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How Seven Days Ruined the Reputation of Doncaster Rovers

Little more than a year ago, aboard a Belgrade bound train at Bijelo-Polje on the Serbian-Montenegrin border. Hungover, sleep-deprived and nurturing an ill-thought-out late-breakfast beer, in the company of three fellow Wales and the loudest buffet car operator this side of the Caucasus’. After some time waiting the border guard appeared; he looked over my passport, smirked, and as he handed it back to me said “Ah, Doncaster… good football”.

A decade or so previously Doncaster Rovers would have barely registered on the conscience of many in the town itself, but here we were known and acknowledged 1,700 miles away on one of the world’s newest frontiers. I doubt I will ever be prouder of my club than I was at that moment. Of course there will always be a significant amount of pride in support of your home-town club, you’re backing the place of your birth against the rest of the world. Whether the rest of the world be represented by Barcelona, Brighton or Barrow, it is always a case of us against them. However, there is an even greater pride to be held in your club when it is looked on favourably by neutrals, by those who have no passing interest. There is great honour and gratification to be taken when your club appears unto others as something more substantial than another town on the League table.

In 1997-98 Doncaster Rovers had that distinction for all the wrong reasons. They were the club being ground into the dust at the behest of one-man’s inconceivable will. But, against the odds, Rovers survived and from the moment the following season began we have stood apart from the rest, able to carve out an individual identity for ourselves and be proud of what we were doing.

From 1998 to 2003 our identity was that of a club and support hard done by attempting to regain what we had taken from us; our place in the Football League. From the moment (Sir) Francis Tierney’s golden goal hit the back of the net to the moment Dave Penney departed we were exorcising the demons of Ken Richardson and all he stood for. We were the pub team having a laugh. We won a Championship when we had been favourites for relegation. We asserted ourselves as a comfortable third tier side. We came within seconds of a League Cup semi-final. And then came Sean O’Driscoll, and the assertion that football, even on a budget, even in unfashionable northern towns, could be played the right way, and doing so could bring success.

Rovers, our Rovers, reached the second tier five years after they had been a non-league club, playing to the same principles of those clubs regarded as the best in Europe. We were mentioned in the same breath as Arsenal, as Barcelona, as Ajax, and yes I realise that much of the time this was done with tongue firmly in cheek, but as a club it still set us apart and gave us a definable identity. We were not just a team from Doncaster, we were a side that played “good football”. Tearing Millwall apart at The Den with 31 (yes, 31!) efforts on goal. Playing keep ball to frustrate Derby and amaze pundits on our Championship debut. Stringing 21 passes together in the build up to Martin Woods’ chip at the City Ground. Skipping through Sheffield Wednesday as if they were not there… twice. Silencing Fratton Park, bell and all. All things I didn’t expect to see, all things that drew us edifying praise from outside, for playing the game the right way.

And there was further pride to be taken off the field too, in a club run with refreshing pragmatism. In November 2008, with Rovers rock bottom of the Championship Chief Executive David Morris told the press; “We set budgets prior to the start of the season. The directors put in £3million and that figure is sure to be more by the end of the season, in order to keep the club afloat. We don’t want to have to see this club start with minus 10 or minus 17 or minus 30 points and I would sooner see us in the division below. The way to end up with those minus figures is to keep throwing money at something in the hope that it will come right.” We had learned from the examples of our county neighbours heading in the opposite direction and were choosing an alternate path.

There was a caring homeliness too, as shown in the story of Robbie Clark, released from the club’s playing staff, only to be brought back in as a coach with the players chipping in to help pay his wages. Which other club’s players would be so giving as to make this gesture, or as to spend their close season trekking through Peru to raise money for charity. These things set us apart from other clubs, drawing plaudits from their supporters in the process, and gave us an identity to be proud of.

The observant amongst you will have noticed the past tense in which the preceding paragraphs are written. A lot has changed in the past week. So much so that I cannot keep up with rumour and counter rumour. In the space of seven days the club has not simply changed manager, or its on field tactics, it has changed its whole ethos and I’m struggling to get my head round it. I raised questions about this switch in approach via Twitter this week and received the reply “Are you a Rovers supporter or just SO’D?” Could I no longer be both?

