A friend of mine spends many of his Saturdays working as a freelance football reporter. Having, begun a couple of years ago with the delights of Gainsborough and Hucknall he is now covering Football League games and on Saturday he got his first experience of the Keepmoat Stadium. I caught up with him on Sunday and though his views on the match mirrored my own – a great game of football which Rovers deserved to win – his experience of watching it from the press box was decidedly different. The man to his right inexplicably kept raising a pair of binoculars to check on the action which had just taken place, whilst the ‘reporter’ to his left spent the entire game on his laptop talking to his mate on twitter, not about the match, just chatting.
Having looked through a few reports of Saturday’s match in various media, I think I may have pinned down the identity of the phantom twitterer. But before I reveal how and why, this despatch from the press-box may have explained what many Rovers fans feel is unfair coverage of our club within the nation’s media. Given that my friend also covered the Derby County versus Peterborough match earlier in the season sat next to another reporter who spent the entire game perusing one of the day’s broadsheets I don’t think I would be going out on a limb were I to suggest that any uneven reporting were not down to media bias, but simply media disinterest.
Football fans may love an underdog, but unless they can trot out clichés about Cup romance, giantkilling, and not fancying it at tight little grounds, then sadly the football media instead prefer to pander to the bigger boys. Larger fanbases mean more customers, and so the press becomes fixated with ‘The Big Four’ and at each subsequent level of the game it is the more established clubs which gain the most exposure . If you want a more succinct example of this theory at work, simply look at the ten Championship fixtures the BBC has chosen to screen this season and count how many times Newcastle United feature on that list.
As an unfashionable and effectively smaller club Rovers have been given short shrift by both regional and national media in recent years. In 2003-2004 Doncaster Rovers were fresh out of non-league football and as winners of the first Conference play-off had been marked down as favourites to return to where they had come from. Instead they stormed to an unlikely Division Three title, and as Rovers secured their place as champions with a point at Boston United the local media were all present… in Yeovil, to celebrate Hull City’s achievement of automatic promotion from the same level.
Come the end of 2007-08 and Rovers had secured their first ever trip to Wembley courtesy of a 5-1 victory over Southend United in the League One play-offs to leave themselves just a game away from a return to the second tier after half a century away. A compelling story for a club who had been a non-league side just five years earlier and had almost disappeared completely five years before that. However, this story was cast aside as the nations media instead relished the return of Rovers’ opponents Leeds United to their ‘rightful’ place in the league’s upper tiers. Actual playing strength was rarely mentioned as Leeds were tipped as overwhelming favourites in view of their history and fan base, and Rovers were dismissed as simply ‘an obstacle’ to Leeds progression.
Of course in terms of fan-base and honours lists there is no denying that Doncaster Rovers are one of the lesser draws of the current Championship line-up. A Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and a Minster Carpets Cup sadly fails to trump the various League titles, UEFA and European Cups of our respective opponents. However, our club is here on merit and as an equal, and so should surely be afforded much the same coverage. Each week the BBC’s Football League Show broadcasts extended highlights of two or three Championship fixtures, yet Rovers had to wait until as recently as the last Saturday in January to be in one of those chosen fixtures.
Doncaster’s match at Cardiff City a fortnight ago, was the proverbial game of two halves. Cardiff controlled the first half and Doncaster excelled in the second, bringing themselves back into the game and looking most likely to go on and win it with some excellent flowing football, until a cruel late goal for the home side. That would most likely be the summary of anyone present, yet come the match broadcast on The Football League Show and Rovers were made to look like the Washington Generals to Cardiff’s Harlem Globetrotters. Only a couple of chances from Rovers’ second half performance made the cut, and the team were not even spoken of during Manish Bhasin and Steve Claridge’s post-match chin-wag. For a broadcaster which prides itself on balanced reporting, it was frankly a disappointment.
And so we come full circle back to Saturday’s game, and a match report which makes the Cardiff City match highlights look like a Rovers biopic in comparison. The Guardian’s Mark Tallentire may not have been the press-man more concerned with twitter than what was happening on the pitch, but if he was then it would at least explain the content of his match report. Mark Tallentire managed the rare feat of producing a 485 word, seven paragraph report on Doncaster Rovers 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest without once using the words ‘Doncaster’ or ‘Rovers’.
Though the byline claims Tallentire was at the Keepmoat Stadium just one of his seven paragraphs actually mentions actual match action. Its such an incredibly fleeting documentation of what had been a tremendous game, that had I turned my back on the action I suspect I would have been able to give a more accurate picture of the match events. As equally perplexing as the report itself is the choice of Chris Cohen as man of the match. To be given man of the match when on a losing side is normally an indication that you have performed incredibly well, yet it took me an extensive memory search to recall what exactly Cohen had contributed to the game. Then I remembered, the Forest midfielder did perform one impressive piece of skill as he flicked the ball over two Rovers players in succession and set off down the wing. It was neat and it was skillful, but it was of little significance, if you want a metaphor, it was the triangle player of the match orchestra. That this brief event took place right in front of the press box is probably no coincidence.
The truth of this matter is that for as long as Rovers remain in the Championship their achievements will go under-reported. Its not that the media are biased against us, its that ultimately they don’t really care about us. Doncaster are a triviality at this level, invisible men going about their daily business unnoticed, until they become the opposition for someone that more people care about. The club is defined by its being not Newcastle, or not West Brom. But ultimately when you look at what Rovers have achieved in the shadows should we really be that bothered?