A rough guide to... Doncaster Rovers

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

1 August 2016

Unthinkably, Doncaster got relegated last season. Only an immediate return will do.

How are you? 

Doncaster. The mighty imperial seat of our postcode region. The place where you change trains to go to London. Folk in fancy clothes getting off trains to watch the horses. Ed Miliband. One Direction. Trains, planes and horses.

Doncaster Rovers. We used to meet them on our way down. But these days it's all different. It's Town who are fresh out of non-League and Donny who are not used to the squalor after tumbling down from the second tier. If you were feeling unkind, you might say that since rejoining the Football League and getting a new stadium, Doncaster's ideas have been like the Frenchgate shopping centre: above their station.

For all their recent progress, Rovers fans still lament their fellow Doncastrians' tendency to follow clubs from Yorkshire's large nearby cities instead. And you know you've got some kind of image problem if you're perceived as less glamorous than Leeds.

Yeah, that's my glass house in smithereens.

What have you been up to? 

The fortunes of Donny Rovers and GTFC have assumed a curious inverse relationship in recent decades. While those golden moments from Wayne Burnett and Kevin Donovan were giving Town fans a 1998 to remember, Rovers were dropping out of the League. You remember cuddly Ken Richardson, don't you? Say what you like about John Fenty – I'm sure you do – but at least he's never tried to burn down Blundell Park so he could pay off the club's debts with the insurance money.

With Richardson safely behind bars, in stepped local cosmetic surgery magnate John Ryan to give the club – insert Motson chuckle here – a comprehensive facelift. Ryan proved the sort of owner supporters dream of: one of their own, with mountains of cash to plough in, but also sound judgement and rapport with the fans. Dave Penney was the manager who took them out of the Conference in 2003 (just as Town were finishing bottom of the second flight), and for a time Donny looked unstoppable.

A second promotion followed immediately, then a third in 2008. In the meantime a belting League Cup run took Rovers to within a minute of the semi-finals before Arsenal spawned through on penalties. Players like Michael McIndoe and Paul Heffernan played a starring role as Doncaster went past Manchester City on pens in the second round and put Aston Villa quite emphatically on their arse in the fourth.

The perception of inexorable progress was helped by the move to the Keepmoat Stadium, built by Doncaster council for several of the town's sporting clubs in the days when councils in the north still had the wherewithal to build things (still, at least austerity fixed the deficit, eh? Oh). By 2010, when Town's world was ending with a whimper in Burton upon Trent, Rovers were banging and crashing their way up to 12th in the second flight – their highest finish for half a century.

Then it went a bit wrong. Dean Saunders came in as manager, the club got into bed with 'controversial' Monaco-based agent Willie McKay, and the first XI became a shopfront for damaged goods. There may be a world in which El Hadji Diouf would demonstrate unalloyed commitment to Doncaster Rovers, but this isn't it. Long story short? Relegation with three games left. Promotion again. Relegation again. Brian Flynn. Paul Dickov. One Direction. More relegation. Thundery showers, moderate, becoming poor.

Town links over this period are several. Rob Jones played here for four years, including a spell as caretaker manager, right up until February of this year. John Oster played for Donny 120 times from 2009 to 2012 – comfortably more than at any of his other clubs. After returning to Doncaster from his loan at GTFC in 2007–08, Sam Hird enjoyed a decent career in south Yorkshire, clocking up 176 appearances before moving on to Chesterfield in 2012. Richard O'Kelly, one of Alan Buckley's first ever signings for Town back in 1988, served as assistant manager here to Sean O'Driscoll. And Andy Warrington used to play for them, of course. I've probably missed several, I know. Shut up, it's late and I've not had my dinner.

What kind of a season are you having? 

Doncaster supporters went into last season fully expecting to exit the third tier – just not in that direction. The whole 2015–16 campaign unravelled into a sort of slow-motion nightmare, in which relegation was deemed implausible until such time as it was practically unavoidable. I'm thinking GTFC in 2003, I'm thinking Pearl Harbor in 1941, I'm thinking the time I walked into a lamppost while tweeting about getting a pay rise.

Dickov was sacked after six games and Darren Ferguson appointed after Jones the Stick's caretaker spell. By mid-season a decent initial spell for Wee Ferg had persuaded many that a respectable outcome was possible. Sadly, this seemed to induce a dreamy complacency in the team, and a tendency to concede late goals cost Rovers dear. Sixteen games without a win later, the direction of travel was clear.

It was a big call to keep Ferguson – and back him with cash to rebuild. It looks like they've got it right. Two points off top spot, and unbeaten at home in the league all season, Donny are the division's top scorers. Chief culprit is John Marquis, with 11 in 22 games since joining from Millwall. Midfielder Tommy Rowe, who played under Ferguson at Peterborough, has reprised last season's influential form since his loan from Wolves became permanent in the summer. James Coppinger, who joined Rovers when they were at Belle Vue and people could smoke cigarettes in pubs, is still rocking after all these years. Named the fourth division's player of the month for August at the age of 35, he became the first player to reach 500 appearances for Doncaster just a few days later.

I'm assuming Coppinger won't be adding to that total this Saturday after a red card in last weekend's 2-0 defeat at Plymouth. A couple of lads are out long-term. Defender Mitchell Lund, a graduate of the youth system, became a first-team regular in 2015 but has missed the last couple of months with a kidney problem. Loaned from Scunny last season, ye olde Gary McSheffrey has been out with knee-knack all season since joining permanently back in June.

How are you feeling? 

Those good times are fresh in the memory and the bars of Silver Street resound with optimism. This being back in the fourth division thing, it's just a blip. This four thousand codheads descending on the town thing, it's just Grimsby's cup final. Average crowds at the Keepmoat this season might be down below 5,000 – you know, a couple of hundred less than at creaky old Blundell Park – but it's Grimsby's cup final. Doncaster are the big boys now. Got that? Good. Cod Almighty – keeping up with the digital willy-waving so you don't have to.

Where are you from? 

I went to see Morrissey play live at Doncaster Dome in 1991. That'll do me, to be honest. With Morrissey, I mean, not Doncaster. Doncaster clearly has a lot going for it, while Morrissey has turned out to be a massive dickhead.

In 2013 they managed to open Cast, a large and attractive new arts venue, which is quite impressive when everyone else is closing them down. Hey, with this early kick-off, there might still be time after the game to take the kids for a matinée of Jack and the Beanstalk. Possibly.

Cusworth Hall is genuinely excellent, with a decent museum and beautiful grounds. Aviation fans are directed to the site of the former RAF Doncaster, which has become a museum of, um, aviation. The trolleybus museum down the road in Sandtoft is probably more up my street, if I'm honest. Reminds me, I still need to visit the Crich tramway museum as well. Yes, I do need to get out more, since you come to mention it.

Or there are always the horses.

You must be so... feminist?

While Doncaster's men have grafted unglamorously in the lower reaches of the Football League for most of their team's existence, the town has given women's football its greatest trailblazers and a major force in the game through the 1980s and early 90s. As well as winning two league titles and six FA Cups, Doncaster Rovers Belles FC found their way into millions of sitting rooms, inspiring the best-selling book I Lost My Heart to The Belles and BBC drama Playing The Field, and normalising the once outrageous notion that women can play football.

It's not like it used to be, of course. These days all the best players get hoovered up by Chelsea and Arsenal, and in 2013 the Belles were infamously demoted by the FA after one game of the season because Manchester City had more money. They had a seriously rough time on their return to the top flight this year. But the show goes on, and Sue Smith is still playing, so let all hail the blow for equality struck right here in Doncaster.

The front page image is from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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