Death of a club: Doncaster Rovers 1997-98

Doncaster Rovers FC's Belle Vue ground, which was set fire to on 29/6/95. Ken Richardson, 61, the main shareholder of the club at the time, was convicted at Sheffield Crown Court of hiring Alan Kristiansen, an ex-SAS soldier, to commit arson for 10,000 pounds.

‘As Danny said, We’re not dead, we’re still alive. But in football terms, you know, we are dead really.’
Lee Warren, April 1998

There have been many things said about Doncaster Rovers’ worst ever season. Insightful things; erudite things even, but even a thousand Shakespeare’s hammering away eternally on a thousand typewriters couldn’t have nailed better than Lee Warren. This was our captain, interviewed on the way to a must-win away game, trying so hard to say captainly things, but ultimately unable to suspend belief long enough to see out a sentence.

Nothing better encapsulates the futility of it all. We were never quite dead – somehow never quite done for – but at the same time we always were. As fans we were resilient yet realistic; a characteristic inevitably drawn from fifteen years of watching our industries, and in turn our communities, pulled apart and left to rot by those in power. Oh aye, we’d learned to fight, but we’d also learned that doing so ultimately made no sodding difference whatsoever. We kicked up a fuss and no-one listened, and so our football club became the latest facet of our lives to fade away in front of us.

Even twenty years on it’s hard to believe the multi-level madness of it all. Of course it was a different time, but it shouldn’t have been that different. Football had already come home; the Premier League was thriving, Sky had cemented it’s Super Sundays and its Monday Night Football, Arsene Wenger was on English consciousnesses; Gareth Barry was a top flight footballer. And yet just three divisions down existed a club living out a season so extreme it would’ve been rejected by the script writers of a latin soap opera for being too dramatic; simply too implausible.

Forty-five different players pulled on a Rovers shirt that season, and save for the odd exception – think Adie Mike, Lee Warren, Mike Smith, Jim Dobbin – they simply weren’t good enough. They were young kids thrown in at the deep end without arm-bands, or non-league journeymen making up the numbers like a mate of a mate for your local Sunday side. They would’ve known that they’d never get a chance to play professional football in other circumstances; you can hardly fault them for grabbing it. Anyone of us would’ve done.

Five different men tried their hand at managing this ragtag bunch of children, chancers and charlatans. Kerry Dixon was clearly already looking for the exit and who could blame him? Colin Richardson came and went so swiftly he hasn’t even mustered a wikipedia entry. Dave Cowling tried to show willing out of a sense of duty to his youth team graduates, but this was clearly not the place nor the time for a man of principles. Which left Danny Bergara and Mark Weaver; less a double-act, more the contrasting characters of a flat-share sit-com.

Bergara didn’t deserve to go out of football in this fashion. A pioneering internationalist who’d achieved much in the game, he was hung out to dry by Weaver and Ken Richardson, but also by those who documented the season on film too. He’d been one of La Liga’s most prolific forwards in his heyday, and here he was, trying to corale hopeless players at a dying club, whilst being caricatured as Fawlty Towers’ Manuel.

Weaver of course is a different matter. As Liam Clayton states elsewhere in this issue, it took balls the size of beach balls, to front up to the abuse he took that season, but perplexingly he seemed to revel in it. What he owed to Richardson, or what Richardson had over him, we can only speculate – but there must’ve been something. Why else would you put yourself through it?

All of these men, in one way or another, were simply fronts for Ken Richardson. It was his interference in team affairs that saw Dixon and Cowling walk; and despite having last set foot in Belle Vue in October, he continued to pick the team and fax through team-talks to Weaver right to the very last game. Such was the player turnover that by Christmas he would have been picking players and calling tactics for eleven individuals he’d never met. We were a real life play-by-mail football club.

Long before the season’s end we’d been reduced to a team who kicked a ball about in the local park in lieu of actual training, and had just seven professional players. And yet still no-one at the Football Association, did anything. Graham Kelly made a token visit. He never came back. Why would he? Football was moving on; we were a millstone not a crisis. Just another bit of another northern community standing in the way of progress.

So it fell to the fans to make a fuss and a noise; to keep hammering away on the walls in the hope that one day someone might open the door, because what else could we do? There were on pitch protests, funeral marches to the ground; supporters climbed into the dugout at away games and hung effigies of the chairman on car-park gates. We chained ourselves to goal-posts and sat on centre-spots; one supporter got his hands on Graham Kelly’s fax number and every day went to his university Library and faxed reems of blank paper to Lancaster Gate. For a month. All those leading the protests got in return was anonymous phone-calls in the dead of night, slashed tyres and paint thrown over their cars. Who would do such a thing? We couldn’t say, but when you’re on trial for conspiracy to burn down your ground, threatening your supporters doesn’t require too much of an imagination jump.

I often wonder what we’d have done if Ian McMahon and Westferry hadn’t stepped in to wrestle control of Rovers in the summer of 1998. There were some incredibly committed supporters then, as there are now, but it’s hard to imagine we’d have found the collective resolve to form a phoenix club. There’s only so much silence you can get in return for your endeavours. That really could, and probably would, have been it.

When a club folds or fades, only the fans mourn. The game is always there. Players and professionals move on; there are other clubs, other jobs – when one turnstile closes another one opens. Thankfully, for us too, 1997-98 exists as an anecdote rather than a denouement. In football terms, as in life, we’re not dead; though we certainly came closer than most.

by Glen Wilson

This article first appeared in issue 93 of popular STAND fanzine, the 20 year birthday edition of the fanzine, which was founded in the April of this 1997-98 season.

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