Five years after blazing their way out of the Football League (with an arsonist at the helm), Doncaster are back, to the delight of Glen Wilson
In the underpass at Doncaster station there is an advertisement for a local nightclub, which reads: “Can you make Doncaster what they made Carlisle?” Anyone passing through may be forgiven for thinking that the people of Doncaster don’t expect a lot in life. However, when it comes to football the expectations of the town are far greater. Almost 10,000 Doncaster supporters made the trip to Stoke for the first ever Conference promotion final, in the hope that this would be the season in which Rovers finally regained their place in the Football League.
It’s been five years since the dust settled on Doncaster Rovers’ worst ever season and the eyes of the town blinked open to face life in the Conference. In the summer of 1998, still picking up the pieces from the reign of ex-“benefactor” Ken Richardson, Rovers only had five players on their books. For the first match at Dover, they had to borrow a kit from Sheffield United and pick up loan signing Kevin McIntyre from the Watford Gap service station en route, a task made that little bit harder by the fact that the rest of his team-mates were yet to meet him.
Unsurprisingly, given the way they had begun, Doncaster spent much of their first Conference season in the relegation zone. It wasn’t until January that Rovers finally began to turn the corner and moved out of the bottom three following a 3-1 win at big spenders Rushden & Diamonds. A few days later there was more reason to cheer for Doncaster fans as Richardson was found guilty of conspiracy to commit arson by Sheffield County Court and sentenced to four years in prison. An enjoyable week for the supporters was rounded off with a 1-0 win at league leaders Kettering, where the announcer joined in the fun with a message from supporters for “an absent Mr Richardson who couldn’t be with us today”, before playing Firestarter by The Prodigy.
Like many inmates of the Conference, Doncaster’s fans spent their time in the division desperate to get out. However, the sort of camaraderie displayed at Kettering may be something Rovers fans will miss in the serious world of League football. No longer will the supporters experience the oddities of non-League football, such as the match at Hayes where the police decided during the game to segregate the crowd, leaving many of Doncaster’s supporters cut off from the ground’s one snack bar, prompting a rendition of “Feed the World (Donny know it’s dinner time)” from the travelling fans.
As well as a source for future reminiscing, the Conference years have helped by bringing some glory (albeit on a relatively small scale) to Doncaster’s success-starved fans. In their first season out, Rovers lifted the Conference League Cup in front of over 7,000 at Belle Vue. The following season they did it again, and the club has also landed the Sheffield Senior Cup on two occasions, not to mention the much coveted Minster Carpets Cup. This is not a time for looking back, though, and most fans will gladly swap all this silverware and camaraderie for a wet Tuesday night in Rochdale.
This finally became a reality at Stoke, as Rovers returned to the League at the expense of Dagenham thanks to the most golden of Golden Goals from Franny Tierney. As the players went up to collect the Bob Lord Trophy, a stirring chant of “Are you watching Richardson?” echoed around the Britannia Stadium, serving as an exorcism to rid the club of the ghosts of the recent past. It has taken five years to bring back to Doncaster what one man seemed intent on taking away, and many see this is a time to move forward.
Reflecting this sense of a new era are the supporters’ football team, who, under the name Donny R’sonists, have long served as a “lest we forget” reminder of the dark days under Richardson. However, a change of name is under discussion; Donny Phoenix looks to be favourite, the resurrection of the club seemingly complete. Over the last five years it has been the supporters’ team who have fought for local supremacy against the supporters of Scunthorpe United, Hull City et al. Next season, whether they be the R’sonists or the Phoenix, they will finally achieve their ambition of seeing the Rovers renew these rivalries for themselves. After five long years away, Doncaster is once again a Football League town… making it much like Carlisle.
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month