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.