A timely delve into our archive, finds this piece from issue 82 of the fanzine when, as Rovers hurtled towards relegation off the back of a 17 game winless run, John Coyle took a look at seasons in which the club has faltered after Christmas.
I have probably told you this before, but my first game as a rovers fan was on Saturday 8 November 1969, when I watched us beat Bristol Rovers 3-1 at Belle Vue. Rovers were flying high, at least by their standards of the preceding decade. They had won the Fourth Division the previous season and started the campaign well, climbing to second place at one point.
That victory I witnessed, along with 10,000 other fans, kept Rovers handily placed at seventh in the Third Division. On my next visit, on Boxing Day, an even bigger crowd saw rovers concede a last minute goal to local rivals Rotherham United. Little did I know, that was to be the start of a run that saw Rovers win one of the next sixteen games and hurtle towards the relegation zone.
The post-Christmas slump is hardly a new phenomenon, and though this year’s (2015-16) takes some beating, I have chosen five examples from Rovers long, and not always illustrious, history.
1935-36 Division Two
Rovers had enjoyed their first Football League promotion in 1934-35, winning the Third Division North title, and had carried that momentum into the Second Division. On Christmas Day they stood second behind Leicester City, and successive promotions looked a real possibility.
Boxing Day saw a 0-0 home draw with Nottingham Forest, but more crucially also saw half-backs Joe Hall and Fred Emery suffer injuries. Emery soon returned, but Hall played only a handful of games before the end of the season. Rovers lost their next seven games, had a brief revival in early February, but then failed to win any of their last 12 matches of the season.
Matters were not helped by manager David Menzies’ decision to leave and take a similar position at Hull City, leading to Emery becoming Rovers first ever player-manager. In the end, the points accumulated before Christmas ensured Rovers finished 18th, but they were relegated the following season.
1953-54 Division Two
A tremendous start to the campaign gave Rovers fans genuine hope that their team might achieve First Division status for the first time in their history. Six wins from the first seven games saw them lead the Second Division table early on, and a win over Lincoln City on the Saturday before Christmas ensured they were in second going into the festive fixtures, again behind only Leicester City.
However, back-to-back defeats to Blackburn Rovers (on Christmas Day and Boxing Day respectively started a run that saw Doncaster win only two of their remaining 19 games. Though the side were certainly hindered by injuries to Len Graham and Jackie Teesdale it is difficult to account for this slump which meant Rovers ended the season in 12th place, with a great opportunity lost.
1966-67 Division Three
It’s often tempting to look back at this particular season and think Rovers never really had a chance of retaining their hard-won third tier place. After winning the Fourth Division in 1965-66 they had suffered tragedy when captain and defensive lynch-pin John Nicholson was killed in a car crash that also left talismanic striker Alick Jeffrey badly hurt. To confound matters, the club’s board, under chairman Hubert Bates, then sold top scorer Laurie Sheffield to Norwich City, much to the disgust of supporters.
Yet despite all this, Rovers’ position was far from hopeless when the veteran Jackie Bestall handed over the reigns to the newly appointed player-boss Keith Kettleborough in December 1966. Kettleborough won his first two games, against Peterborough United and Grimsby Town, and going into the Christmas programme Rovers were 12th.
A 4-1 defeat in the return game at Grimsby however was a harbinger of things to come, as Rovers in only three of their remaining 24 games in a run that saw them fail to pick up a single point away from home and ship 64 goals to finish with a club record 117 goals against tally. The side eventually finished 23rd, above only Workington, and Kettleborough was relieved of his managerial duties.
1988-89 Division Four
Experienced manager Dave Mackay had been unable to keep Rovers in the Third Division in 1987-88, but hopes were high of a return, or at least a much improved season. Although Mackay’s side were inconsistent they went into the Christmas period in 8th place, within touching distance of the play-offs. The festive period as a mixed bag, a draw, a defeat and a win, but thereafter the slump set in.
Out of their remaining 24 games Rovers won only four, including two runs of seven games without a win. A rare victory over Darlington in early March ultimately proved crucial, as at the end of the season only The Quakers stood between Rovers and relegation to the Vauxhall Conference.
The second half of the season was played out to a background of disharmony in dressing room and board room, matters coming to a head when Mackay resigned in March. His assistant Joe Kinnear took over, but only achieved one win in 12 games. A boardroom coup saw Kinnear give way to a returning Billy Bremner in the summer.
The one most will remember. The first half of this season promised to be the best since Sean O’Driscoll took Rovers back into the second tier after a 50-year absence. Rovers were third at one point, seventh in November, and after a last-gasp win over Middlesbrough in mid-December, ninth, and very much in touch of the play-offs.
But after a 3-0 win over Scunthorpe United on New Year’s Day, Rovers won just two games out of 24, including a wretched run of seven losses in eight games. They didn’t win at all in the season’s last 12 games, but a combination of points gained earlier in the season and the poor form of those below them in the table meant Rovers finished 21st, five points above the drop zone.
A combination of injuries and the loss of form of key players seemed to be at the root of the slump, and some of those brought in to provide cover for injuries proved not up to the job. The injuries and poor form continued into the following season, and with the run without a league win at 19 games, O’Driscoll lost his job.
Though I chose these five seasons in particular, I could’ve included 1957-58, 1961-62, 1986-87 or even 1999-2000; all of which featured a second half of the season that was notably worse than the first. Whatever the outcome of the 2015-16 season, and I write this with two games of the campaign remaining, this season can certainly be added to the Roll of Dishonour.
On the other side of the coin, there have been seasons where the second part has very much redeemed the first; 1968-69, 1974-75, 1991-92, 1998-99 and especially 2008-09 all spring to mind. Maybe there is a feature to be written on those seasons when far from coming down with the Christmas decorations, Rovers took on fresh impetus after the festive season.
As for 1969-70, which was where we came in, there was a happy ending. Rovers won five of their last ten games and ended the season in a respectable 11th, although they were relegated the following season. We live in hope of a similar revival this time, although we can at least say that a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the second half of the season is far from a new experience for the long-suffering Rovers fan.
by John Coyle
This article first appeared in print in issue 82 of popular STAND fanzine.