It is increasingly the way of the world, there is a lessening acceptance of grey areas. You’re one thing or the other. You’re for it or against it. We’ve no time to digest the considered middle ground, so for ease you’ll be neatly pigeon-holed as positive or negative, pro or anti. But, things are not that definable, nor that simplistic at Rovers at the moment. For the record, I am a huge admirer of Sean O’Driscoll, but this goes much deeper than that. Indeed I share the view of fellow supporter Stu Leyland who told me recently that he “could sort of begrudgingly accept getting rid of Sean if it was purely down to footballing reasons.”

As it goes O’Driscoll was shown the door, and press coverage would suggest with no great kindness either; with the Yorkshire Post reporting that one of the club’s greatest managers was sacked via text message. The manager’s placement on gardening leave coming within twenty four hours of the Chairman fully backing his man in the local press with the now infamous words; “For the people shouting for the manager’s head, I ask you the questions who would you replace him with? Who is better? I can’t think of any manager that is better equipped for the job, and those clubs who sack managers willy nilly end up relegated. The board and I are not going down that path.”

Ryan and his directors could not think of anyone on Thursday morning. By Thursday night they had thought of Dean Saunders. By Friday morning Saunders had been appointed, on a three year deal. In a press conference Friday afternoon Saunders said “It came as a bit of a shock to me, I heard about the opportunity last night,” which would have been around eight hours before Sean O’Driscoll heard of the opportunity. There may be truth in the ‘text message dismissal’ story, there may not be, but it is clear that Dean Saunders knew he was Doncaster Rovers’ manager before Sean O’Driscoll knew he wasn’t.

In his column in today’s Doncaster Free Press John Ryan responded to questions regarding his apparent U-turn; “[Last week’s Free Press] would have been all set for printing when things started to move and a new manager was proposed to me and my fellow shareholders”. Proposed ‘to’, not ‘by’, you notice. So if Saunders, as he claims, knew nothing about the opportunity until late Thursday, who made the proposal? The answer we can presume, was in the looming presence of a big man, ear perpetually glued to a phone, in the background of all last Friday’s media footage. Football agent Willie McKay.

Doncaster-based McKay is the agent of Dean Saunders. He’s also the agent of El Hadj Djouf who was rumoured to be joining the club on Tuesday, the agent of Pascal Chimbonda, who did join the club on Wednesday, and Herold Goulon* who was expected to sign for Rovers today. There is also a story doing the rounds that another of McKay’s clients, James McFadden, was sat in the Keepmoat Stadium stands on Tuesday night. This sudden significant influence of a man with whom Rovers have had no previous dealings concerns me. McKay will have made money from Saunders appointment. He will make further money from the recruitment of his other clients. That one man with much to gain personally, and no previous ties to the club, can suddenly be the most significant figure in the organisation’s dealings makes me uneasy. The only thing that makes me more uneasy, is that large numbers of our support are welcoming this complete reversal in club operating philosophy no questions asked.

McKay’s involvement may of course be completely innocent, but even as agents go, he is a man with a shadowy past. Just whacking his name into Google brings forth articles such as this, not to mention a petition trying to get him banned from football, several links to criminal investigations into football corruption. That’s just the stuff that’s out in the public domain; I don’t like to think about what else might be lurking beneath the surface.

The involvement of McKay is not the only change in approach taken by Rovers in the past seven days. On Tuesday night, on the BBC Radio Sheffield programme Football Heaven John Ryan made it known that the club would be looking to sign players with Premier League experience and looking across the continent for new additions. He also intoned that funds would be made available for Saunders to do this. But where has this money come from?

Of the Rovers board contains some very rich men in Dick Watson and Terry Bramall, but as mentioned earlier in this piece, the club’s approach up to now has not been to delve into the personal funds of the board members, but to run Rovers prudently to a long term strategy. Within a week it seems this has completely changed. The sudden about turn in Rovers’ approach to the transfer market, gave forth to rumours that McKay’s involvement was even more significant, with suggestions on messageboards that he had purchased a significant stake in the club. Rumours, which are not true, not least because they would compromise his availability to act as a football agent, and as his involvement in Joey Barton’s transfer suggests, there is much more money to be made in that field than there is in owning a football club.

