It’s Friday. It’s mid-afternoon. Live from Doncaster, it’s time for the latest instalment of… The Willie McKay Show. Not so much the gift that keeps on giving as the elephant that keeps on shitting. Of course we knew football agent McKay was significantly involved in Rovers transfer activity of late, that had been apparent from Chris Kirkland’s interview with the official club website last Thursday, when he began, “I got a call last Friday from Willie McKay asking me if I would consider it…” However, only today, via an interview with the Daily Mail, has the full extent of his involvement in the club become painfully clear.
The crux of Rovers’ relationship with McKay is apparently this. McKay has an exclusive contract with Rovers, whereby the club pay him £100 per week and as a result McKay runs the rule over which players the club approach to bring in. This contract has been approved by the FA as it fits within their guidelines and as Neil Aston in the Mail succinctly put it; ‘nobody can come in or out of the Keepmoat Stadium for the next two years unless McKay says so’. Manager Dean Saunders does still hold some say, but as McKay himself puts it “Dean has a right of veto, but is he seriously going to turn down Mahamadou Diarra, a guy who’s got 150 games on his CV for Lyon and 120 for Real Madrid?”
McKay’s plan in a nutshell is this. Rovers will approach fringe players, free-agents, and those currently out of favour and offer them a platform on which to showcase their talent s in a short-term spell with a view to a move on to a bigger club. McKay of course has already sorted such a deal for his own client Pascal Chimbonda and intends to look to the French League for more players to add to his production line, telling the Mail; “We are going to work with Lyon, Auxerre, Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne, Nice and Lorient by taking their unhappy players. In every squad there are two or three good players who aren’t getting a game for whatever reason. We will take them to Doncaster, put them in the shop window and sell them on with sell-on fees.”
According to the Daily Mail, McKay submitted his plans for Rovers to oust Ward Brothers Furniture stores as purveyors of the largest shop window in the borough to the FA on 27th September. Just four days after his principle client Saunders had been unveiled as Rovers boss. And given that McKay spent that first day looming in the back of shot, glued to his phone, at various Rovers press conferences, he either works very fast or this has been in the pipeline for some time.
This template has already adopted with the signing of Herita Ilunga as McKay explained to Ashton; “Take Herita Ilunga as an example. He’s on £26,000 a week at West Ham, not getting a game and they can’t get him a move. I called the joint-chairman David Sullivan and offered £1,000 a week to take Ilunga on loan. David laughed and said, “Make me a sensible offer”, so I said, “OK, £500”. Anyway, eventually we agree the deal on £2,000 a week and West Ham make up the rest of his wages. We take him at Doncaster, who are no threat to West Ham, and give him a shop window to perform by playing every week.
You could, as a club, argue that this is not much different to the deal that took Craig Bellamy to Cardiff City last season, or at least you could, had you not at the time vehemently stated how unhappy you were about that deal. Mckay continues; “ If he plays well and I get him a move, say to Turkey for £5m, then I’ll reach an agreement with David Sullivan about the fee West Ham will receive, plus my commission, less his full £26,000-a-week salary for the period he was at Doncaster.”
Therein lies one of many concerns for Rovers fans. Whilst McKay is acting for the club, his ultimate end, is to make money, and notably to do so for himself. Rather than having to negotiate between two parties as he has in the past, this arrangement with Rovers means he now has to negotiate with just one, he having become the other. And he gets the benefits. Why have we allowed him to do this? Are we that desperate to remain in the second tier that we’ll gamble so significantly on a man who, as has been highlighted before on this site, has so much to gain personally, and little responsibility to the club at large.
“These guys approached me. They have a wage bill of £8m a year and want it reduced to £4m,” said McKay to Ashton of the Rovers board. “My valuation of Donny was nothing. They have no fanbase and everyone in Doncaster supports Leeds, Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday, who can all get 30,000 in their stadiums.” Describing the club as ‘nothing’ and disregarding the support as non-existent is more than a subtle suggestion t that McKay has no time for making friends. Still, “Willie McKay loves this club and he wants to help us out,” John Ryan told the Doncaster Free Press a fortnight ago. McKay offered a slightly different interpretation; ‘I’m doing this to prove it can be done and I’ve been honest enough to admit I’m only here for the money. I don’t need the £100 and I probably won’t even invoice for it.’ It is painfully clear that it is not the club he loves, simply the opportunity it affords?
