This weekend saw the first confirmed promotions and relegations in the English professional leagues, and there were few tears shed outside a part of South Yorkshire at the demotion of Doncaster Rovers to League One. Promoted through the play-offs in 2008, they enjoyed four years in the relatively lofty heights of the Championship, having spent the majority of their history in the lower leagues, and indeed spent five years in the Conference between 1998 and 2003.
The dislike of the club is however a recent thing. Indeed, a look back at previews of their seasons in the Championship talk of a club punching above their weight, usual terms like “plucky” and “organised”, an example of a club that most others in the league are happy to see do well, but are also always up against it, whether it be against stronger sides, or said stronger sides trying to take the leading lights of the team on the cheap. Doncaster were always up against it this season. After a poor run of form at the tail end of last season, they faced the prospect of being the first side to play Brighton at their brand new stadium on the opening day (and but for a last minute winner would have picked up a very credible point). After a run of just one point in seven games, the axe fell on Sean O’Driscoll, a well respected manager and at the time one of the longest serving in the division. Dean Saunders, at the time leading a strong Wrexham promotion push in the Conference was the replacement. But this was just half the story.
Like a number of clubs, Doncaster were spending above their means. A wage bill of around £8 million needed halving. The only player attracting any interest was their record signing Billy Sharp who himself had only joined the club the season before, and the prospect of relegation would only worsen the problem. In addition, Doncaster owned neither its stadium or training ground. Enter Willie McKay, an experienced football agent who represented amongst others, the Rovers manager, and who was also a friend of the chairman John Ryan. The plan was to employ McKay as a consultant at the club, to oversee the transfer policy and look to bring big names in, so that far from worrying about the prospect of relegation, Rovers could look upwards at maybe a dash for the play-offs. This is despite Ryan criticising the loan move of Craig Bellamy to Cardiff City the season before, suggesting that loan moves should be for the benefit of developing young players rather than players that bigger clubs just wanted out of the way. You can see the issue here of course…what about the wages? Well here was the clever bit, by putting these big name players in the shop window, Rovers would only have to pay a small fraction of the players’ wages, a small price for helping the parent club get rid of a player they didn’t want. It was described as a great footballing experiment that would bring exciting players to the Keepmoat Stadium, and of course, success. It has instead seen the club as the first through the Championship trapdoor.
For all the good intentions, this summed up a number of issues with football in the modern age. I was able to witness Rovers in a January fixture at Vicarage Road, a game eventually won well by the home side 4-1. The visitors had some talent on show, make no mistake, their goal a prime example. A fine left wing cross by skipper El Hadji Diouf headed home by Sharp. But there was also plenty to show why Rovers’ experiment was faling badly. Diouf, not known for excellent discipline, fell out with the referee, picked up a pointless caution, and then virtually substituted himself late on. Far from setting an example as captain and remaining on the bench to support his troops, he was straight down the tunnel. Habib Baye, fresh from describing the afternoon’s opponents as one of the poorest they’d faced in the return fixture a month before, suffered a torrid afternoon at the hands of Watford’s young starlet Marvin Sordell, who scored two of his sides’ goals. Pascal Chimbonda lasted just over half an hour before limping off. Herold Goulon, sent off for two poor challenges, leaving his team mates to survive for a third of the game with only ten men. Herita Illunga took one of the most bizarre throw-ins ever. For players in the shop window, they were an absolute shambles, no sense of a team unit whatsoever. In contrast, and somewhat ironically, the final goal of the game was scored by Michael Kightly, on loan at Watford from Premiership Wolves in an attempt to regain some fitness. The joy of the well-taken effort clear as he celebrated with his temporary team mates, however he was part of a hard working unit, giving their all for each other.
And here’s where the real problem lies, and is best summed up by one of Rovers’ own, James Coppinger, who commented “it’s disrespectful to the Championship to bring in big names and think you can win games, you need passion and commitment”. At the start of the season, Leicester and West Ham’s big spending saw them as overwhelming favourites to win promotion, and yet the Londoners look likely to face the extra pressure of the play-offs, whereas the Midlands team changed manager in the autumn and look likely to finish mid-table. It’s just not as simple as bringing in big names. Good teams win games, not individuals. None of the “experimental” players are likely to care what happens to Doncaster Rovers, except maybe the blip on their CVs from their time at the club. Did the clubs’ fans enjoy seeing these top players pull on the red and white hoops? I doubt it. Would they not rather see players like Coppinger, a club stalwart since 2004, and judging by messages on Twitter, one player who gives his heart and soul into every game?
John Ryan has stated since the weekend that the experiment is over, that it would never work down in League One. I’m glad to see it didn’t work at Championship level either. And for the sake of football, we can only hope Donny recover from the whole sorry business.