“I can cope with being in the National League, relegation is part of being a football fan, but what I want is a sustainable club with decent morals and values and not one which is part of one man’s ego.”
Before you panic, thinking I’m advocating that true happiness awaits us if only we can find a way to steer ourselves to another relegation, a Southend United fan wrote that. It was posted on a football forum I frequent, in response to the seemingly never-ending mess he and his fellow fans have endured under Ron Martin’s ownership of their club. So often have Southend faced winding up orders under Martin’s reign, their fanzine All At Sea, previewed their latest High Court date as ‘HMRC (A) on Wednesday. The old rivalry renewed’.
It’s not hard to see why that statement caught my eye. What a Southend fan is desperate for, we currently have, and in a division above to boot. And that isn’t to say that what we have is perfect, nor that none of us should strive for more, just that it’s always worth us stepping back from the emotion and taking stock of where Doncaster Rovers are, at a base level, especially as fans of a club that has come closer than most to ceasing to be.
Whatever your thoughts on how Doncaster Rovers is being run right now, as a club it is broadly in a decent position. The club isn’t reliant on one sole big money investor anymore, nor is it an extension of one man’s ego. And as detailed in Chief Executive Gavin Baldwin’s New Year’s statement, the Club Doncaster approach has put Rovers in a position where they’re effectively sustainable. And the club can boast decent morals and values, which are reflected in the excellent community work it does, and has rightly been commended for.
So, should we be thankful that as a club we’re in this position and not that of Southend or Scunthorpe? Yes, certainly. But as I’ve written before in popular STAND, just not being asset-stripped, nor having some ‘SAS man, but from Wish’ set light to your Main Stand are very low benchmarks to measure yourself against. We absolutely should want more than that. But how much more?
Ambition. Everyone wants to see more of that. But it’s a broad term. The ‘ambition’ Kyle Knoyle criticised the club for not showing will be different (and I suspect more personal wage-based) than that which fans want to see. And even among supporters, perceptions of ‘showing ambition’ differ. Some want to see money spent, others want to see statements of intent (although given the response to any announcement the club do make is largely ‘typical PR bollocks’, or ‘bullshit’, it’s hard to know what exactly folk are expecting such a statement to contain that’ll satisfy their craving). For Terry Bramall ambition has been to see Rovers become self-sustainable on a budget that’s competitive for tiers three and four. It’s not that the board aren’t showing ambition, it’s that their ambition is different to that of the fans.
For some this is unacceptable. Leading to growing momentum behind calls to ‘Sack the board’. It’s an extreme demand, one that inevitably prompts the very reasonable question of ‘then what?’. A more reasoned take of discontent is that the owners should put the club up for sale. Still, there’s no guarantee anyone would want it, and even if they did, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t treat it as little more than an ego-extension, or an experiment. For every Wrexham, there’s a Crawley Town. Still, it would satisfy the argument that if they’re not willing to invest beyond current levels, the owners should be open to someone else stepping in.
Back at the more extreme ‘Sack the board’ level, an online fund for ‘protest equipment’ appeared in January, because apparently a big bed sheet and a can of paint doesn’t cut it any more. ‘Us fans have spent thousands upon thousands following the team and we shouldn’t stop,’ read the blurb on the page, ‘instead we should protest and make a stand against these cowboys that are controlling our club’. I’ll defend the right of any supporter to voice their point of view; it’s why this fanzine was set-up. But ‘cowboys’? Really? Could the current board be doing things better? God, yes. Does that make them cowboys? No, absolutely not. We’ve seen cowboys; these aren’t even line-dancers.
I wrote a few months back that I don’t think I’m angry enough to be a football fan in the 2020s, and it’s this kind of rhetoric that enforces that feeling. The way arguments for and against the current set-up at Rovers are being posed is really unhealthy; from personal abuse of people, just because they happen to be running a football club in a way different to that which you might like, to broad belittling and dismissal of anyone who thinks things aren’t rosy right now as just being out to cause trouble.
And it’s this toxic atmosphere in the stands and online, much more than the terrible football, that’s keeping me from rushing to attend matches at a time when I can rarely afford to do so. I just can’t understand why everything has to be so diametrically opposed to a point where you’re either explicitly ‘board out’ and colouring things yellow and black for reasons that still aren’t abundantly clear (yes, I know ‘Netto’, but also why Netto?) or you’re a happy clapper, you’re a sheep, you’re a brown-noser. Because the reality, surely, is that most of us are positioned some way between these spectral ends.
My position? Probably somewhere nearer the middle. I respect the aims and objectives of the current board to get the club into as sustainable a position as possible. I also respect the decision not to chuck money at the playing side. Because yes, you could always spend more money on players and wages, but would that definitely solve the on-field issues? Who knows? There are plenty of teams competing in the division above who’ll have a budget on a par with Rovers’. And I’m constantly lifted by seeing the work the club is doing in Doncaster for the wider community, I really am.
But, as good as the community work is, it’s of little comfort that some kids from a hospice got to take penalties at Donny Dog when your visit to a home match is devoid of the absolute basics. When you can’t get a drink without a 15 minute wait and all the customer service of a drive-by drugs drop. When the standard of what awaits you at the front of that queue isn’t worth half of what you paid. When you can’t use the disabled toilet because no-one knows where the key is. When the toilets you can use have blocked sinks. When there’s no scoreboard to look at. When you can’t hear the tannoy. When the stadium seats are covered in dust or pigeon shit.
We’re the sort of club that will always fluctuate on the pitch; we’ll have bad seasons and good ones. I hate watching us struggle to move the ball in the fourth tier, but we are where we are because we were awful last season, and now we’re trying to restructure and reshape. I can take that. I’m not enjoying it, but I can take it. But it’s the other stuff that gets me; the letting the club get to the point where it looks like no-one really gives a shit; that’s the stick to beat this current board and set up with. That and the fact that every time you take up that stick, the messaging from the club is defensive and full of avoidance. Yes, the community stuff is great, but it’s no good securing the support of tomorrow if you’re not making an effort to keep hold of the support of today. I agree with making a club self-sustainable, but not at the expense of no longer making its supporters feel like they’re valued.
So no, I don’t think we should ‘sack the board’. I don’t think they should ‘get out of our club’. Because I do genuinely believe that they want the best for it, and they’re trying to secure the club’s long term future. And I can only be welcoming and supportive of that ethos, not least because too few club owners consider it.
But the long-term future becomes irrelevant if you can’t keep supporters onside in the short-term. I’m happy for the current board to stay, but they sure as hell need to bring in someone new to work with them. They desperately need fresh impetus and fresh enthusiasm; someone to inject excitement into the club. It’s not coming from the pitch, so it needs to come from the top. Balance the commendable aims of self-sustainability by showing us that we matter, and our experiences matter; do that and we’re on to a good thing. Then we’ll be the envy of supporters of a great number of lower league clubs, not just those on their way to their latest fixture with HMRC.
by Glen Wilson
This is the editorial of issue 111 of popular STAND fanzine, which was printed and sent to subscribers in mid-February 2023. If you’re not a subscriber, copies of issue 111 (and previous editions of popular STAND fanzine) are available to buy via our back issues page.