In 1998 fans of our club repeatedly protested on the Belle Vue turf. At the forefront of those protests were people I know well; one of my best friends strolled on from the Pop Side, through the middle of Rovers’ match with Hull, positioned himself on the centre-spot and refused to move. Meanwhile another good friend, a teacher at the time, was chaining himself to the goalposts at the Town End having sought permission from his headmaster the day before. They performed these acts, and countless others, at significant risk, to bring attention to the plight of our club, to try and wrestle it out of the hands of an unscrupulous man, and back into the hands of people who cared about it. They did not put their own personal and professional reputations selflessly on the line so that in thirteen years time that club would effectively be sanctioned as the play-thing of a football agent with a past best described as ‘contentious’.
I have raised concerns about McKay on this website already, as have others, and when we did there were Rovers supporters quick to bracket us as mere hecklers. One of the reasons cited in the defence of McKay’s intentions was the presence of his son (or sons) in the club’s youth set-up. That factor only serves to further highlight the short-term nature of McKay’s theorem. A business-model based on bringing in surplus talents from elsewhere has no room for the progression of those already in the ranks, be they in the squad or more specifically in the youth team. McKay is not here for the club, nor his family connections to it, he is here for the money.
“In every squad there are two or three good players who aren’t getting a game for whatever reason,” says McKay. So what will become of the Rovers players, where that reason is the personal pursuit of one money-centred individual? Where will the talents nurtured and developed by Sean O’Driscoll go? Mustapha Dumbuya, brought from non-league, greatly impressed Cardiff City fans earlier this season, would he have ever been signed if the current model had been adopted? Doncaster-born Sam Hird, disregarded at Leeds and at one point our fourth choice centre-half a division below, started and impressed against Blackpool on Tuesday, how long would he have lasted in McKay’s masterplan? You could argue, there would be no need for them with Lyon’s spare parts coming in, but players like Dumbuya and Hird owe a lot to Rovers for giving them a chance, and will remain loyal for a long time as a result. How determined to stay would say El Hadji Djouf be if East European money came fluttering by?
Since arriving at Doncaster, McKay’s principal client Dean Saunders has been hailed for lifting the mood. On Friday, S*y Sp**ts even prefixed the Rovers v Leeds match with a Saunders montage backed with ‘Bring Me Sunshine’; his old mate Peter Beagrie, just about stopping short of hailing the new Saunders era as a Doncastrian glasnost, juxtaposed against this increasingly orchestrated image of O’Driscoll trudging about with a grey cloud over his head, like a character in a Charles M Schulz comic strip. For many it seems, it is not what you say, but how you say it. O’Driscoll was candid and honest, but dismissed as quiet and boring. Saunders trots out sound-bites, and his hailed as refreshing and open. If you think I’m being harsh on the new guy then how hollow does his “The youngsters here will get their chance” statement appear when you consider it was made in full knowledge of McKay’s plans for the club? Its Nick Clegg posing with the students pre-election is what it is.
What is most disappointing, for me, and for other supporters is the way in which many of our fellow fans are embracing this move. “Am I the only one a little bit excited about this?” tweeted Jon Sutton this morning; my response was, sadly, probably not. Big name players and promises of kicking on toward the top flight, its football just like the computer games and S*y Sp**ts told us it would be. That’ll probably appeal to many, but for me in terms of excitement it serves as the point on a roller-coaster where you pause at the top, and somewhere down below a voice yells; “has this bit of track always been this wobbly?”
At the start of the season Rovers were operating on a long term strategy, our Championship status may not have been secure, but the future of the club was. Now, we have changed tact dramatically and whacked it all on red. This plan may work, it may prove a successful model and a means to an end in the world of modern football. But, it may not, and if it doesn’t where does the club go? Will the unhappy players of Lorient want to put themselves in the League One shop window, where they can be taken apart by the much happier players of L. Orient? Probably not.
I go back to the point I initially muted on Twitter, and reiterated when Rovers banished O’Driscoll to the garden shed; “Ultimately, when it comes to [Doncaster Rovers] I’d rather be relegated to League One than lose Sean O’Driscoll as manager”. Behind that tweet was the knowledge that when we lost O’Driscoll, we would lose an entire ethos. Sure enough when Rovers waved SO’D off, they also said goodbye to careful and considered planning for the future, and decided instead to keep up with the Scudamores. As Rovers fan MrW so succinctly tweeted at the end of September; “What the fuck have we done? Is this 10 years of progress pissed away?”
Though I despise the Daily Mail, credit where it’s due, Neil Ashton’s article can be viewed here.