It can be hard being a football fan of present. The game may be safer to watch and enjoy than it ever has been, but football in its newly sanitized and moneyed guise can throw up new problems. How can you justify your support for players who can earn as much in a week as you do in a decade? The sort of people who ‘forget’ that they own a Porsche (Pennant) or would rather open boutiques than represent their country (Gabbidon).
Thankfully, fans of Doncaster Rovers, can console themselves with the knowledge that though the club is at its highest position in half a century it has retained a sense of humility, and responsibility to the community. In the summer four first team players – Mark Wilson, James O’Connor, Jamie Coppinger, and Wayne Thomas – will give up their close season along with five members of club staff to walk the 62 mile Inca Trek and raise awareness and funds for Childline and the NSPCC. A monumental gesture, but it isn’t just the big charity drives such as this in which the club displays a refreshingly ethical approach.
In January Doncaster Rovers cancelled the playing contract of 19 year-old youth team graduate Robbie Clark by mutual consent. Another young footballer thrown on the scrap heap to fend for himself you may think, but no, this actually turned out to be the first part of a story all too rare in football.
Clark had made the step up from the Rovers youth team eighteen months ago, handed his first professional contract with the club ahead of the 2009-10 season. He featured in pre-season, scoring in the friendly fixture against Barrow at Holker Street, but once the season began his football experience came from a trio of loan spells, with Boston United, Sheffield FC and Brigg Town.
With first team opportunities limited Clark was set to be released by Rovers in the summer, but keen to remain with the club the midfielder instead agreed to a new short term contract. Again, Clark featured in the pre-season fixtures and finally got a taste of competitive first team action, impressing in the Carling Cup defeat to Accrington Stanley in August. As late as November Clark was still featuring in the matchday squad, as he sat on the bench in the 3-2 win at Portsmouth, but alas come January with his contract at an end, it was time to move on.
Only that was not to be the case. Clark’s determination, commitment and attitude during his eighteen months as a professional had impressed the Rovers management and his team-mates and all were keen to see that effort rewarded. “I went to see [Sean O’Driscoll] recently and he told me there was nothing here for me in regards to the first team,” Clark told The Doncaster Star last month, “but [he told me] that I’d improved as a player and the boys wanted to do something for me because I’d done well, and they all liked me… The gaffer said there was something else on the table, and that I could take it or leave it.”
That ‘something else’ was a position working with the Rovers Foundation, the club’s Community Sports & Education Foundation, working with youngsters from the town. The initial position is a two-month trial run, with Clark having the opportunity to extend it in order to complete further training and coaching courses. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this offer from the club is where the money is coming from to fund Clark’s role. Until June his wages will be paid by the Rovers first team, the players willingly chipping in to help their former team-mate.
“I was speechless because that was me done and I was resigned to be going,” Clark confided to The Doncaster Star. “It is just a lifeline to give me a bit of money and to keep me in a job until something turns up, which hopefully it will. I have just started working with them and I’m enjoying it. They’ve made me feel very welcome. [O’Driscoll] was keen on me working with them because of the type of person I am and he said it would be great for the club because I’d be able to use my experience to help the kids to get where I’ve got. I’m obviously delighted. The club have looked after me really well.”
Clark is continuing to play in non-league, having rejoined Brigg Town of the Northern Premier League with whom he finished last season, as he explained in the same Doncaster Star interview; “I’m playing for Brigg Town at the moment on a non-contract basis, because I need to play games to get my fitness levels up. I still want to be a full-time footballer and I’m still trying my hardest ringing clubs and the manager said he would give me a reference. I’ve got a few years to give it a go and I’ll never stop trying, because in my heart I know that if I can keep on improving I know that I can make a good living out of it – whether that be in the Conference or League Two, or even out of the country. But if things don’t work out at least I know I have another option thanks to the club.”
The move has not only been welcomed by Clark, but by the club’s community coaching sector as well, who are delighted to be able to call on Clark’s first-hand experience. Rovers Foundation Participation Manager Liam Scully told The Doncaster Star; “We jumped at the chance to use Robbie’s expertise and recent education with the first team. The gesture by the players to help Robbie shows how closely the club work with the community, this is just one of the many things they have done recently and we can’t thank them enough, we hope in the long-term it will sort Robbie out either in the professional game or the semi-professional game with a coaching career alongside that.”
So there you go, a heart-warming tale from the world of professional football. Who’d have thunk it? It might not give you much comfort during a goal-shy home defeat, but it should help you remember why you support your club as you console yourself on the walk home.