There’s a great photo of Liam Mandeville’s free-kick against Grimsby, taken just as the ball strikes the inside of the post. Goalkeeper already flailing, the South Stand is a blanket of expectant faces; rows of mouths all caught in the early stages of guttural roars or yells of acknowledgement of the ball’s inevitable nestling in the back of the net. All that is, except one.
Just above the crossbar sits the ghost of Doncaster Rovers past – a sullen portent of doom in a nylon sports hood. Chin resolutely burrowed into the palm of his hand as he settles in to watch this shower all over again. So what if this free-kick goes in, it’s far too bloody early to score – we’re only inviting them on. Once you’ve seen him staring bleakly back out at you there’s no avoiding him, your eyes will return of their own accord. Like noticing spinach wedged between a colleague’s teeth, no matter how much you try to steal your gaze away elsewhere, you just get drawn right back to it.
Why? I think it’s because ultimately we know that we’ve all been that guy. Some of us have spent most of our lives treating the support of our team as sentence good behaviour won’t shorten. The overriding emotion of a lower league football fan is a branch of melancholy that sits somewhere between despondence and resentment. A nagging sense of suspicion that any good spell, any cause for something approaching joy, is merely a pleasant interlude in the generally tawdry awfulness; the eye of the tornado, the commercial break in anything Piers Morgan hosts.
In expecting the utter worst, that guy in the South Stand is only shrugging where thousands of Rovers fans have shrugged before. He is merely a modern day adaptation of the man we adopted as the fanzine’s mascot. The sketched figure of Bernard Glover (as we subsequently discovered his name to be) is lifted from a Stuart Roy Clarke photograph, taken at Belle Vue circa 1990. As the players come jogging out the Main Stand tunnel, all around our man the other spectators are clapping and cheering, a blur of enthusiasm. Yet Bernard stands firm, leaning on the wall, eyes fixed dead ahead, a look that says ‘here we bloody go again’. As one of our contributors remarked when we first put our incarnation of Bernard on the cover; ‘you can’t look at that face and fail to see and feel Belle Vue’.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this trait is unique to Doncaster. A gruff northern stoicism, engrained into men by nature, so as, in much the same way a baby leatherback turtle knows automatically the moment it hatches it must head to the sea, before we even know we’re doing it we’ll instinctively react to any joviality with a curtailing shrug and a grumble of ‘well, it won’t last’. But it isn’t, and I’ve video proof. And though I realise that counts for bugger all in a print publication, please, come with me.
Boxing Day. Home Park. Plymouth. 89th minute. Edited highlights. Argyle are 3-2 to up against Wycombe Wanders and just about hanging on for a win. Wanderers launch one last attack, the ball is laid off for Myles Weston and he curls a glorious equaliser into the top corner. There are cheers away off to the right of the camera from the away end, but above them one lone, clearly audible, West Country voice. ‘Told you’.
A one-off? No. Haifa. Israel. High up in the Sammy Ofer Stadium. Wales lead 3-0, Israel are down to ten men, there are just seven minutes to go, when a hand taps me on the shoulder and man who I’ve never met before leans forward and says ‘I’d take a point now’.
Because we can’t help ourselves. We can’t help but fear the worst. Even though we’ve all seen countless games where our team has seen out that slender lead, where we’ve added to it even, such occasions of effectiveness are merely perversions of the heart, romantic idylls of what football can be, and that’s not where our minds take us. Instead our heads are wedged in the railings of fate… railings we knew all along we wouldn’t fit through. Even when things are going brilliantly, every time Rovers amass a sizable lead all I hear in my head is one word; ‘Telford’. Four nil up, came home with a point. The best part of fifteen years ago and I still can’t let it go.
But if there’s a time to do so it’s now. Watching Rovers is fun again. We’re no longer trying to be the Archbishop of Banterbury on social media. We’re top of the league. We’ve a good team, we’ve got youth team graduates and non-league finds and James Coppinger is still doing it. And you know what, fuck Telford. Fuck their lummocking great centre-half who suddenly went all Hugo Sanchez on us in the 91st minute to scissor-kick in the equaliser. Fuck the fact they only had ten men. Fuck the fact that I’d forgotten that bit until I just looked it up causing unnecessary further pain. Fuck all eight goals being down the other end of the sodding pitch. It’s time to treat winning as a joy again, rather than just as a temporary state that precedes the inevitable equaliser. Let us push on, let’s be happy, and let’s embrace a new era of enthusiasm…
…just so long as we can all agree to forget about this article if we lose this afternoon, yeah? You see, I’ve just got this feeling.
by Glen Wilson
This article was first printed in issue 86 of popular STAND fanzine, which was published in January 2017. popular STAND prints six issues per season, and subscriptions are available anywhere in the world.