If the money has come from the pockets of those on the board then, whilst it is frustrating that it was not made available to Sean O’Driscoll, that’s their perogative. It is their money, and if they want to chuck money at a football club in the short-term then that is their choice. But, and this is a huge, and for me the most significant but, this significant investment – and it is a relatively significant investment given the new recruits both managerially and playing-wise, the club has made – comes just over a month after the same board was asking supporters to dig deep and donate their money to help fund the signing of a loan striker.

With Billy Sharp, James Hayter and Ryan Mason injured in the first week of the season the Viking Supporters’ Co-operative launched their ‘Loan Star Appeal’ asking fans to donate money to help the club afford to bring in a replacement forward.  Gareth Thomas, the VSC Director pushed the appeal on the Co-operative’s forum with the words “The directors (apart from John Ryan and Dick Watson) are not putting in any more cash… JR wants a bit of support from the fans, he has made funds available, but would like a show of support from the fans”. For the club, just a month later to be prepared to splash the cash for the new manager without acknowledging where it has come from makes a mockery of the VSC and completely undermines the organisation and those who run it. If the money was there all along, then Rovers have completely mis-led supporters into the state of their finances. If it wasn’t then where has it come from? And why has it only become available now the new man is at the helm?

There are other rumours and conspiracy theories doing the rounds, and there will continue to be so until the club sees fit to offer some sort of clarity to the situation. In today’s Free Press, the theory of McKay’s part ownership was rebuffed by the club whilst Dick Watson made a rare appearance in the same paper to rubbish reports of a split in the boardroom. “I can assure you one hundred percent we were all behind the decision [to change managers],” says Watson, but here lies the problem. With John Ryan having made such a complete and significant u-turn in the press last week, for whatever reason, how can we trust anything the current board tells us? Ryan has done so much for this club, and I so dearly want to be able trust his words, but after last week how can I and others be expected to do so?

A week ago I wrote a piece for this site in which I said how refreshing it was “to hear a Chairman put his faith in the man in the dugout after such a barren spell”. It was another aspect that stood us apart from other clubs. Who else would go 19 games without a win and back the manager? Indeed, that we could go on such a barren run and the disposal of O’Driscoll could still come as a shock to many involved with the game spoke volumes of the reputation the club had built up.

That reputation has been blown apart inside seven days. The footballing approach has changed, to the extent that the pitch has reportedly been both shortened and narrowed; Saunders may not advocate kick and rush, but he is certainly not adverse to it. The board have gone back on their own word and also their own ethos to the point at which they cannot truly be trusted in their statements. The club as a whole has shown a disdain for its supporters, by undermining those who earnestly gave their own money for its betterment five weeks ago. Even if new funds have been found, not acknowledging or explaining them is frankly insulting to the VSC and those who donated to its appeal.

We are no longer a source of envy from supporters of other clubs. We no longer sit apart. We’re just another football club. One that dismisses managers ungraciously, that places its future in the hands of agents of ill-reputation. One that subscribes to the notion that above all else it’s “a results business”. I still support the team of course, as it is my home town club and as such part of my make-up, but the last week has lessened my pride, and taken away much of the positive reputation Rovers had built to get to their current position. There are those who will shrug in the face of all this and say “well, that’s football,” perhaps, but for the last decade, Doncaster Rovers showed that it didn’t need to be.

.

*on setting down this article I had been informed that Herold Goulon was one of several players currently in the ‘McKay stable’. It appears that this may not be the case, and having now double checked I can (at current) find no conclusive evidence that Goulon either does or does not employ McKay’s services as an agent. Apologies for this error, if it proves to be one.

Discussion

26 thoughts on “How Seven Days Ruined the Reputation of Doncaster Rovers

  1. Fantastic summation. Wonderful read.

    Posted by Simon Phillips | September 29, 2011, 7:19 pm
  2. It does seem a bit fishy

    Posted by annonymouse | September 29, 2011, 7:27 pm
  3. I was on a train from doncaster to kings cross in august 2011,the ticket collector looked at my ticket and said “ah Doncaster cant win a game gonna be relegated!”

    Posted by m smith | September 29, 2011, 7:33 pm
  4. I totally agree we’ve not just lost a manager we have lost our identity

    Posted by ian henderson | September 29, 2011, 7:40 pm
  5. Excellent piece – certainly hits the nail on the head. I agreed with you when you said you’d rather be in league one with SOD at the helm than the alternative, and I’d probably still go with that. Regardless of whether we survive this season in the Championship or not, there’s a certain amount of gloss taken off it all whatever happens.

