The enemy within

Doncaster Rovers are going through a terrible time in their history, Ray Gilbert explains why

Doncaster’s residents found 1997 more than a match for Her Majesty’s notorious annus horribilis. The District Auditor blew his whistle on the gifts accepted by the nucleus of Labour members who have controlled local politics for years, and are now suspended. The new Doncaster Prison, Doncatraz to the locals, remained the privatisation flagship of the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation of Florida and has the worst record for inmates attacking fellow inmates of any prison in the UK. Doncaster College sailed on as the UK flagship of all that is wrong with Further Education colleges with a Principal widely accused of featherbedding himself. On top of all that we have Doncaster Rovers FC. The League’s worst team is dying as the Anton Johnson-led consortium riding to its rescue is kept waiting for the signatures of major shareholders Ken Richardson and the Dinard Trading Company of the Isle of Man.

Richardson first hit the headlines in 1984 when convicted at York Crown Court of conspiracy to defraud. Racehorse Flockton Grey won a race for two-year-olds by 20 lengths at odds of 10-1. It looked like a good pay day until the jury decided that Flockton Grey was really another horse, the three-year-old Good Hand.

Richardson picked up a suspended prison sentence and heavy financial penalties. Banned from the turf for five years by the Jockey Club he then turned to football. His first club, Bridlington Town, reached Wembley in the FA Vase with a collection of players on big wages, then swiftly disappeared after a short spell as tenants at Doncaster, after the Rovers board had sold up to Richardson and Dinard.

According to a recent filing Dinard is an ‘Import/Export’ company. This year its three directors resigned to make way for Mr JT Donnelly of Sark, Channel Islands (where there is no company law), Mr BM Shimmin of the Isle of Man and Mr FH Perry, also of the IoM, who acts as company secretary. It may still be owned by Cameo Trust Corporation of 80 Broad Street, Monrovia, Liberia although one former director says that Cameo has severed its link with Dinard. None of them have any real connection with Doncaster or with football. You would need to be Sherlock Holmes, Maigret and Poirot rolled into one to fathom the affairs of this lot and find the link between Richardson and Dinard. Yet link there must be.

Richardson has never been registered as a director of the Rovers. His mates have been installed as chairman of the club from time to time. The current one is Ken Haran of Bradford who happened to give evidence at the racehorse trial in York. Richardson’s daughter and his niece are the other two directors, with his daughter taking over as company secretary. The club’s old auditors, based in Doncaster, say they were asked to resign by Richardson who brought in a new outfit from North Yorkshire.

Until his recent decision to stop attending matches Richardson always fixed the transfers, picked the team, gave the team talks and made the substitutions. Good managers were hired, then fired or forced out. Ian Atkins, Steve Beaglehole, Sammy Chung and Kerry Dixon were all admired by the fans and ditched by Richardson. Chung, as manager, came to a home match at the start of last season only to find that Dixon was also there as player-manager.

An early storm signal went up on October 25th 1993 when the club advertised the ground for sale in the Daily Telegraph and sought a developer for retail and hotel use. This move conveniently overlooked the fact that the ground has always been owned by Doncaster Council who let the club have it on a 99 year lease. Most other clubs have left the Rovers years behind in the upgrading of ground amenities. The Council was willing to help relocation to a new stadium until it had to consider the merits of dealing with Richardson. There’s been stalemate ever since.

Yet there was one attempt to break it. On a night in June 1995 there was a fire in the main stand. It caused plenty of damage but far from total destruction. Three people from the North East were quickly arrested. This story, hilarious in parts, will come out in February at a trial to take place at Sheffield Crown Court. It will be a good read, not least because Richardson will be there as well. He was arrested at a night match on March 25th 1996 and charged with conspiracy to burn down the stand.

Between times the playing standard went from decent to indifferent to appalling. We now hold the record for the worst start to a season. By November 29th it read 20 games without a win. The direction of the club became yet more bizarre. The fans knew that Richardson had favourites and non-favourites among the players. Last season Paul Birch joined the club and always played well. The day came when, to everybody’s disgust, he was pulled off part way through the second half whereupon the match sponsors rightly declared him man of the match. He hardly played another game for the Rovers after that, went to Torquay and received an ovation from the Rovers supporters when he turned out at Doncaster in their opponent’s colours.

Kerry Dixon kept the Rovers in the league last season by a whisker. He had the complete loyalty of the players, the crucial strength of Darren Moore at centre back and the quick feet of Colin Cramb as striker. At the season’s end we were told that Richardson’s skill had saved us from Dixon’s ineptitude as a manager! In the summer Moore and Cramb declined to sign again and left for more ambitious pastures. Dixon left to safeguard his sanity soon after this season’s start. Richardson was then seen on the bench directing his large collection of non-League signings on match days (the goalkeeper only saw his team mates on match days when he arrived from his week’s work). The protests grew and the attendances dwindled. Brighton’s fans came with their well honed loathing of football’s asset strippers and helped mount a protest so rowdy that the police advised Richardson and his ‘general manager’ sidekick, Mark Weaver, to leave the ground at half-time.

Since January 1997 a consortium including former Rovers directors has been ready to negotiate a takeover from Richardson and Dinard. The minor shareholders favoured this takeover but Richardson and Dinard blocked it until Richardson suddenly appeared to have a change of mind. The Brighton fans had been the catalyst. After a shocking display at Darlington in the middle of October, Richardson announced he was coming to no more matches. “I saved them from relegation last season – even Kerry Dixon would admit that – but they are just not responding this year and I don’t want to be associated with losers. Dinard can do what they like and Mark Weaver will act for them and probably appoint a manager. But I’m not wasting my time any more.”

Weaver produced his neighbour as goalkeeper for one first team match. Dave Cowling was appointed manager and lasted nine days. Then came Danny Bergara, master of maladroit man management, who soon made his mark by sacking a real goalkeeper, Dean Williams. Three days after Darlington the consortium and Richardson met, but negotiations don’t seem to have moved on. At the year’s end Richardson and Dinard were still in control, content to be 12 points adrift at the bottom and more than happy to charge League prices to watch a team that wouldn’t win a match in a pub league.

On December 11th the funeral cortege of Billy Bremner, one of Doncaster’s best ever managers, slowed to walking pace as it passed Belle Vue. What a tragedy that he should die with his once proud little club still in the clutches of the enemy within.

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month