23 October ~ Ten years ago this week on a freezing night in Southport I watched Doncaster Rovers exit the FA Cup in the fourth qualifying round. Thankfully the subsequent decade proved a much more enjoyable football-watching experience as the club climbed to the Championship, crossing a number of notable things off their to do list en route: play-off promotions, a league title, a spate of giantkilling, a national cup win, and an appearance at Wembley. Today we get a chance to scrub off another as Rovers play their first match to be screened live on terrestrial television.
Though now in a third successive Championship campaign the club’s recent non-League past continues to play on the mind of opposing fans assessing their own team’s form. Since arriving in the second tier Rovers have been rechristened "The Likes Of Doncaster". No one expects to see their team beaten by The Likes Of Doncaster, but in this division even The Likes Of Doncaster can join the large swathe of teams hoping to follow the Premier League-bound donkey tracks in the sand made by Blackpool last season. However, despite being tipped as promotion dark horses, most fans would be happy to retain the divisional status quo. Emulating the Rovers side of the 1950s and their club record eight successive seasons at this level is a sufficient target.
That Doncaster are in a position to compete at this level despite their rapid recent rise can be attributed largely to the managerial talents of Sean O’Driscoll. Much is made of O’Driscoll’s emphasis on getting Rovers playing "the right way", but his ability to spot and take a chance on players unwanted by others is just as important for a club on a budget. John Oster has been reborn playing as point-guard in a midfield that also includes Simon Gillett, who was deemed surplus to requirements a division below at Southampton. And for all the headlines taken by £1 million striker Billy Sharp the most exciting player in the current side is arguably Mustapha Dumbuya; journeying round the London non-League scene like The Littlest Hobo last summer he’s now started six of Rovers' last seven Championship games.
The one genuine concern Rovers do have as they look to cement their second-tier status is matchday attendances. The club may be enjoying its best league position and playing its best football for a generation, but this hasn’t proved enough to bring fans through the gates. Attendances are significantly down on the corresponding fixtures of last season, with price seen as the main factor. The club are trying to address this through new initiatives with adult tickets for November’s games against Millwall and Swansea priced at £15 and £10 respectively.
A win and a strong showing in today’s live match against Sheffield Utd could be crucial for Rovers. Not because of perceived South Yorkshire "bragging rights", nor because of league position, but because beamed directly into the town’s homes it could prove the most effective advert for the club yet as they bid to get more football watching Doncastrians away from the television and into the stadium. O’Driscoll’s Rovers are all about letting the team’s football do the talking – hopefully this evening it can do the club’s marketing too. Glen Wilson