    The involvement of McKay is worrying – although I said last week the thing that worries me the most about all of this is the revelation that John Ryan isn’t the one calling the shots any more. I’ve always said that what he gives us is something a minimum of 90% of other football fans can only dream of – someone at the helm who genuinely has the club’s best interests at heart. The notion that this has somehow changed is certainly cause for concern.

    Granted, the Championship is an entirely different landscape to what we as a club are used to, and as I’ve said before, there’s a certain general consensus that we somehow aren’t welcome at this level, and that is should be left to the “bigger” clubs. Consolidating in the Championship was never going to be easy.

    All this said, following Rovers has, if nothing else, made me an eternal optimist, and someone who has to try and make the best of what we have. The memories of going to Belle Vue every week convinced it was the last game I’d ever see us play still haunts me, and offers the perspective and consolation that we’ll have always seen worse, whatever happens. The pride of what we’ve achieved in even getting this far will always outweigh any future shame, and although I don’t like it, it probably still outweighs the events of this past week.

    As for SOD, I think he’s intelligent enough to know just how appreciated he was by the fans for everything he gave us, and I wouldn’t expect any bitterness or animosity in the long run. If the rumours of his sense of relief are true then maybe this was all for the best, and for all we know, the board’s gamble might just pay off. Maybe, even, other clubs might start to take us seriously.

    If there is money available now though, I would like to see investment in other areas of the club though – the youth academy, even a reserve team perhaps. Fitness, physio, training facilities. Dare I even say, commercial marketing? We can’t be a plucky pub team having a laugh forever.

    And whatever happens, we’ll always have Wembley. And the Millennium. And most of all, the Britainnia. McKay might yet turn out to be an even bigger crook than Richardson, but he’ll never be able to take that away :)

    Posted by Lazarus | September 29, 2011, 7:42 pm
  6. We all wanted a win and there was a growing number of people calling for SOD’s head, he also did not help himself with poor substitutions and negative tactics and his lack of persona but I agree with your appraisal – In 7 days we have a total u-turn and suddenly we want to buy Premier League rejects who are past their best on short term deals – We have a very rich board who apart from Ryan showed little intent in putting money into the club – Time will tell and I too find the ‘same agent’ scenario quite worrying

    Posted by Meathrover | September 29, 2011, 7:53 pm
  7. Evening Glen

    I am in awe. Awe of your ability to analyse and to think, and, in awe of your ability to write. Yes. We have lost a lot more than a manager this week. And I regret it hugely. As I regret the passing of Sean O’Driscoll and Richard O’Kelly. I really don’t care how bad the results were this last few months: they, and John Ryan, gave us a club, a team an ethos, to be very, very proud of. And now it’s all gone. El Hadj Djouf for Gods sake!!! Even talking to that little shit shows you just how much this club has suddenly stooped.

    I want a club to be proud of. Pride does not neccesarily equal winning every time. After decades of watching a pretty shamblic little club, this last 10 years has been one of the major the highlights of my life.

    And now it appears to have been thrown away inside a week.

    I think I will write a letter to SOD. Anyone have an address?

    Cheers

    BobG

    Posted by Bob Gilbert | September 29, 2011, 8:40 pm
  8. Beat me to the blog again Glen.

    Great post. I’ve already blogged a tribute to Sean (seeing as the club didn’t bother) and am going to write something on recent events.

    I was back home last week. I saw lots of football so am a bit behind on the blog (£10 per hour Internet access put me off a bit!). I should be writing something over the weekend.

    Keep up the great work!

    Posted by FuzzyDuck | September 29, 2011, 8:45 pm
    • Glen

      As always, an incredibly perceptive and well thought out article. I was greatly relieved and heartened by this article and the comments it has received in that I realise it’s not just me feeling, to paraphrase Fergie, that we’ve shook hands with the devil and there’s always a price to pay.

      I share your concerns about our loss of identity, the new regime and the whole frankly shabby and underhand way that Sean and Richard were treated. I’ve heard John Ryan speaking about it on at least three ocassions and ,at best, its as if he’s trying to convince himself that he’s done the right thing but moreover sounds as though he doesn’t believe a word of what he’s saying. It is a decision we will rue in my opinion and I posted as much on the VSC forum.

