporary chairman and director at Hillsborough, prior to the Owls being sold to former Portsmouth and Leicester owner Milan Mandaric.

Only 12 seasons ago Yorkshire had three Premier League sides, the same number as the northwest. Yet these days their great rivals from across the Pennines lead that score by seven to nil.

The overall result is that the modern-day game has passed the area by - this despite several of the region's sides being under new ownership since the most troubled of financial times.

Sheffield clubs' records since the Premier League began
Sheffield clubs' divisional standings since the start of the Premier League

But why? For BBC football commentator and Yorkshireman Guy Mowbray, the collective answer "lies in history rather than geography".

He said: "Quite simply, we've never been a region that's been a football powerhouse. Apart from Herbert Chapman's Huddersfield side of the 1920s and the Revie-led Leeds of the 1970s, I can't think of a time when teams from the county dominated the game."

Regardless of this traditional lack of success though, long-suffering fans in the region are nothing but loyal.

Leeds topped the Championship's average attendance charts last season, likewise Bradford in League Two - who had their worst season since 1966. Sheffield Wednesday averaged the second best in League One, as did Grimsby in the Blue Square Premier.

It's clear that Football League status is vital to any resurgence though.

Once they fall through the Football League trapdoor clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to bounce back. The non-league game has become awash with rich benefactors chasing the Football League dream. A good indication of this is that two-thirds of the 24-club Blue Square Bet Premier are now professional.

York City are one such club. Relegated from the Football League at the end of the 2003-04 season, this will be their eighth successive campaign as a non-league side. Owned by their supporters' trust for this entire period, the club encapsulates stability, yet regaining a League place has tantalisingly eluded them.

"There are a number of former Football League teams in our division and they are all competing for the two (promotion) places," says Sophie Hicks, the club's director of communications. "Some teams also have large playing budgets which are hard to match."

But some tasty derbies during the months ahead may help the region's sides. If clubs can become the pride of Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, that could be just the springboard they need to take on the rest of the country.

Wilkinson agrees: "Competition is good. The better the competition, the more good it does. It raises the standards and has a drip down on the areas around it."

If he is right, maybe, just maybe, a Sheffield derby in the third tier and a competitive Lincolnshire derby between Lincoln and Grimsby in the Blue Square Bet Premier can kick-start the fortunes in both counties, and finally lift the region as a whole out of the doldrums.

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