In a mark of how swiftly things have changed at Doncaster Rovers, on Thursday morning Bob Roberts, (otherwise known as angling superstar Bob Roberts) tried to send me an article expressing his thoughts about Rovers and the predicament in which they currently found themselves. The email failed. By the time Bob managed to resend it a day later Sean O’Driscoll had gone and the club was at that stage effectively a released spinning top. But Bob’s is a thoughtful and enjoyable piece which makes some very good observations and I believe it deserves to be seen by more people. So here is that article, written by Bob, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I first stood on the terraces of Belle Vue on the 19th September 1959. The illustrious opponents were Rochdale FC and going by some reactions on the internet you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the last time Donny won. In those days I preferred playing the game rather than watching, I was, after all, only nine. In my fantasies I was George Best but in reality I was more of a Peter Crouch, too tall for my age and yet to fill out. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t very good that I liked the Rovers. We had so much in common.
All that changed in 1965. By then I was a regular watcher and the season kicked off with two 4-0 home wins. I was in seventh heaven and began following them away from home when I could afford it, bearing in mind I was still at school with only a paper round as income – 7 days a week for 13 shillings and six pence (67.5p).
It was a magical year. Alick Jeffrey was in his pomp and we snatched the Championship narrowly over Darlington. I’m not sure if that was the season near-on 25,000 turned up for a midweek cup game with Burnley. Most league games were played on a Friday night and despite dropping as low as 6,000 during autumn the average home gate still came out at 10,500. During the run-in we drew 5 consecutive crowds of more than 15,000 culminating with a final home game defeat (0-3!) to Notts County in front of 17,000. That night will remain long in the memory not just for the defeat but for the sending off of Tony Coleman who, tired of being rugby tackled by the full back, turned around and gave him a good hard kicking!
Fair do’s, Coleman didn’t wait for the ref, a certain Mr Pickles, to send him off. He just turned and walked towards the tunnel. No-one seems sure but Pickles must have said something really provocative because Coleman stopped dead in his tracks, his hackles visibly rising as he spun around, marched back to the ref and planted one firmly on his chin. It was sensational and bedlam broke out in the crowd.
The following year we were relegated. Unceremoniously. I went to so many away games I can barely count them but we only picked up points in three games on the road and I missed every one of them. I did see us get some right old thumpings though. The final away game of the season was at Gillingham. I doubt there were a dozen Rovers fans there. But we bounced back again only to come crashing back to earth again which is the way of the Rovers. They build you up and then knock you down. Always have, always will, and if you think that’s going to change then you need to pull yourself together. This is how it is with Doncaster Rovers FC.
When things went down the pan I genuinely thought I might be released from my burden. Following the Rovers isn’t like following Manchester United. You don’t win all the time. You don’t make stellar signings. You don’t even choose to be a fan. You’re cursed to follow Doncaster. It’s irrational, it’s emotional and it bloody well hurts right down, deep inside your very soul each time they lose, which is more often than we care to admit.
Looking back I mourned the loss of the pigeon hut. Losing the pop stand broke my heart. But losing our place in the league left me devastated. We no longer even existed as a town. Go anywhere in the world and pick up a decent Sunday newspaper and there’s your home town, little Donny, looking back at you in the Football results. It was as if someone had dropped an Atom Bomb on Belle Vue. The town had been vaporised. Obliterated from the earth. But we emerged from the ashes, we did what we’ve always done; dusted ourselves down and picked ourselves up by our bootstraps. What followed was nothing short of a miracle. Not only did we find a saviour in John Ryan we began to exceed all expectations.
Cardiff… If I tell you I watched the game on TV in a bar in Rome then you will understand my disappointment at not being there but also my pride in seeing us not just on TV but on a multi-national stage. The Rovers had gone global! If I’m honest, it wasn’t until we began to challenge for promotion to the Championship that I began to feel really uneasy. This was unfamiliar territory for me outside of the first four games of the 1966-7 season and we know how miserably that ended. Every time Rovers has dared lift my expectations during my entire life it has inevitably come crashing down. Surely this would be no different.
Beating Leeds at Wembley to go a league above them was up there with the greatest footballing events of the Century in my eyes. That was something I couldn’t even aspire to in my schoolboy fantasies. It was too far-fetched. That would have been like beating Barcelona and Manchester United rolled into one today. But we weren’t up against Bremner, Charlton and Hunter, or even their ghosts. We didn’t lose our bottle and as a result we deservedly reached the promised land playing a brand of football we could be proud of. This was no kick-and-rush team. It was cultured, patient and creative. And we entered the stratosphere playing in a brand new stadium. How much better could it get?