      I’m going to do my best to draw a line under this, after a week of general bemusement and genuine sadness at Seans departure- anyone wondering why read his goalfood(?) interview again- and move on giving full support to the new manager. All the same there’s something not quite right about any of this.

      On a brighter note. Nice to hear from BobG again and Viva video, what a treat that was. I was at the Bradford game with my Dad and Grandad and as an 11 year old, remember those as two of the best goals I’ve ever seen. On watching again my recollection wasn’t far wrong. Frightening thing was, Glynn Snodin used to score like that every other week.. well thats how I remember it.

      Keep up the good work.

      Jon (Wallsend)

      Posted by Jon Roys | September 29, 2011, 9:25 pm
  9. Having read your article i have to say that i am very disapointment with it and you. Having known you for many years and standing with you during the confrence days i think you are looking at some of this with rose tinted spectacles.i must say that i was never sean o’driscoll’s biggest fan as you know but he will go down as the greatest manger we have ever had in my opinion i am very greatful for what he achieved for us. but you mention the millwall,forest &sheff wed games, those games were quite a long time ago and the facts are we had not won for 19 games, the past year has not been good and the football not played in the same style this was one of the reasons why i and a few people i know did not renew our seasons tickets and you know we can not be called glory supporters. i know that there were injuries to key players but how can any manager not be under pressure and how many clubs would give there managers that long? maybe the board have not handled the sacking well but it’s not like they have had much practise with 2 managers in 10 years. you ask why the board have gone a different way who knows, may be they are trying to buy our way to safety but surely that is up to them having seen ken richerdson nearly kill the club it’s nice to see directors willing to support the club. we both know the club can not even compete in league 1 just through the fanbase alone. coming on to willie mckay you say the club have had no dealings with him before but i was led to believe his son has been at the club for a couple of years now, willie even traveling with his son to the tour of scotland so he must of dealt with someone at the club before and he is not the first agent the club has dealt with. i dont like agents in football but that is the modern day game, they and the players have more power than ever. now seen as though dean saunders agent is willie surely he would be dean’s first phone call to see if he could help him with any new recruits thats just common sense.this envy you talk about is what exactly? being bottom of the league and looking certain for relagation and if the style of play is more important than results what is the point of trying to win games? i for one will always support the rovers, as i know you will, even though i dont agree with every decision made at board level or on the pitch. i will always choose winning football over style any day

    Posted by andy | September 29, 2011, 8:59 pm
    • Andy, I appreciate your comments mate, particularly as you were stood next to me or near me for a lot of my highlights as a Rovers fan, but also because I know you hold different views to me on the last few weeks.

      The article is not about the decision to sack O’Driscoll as I said within it, echoing Stu’s thoughts, “I could sort of begrudgingly accept getting rid of Sean if it was purely down to footballing reasons.” Whilst I don’t agree with your views on SO’D, I respect them, as I said to you on Saturday.

      Of course its inevitable that Saunders will go to McKay for possible players, the concern is that McKay touted Saunders to the club in the first place knowing he’d make money off that deal and then the potential player deals afterwards. We had certainly (to my knowledge) not dealt with him as an agent up to this point.

      I haven’t sugggested we were envied by supporters of other clubs, indeed as you said who would’ve envied our recent record prior to Saturday, just that there was an admiration for the way Rovers conducted themselves. In the past week, whether you agree with the sacking of SO’D or not, its hard to argue that the club has not conducted itself very shoddily indeed, and thats the crux of this piece. That we’re still putting forward suggestions and theories a week on shows that there has been too little clarity and transparency in all thats happened since last Thursday.

      Posted by glen wilson | September 29, 2011, 9:15 pm
      • Actually, you WERE envied by some supporters, many of my own team’s fans saw in Doncaster 2000+ a little something of us. From the outside, O’Driscoll seemed to have built something you can’t buy, respect. Respect for the football and respect for the standards employed in playing it. That is something that my team, Ipswich Town, had for the first three decades of my life. We were a neutral’s favourite. That was killed by the mysterious marcusevans and his appointment of the brand ‘Roy Keane’s Ipswich’. Between them they destroyed years of respect which, after 1992, is pretty much all teams like ours could hope to retain. We were never likely to win anything again except maybe the Championship title but we had the bonus of usually playing good, if not always winning, football, treating people fairly and for that receiving the good will of others. That is now gone. I know many of my fellow Town fans had a lot of good will for Doncaster for the same reason and coveted SOD. I hope for Doncaster’s sake that the goodwill doesn’t dry up, although, I fear, thanks to the owners and Mckay, it’s already on the way out.

        Good luck.

        Posted by Damon | October 7, 2011, 12:33 pm
  10. A beautifully written piece which sums up exactly how I feel about the situation. We have lost a little of what it has meant to follow the Rovers over the last five years. Ryan has lost all credibility in my view and that is a shame as he deserves better. A very unfortunate few days for Rovers but we do have to move on and back Saunders and his team; the Chimbondas and Dioufs of this world do concern me though. I just hope we don’t look back on the SOD years as the highpoint of the Rovers recent history.

    Gray Taylor

    Posted by Gray Taylor | September 29, 2011, 9:08 pm
  11. A very well witten article but we were regarded as cannon fodder by all the other teams. Everyone has always admired West Ham as they played good football because they could beat them .Get real you are in football to win and if you don’t well something has to change. S O D did a great job but didn’t help his cause by talking to Burnley and Sheffied Utd and not many managers last as long as he did with the run of results he had.
    Perhaps we won’t be as pretty as we have been but i would like to stay in this division , even though the support from the locals is pathetic, and perhaps we have to play ugly to achieve it.
    As i’m sure most people will agree winning is really everything the days of “taking part “are long gone.

    Posted by tony | September 29, 2011, 10:56 pm
    • Again Tony, thanks for your comments, but this is not really a piece lamenting the loss of O’Driscoll (that was last week’s article)… more one looking at and questioning the significant change of approach, and lack of clarity at the club, off the field

      Posted by glen wilson | September 30, 2011, 7:51 am
  12. An excellent article and one that I guess must have been hard to write. I’m a Rovers fan in exile, living in South Staffordshire and working in Birmingham (imagine what it was like when we beat Villa in the Carling Cup!) so I don’t get to watch them as often as I’d like, but I do remember well a couple of trips to Hednesford Town (only a few miles away from where I live) in the Conference days and I also remember dancing with a stranger at the Britannia Stadium when the golden goal went in. After years of having the mickey taken, the last few years have restored pride and people did begin to acknowledge the way the club played and was run. I’m still proud to be a Rovers supporter, but I’m not shouting that as loudly this week

    Posted by Phil Curry | September 29, 2011, 11:09 pm
  13. Couldn’t agree more with the original article – well thought through and well presented.

    Maybe we have left the good old days of being a family club, where people know who you are, you are recognised and feel a part of it – I have for 50 years now and probably still will.

    I do wonder though if we have caved in a bit and something has been lost.

    Posted by catalyst66 | September 30, 2011, 7:49 pm
  14. Stunning piece which I bet you wished you had never had to write.

    Posted by Lanterne Rouge | October 1, 2011, 6:39 am
  15. Brilliant post, and one that’s formed the cornerstone of the Doncaster bit of the Donny v Leeds preview I’ve just written for Lanterne Rouge’s Two Unfortunates. Hope you don’t mind my taking inspiration, but I completely share your view/pain. As a Newcastle fan, I should add that we experienced something very similar. Everyone’s favourite second team in the mid-90s – a club playing exciting and entertaining football without any egos or cynicism. Something which came to a crashing end the moment we drew Stevenage in the 1998 FA Cup…

    Posted by Ben | October 13, 2011, 9:13 pm
  16. Will you still say this if it is the turning point that gets us to the Premiership next season or an FA Cup win. Well written but the truth is that John Ryan did everything he could to support O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll would still have been in a job if he was prepared to bend a little on a few things but his pride came before his fall. The wage bill needed to come down(and will do but not straight away) and we needed to start getting results. I can tell in your writing that you love the club as do I but your writing strikes me as a of the moment knee jerk reaction. The club as moved on. In my opinion this article circulating on twitter does the club more harm than the things you are upset about. You need to let it lie. Is it not possible to use your writing skills to say something positive about the happenings at the club or at least to encourage others to wait and see how things pan out. Merry Christmas.

    Posted by Dave | December 24, 2011, 11:59 am

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