I expected an immediate return to the lower leagues but it didn’t happen. If I’m honest I expect to be relegated every season. That’s not being pessimistic, it’s being realistic. We have a very good League One ground now. We have a League One following and were it not for the board giving us money, that’s right, GIVING, we would be up the creek without a paddle. Each year they dig deep and bale us out. They don’t ‘invest’, they donate. In fact there would be no sensible reason for any of them to invest because they would never see any return on that investment. It would be a bad debt. The idea that some supporters nurture, that board members are rich so they should throw mountains of their money at whatever is the problem of the day is ludicrous. I love the Rovers and if I really wanted to I could probably throw a considerable sum of money their way knowing that I would never see it again. So could loads of fans. Go on, spend your life savings. Re-mortgage the house. See what good it does. It’s an elastoplast on a broken leg.
Currently it appears we are sliding helplessly towards League One. It’s where we belong. We cannot compete financially with the likes of Leicester and Ipswich, Brighton or Southampton in this league. Nor a dozen others. Our attendances are pitifully small. Our revenue streams are miniscule. It’s been fun but we’ve probably outstayed our welcome.
Sadly, judging by the wailing and moaning on internet forums we ain’t going to do it with any kind of dignity. Remember Southend? The night we trounced them and booked our place at Wembley? Their fans took that hammering on the chin and they pretty much out-sang the Rovers following. They were behind their team from start to finish, never once booing or calling for the manager’s head.
So here we are with 39 games of the season still to play. The juvenile behaviour of a section of ‘supporters’ is building into a crescendo of malice. We are just about ready to implode. Sack the manager, get rid! The board is tight, the marketing’s crap, the medical staff don’t know what they’re doing, the players are clueless, in fact anything and everything connected with what put Doncaster where they are today is being criticised mercilessly.
I’d hate to be a Rovers player right now. How they can turn out and play with any degree of confidence is beyond me. The fans always love a whipping guy at the Rovers, someone who’s back they can all pile on and blame. Unfortunately every member of the team seems to be fair game and they’re lashing out at anyone who makes a mistake. That’s a sure fire way of ensuring they make even more mistakes. Lately I’ve come to thinking there is a serious problem at the club. It’s not the players, nor the management. It’s the fans. They have no patience. No grasp on reality and they’re never happier than when they’ve got the long knives out. They actually seem to enjoy the wailing.
I thought the team was tremendously unlucky at Brighton on opening day. Easily the better side until Brighton turned thuggish and crippled our midfield and attacking outlet. Even under such duress and with a numerical advantage it still took until the 98th minute to undo us. Following that match I emailed a mate who’s a West Ham fan and suggested that, with the injury situation as it is, we would not win a single game before we faced Peterborough in what would already be a relegation 6-pointer. What I cannot understand is why this has come as a shock to so many fans.
Perhaps they got carried away and actually believed this was our year. Certainly they were claiming the current squad was the best we’ve ever had. Then again, if you’re still at school you’ve not got a lot to compare with, have you? Sadly we are bottom of the table and now face a reality check. Yes, we could easily go down. But when the ‘SOD out!’ chants begin, as they surely will, do you seriously think this will help matters? The blind will lead the blind, as is ever the way.
But let’s get realistic. If SOD is sacked, who comes in? Who has the experience to turn the injury list around? Who can succeeded at this level on the lowest budget in the division. And why does this miracle worker not already have a job? Whoever comes in will be told there’s no money to spend unless you sell first, because they will not want to take players on high wages when relegation is a reality.
We are currently bobbing around on the lip of a vortex just waiting to be sucked down. If ever there was time for resolve and patience it is now. Several key players are close to returning but will they want to? How many will read the forums, listen to the baying fans and think, ‘Blow this, I’m going to have a word with my agent on Monday.’ And you know what? If we’re looking down a barrel at Christmas then the value of those players will tumble. We will be ripe for the picking because we’ll need to reduce the wage bill dramatically before the following August.
Right now, what we need above all else is resolve and dignity. The posts by fans on forums are turning us into a laughing stock. We are Doncaster Rovers FC. Never forget that. We don’t have millions of pounds to throw at problems, we’re a tin pot outfit that has outperformed all my expectations for a decade and I’m proud of the fact.
Yes I’ll shed a tear when they do go down, which if not this year will be another one not too distant, just like I did on the terraces at Gillingham all those years ago. But you know what? I don’t want any part of this bandwagon jumping. Criticising the board, the management and the players might ease your frustrations but that just makes you part of the problem. The solution to the bigger picture is not in your hands.
I shall savour the rest of this season. Every kick, every tackle, every goal, because I may not live long enough to see my team return to the Championship. It won’t even be the end of the world if we don’t – at least we’ll have a team in the League, but I can’t help but think that the current board and management are still the best chance we’ve got of getting back up again if the worst happens.
Remember you lot, that’s right, you lot out there who were all giving it the big, ‘in SOD we trust’ only a few months ago. It’s said that players are fickle and lack loyalty these days. I reckon players have nothing on the average Donny fan. So please, for now at least, let’s get off the team’s back and support the manager and the board and hope that we don’t need to bring in a knee-jerk replacement manager any time soon because SOD has thrown in the towel and resigned.
Whoever comes in will struggle to attract a single decent player, you mark my words.