Currently languishing second from bottom in the Championship, and five points from safety, Doncaster Rovers’ four season stay in the second tier of English football looks to be coming to a close.
The last decade has signalled almost constant expansion and improvement for the South Yorkshire club, who, backed by Chairman John Ryan, have risen three divisions and now occupy a 15,000 all-seater stadium which is a far cry from their previous Belle Vue home. However, having abandoned the philosophy that underpinned this remarkable ascent, when sacking manager Sean O’Driscoll after a poor start to the present campaign, Rovers’ dramatic change in direction has yielded little reward on the pitch or respect off it.
Formerly heralded as a model of the respectable family club making the most of limited resources, the replacement of the popular and innovative O’Driscoll with the more pragmatic Dean Saunders also coincided with the arrival of controversial agent Willie McKay, who is the orchestrator behind their present superstars transfer policy. The arrangement has witnessed the arrival of numerous out of favour Premier League players on heavily subsidised loans, with the intention of taking a sizeable cut from any eventual sell-on fee. In essence, Rovers have been acting as a convenient shop window for bigger clubs to display their disillusioned wares in the hope of financial gain for all parties involved in the deal.
So far this has seen such familiar faces as Chris Kirkland, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, Habib Beye and Hérita Ilunga, amongst others, arrive on loan, while the previously unattached El Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda and Lamine Diatta have also pitched up at the Keepmoat on short-term contracts. This array of ageing internationals undoubtedly have self interest at heart, using this ailing second tier side as a stepping stone on the way back to bigger things. When the plan was initially announced supporters were concerned that this revolving door policy would compromise the very continuity which had been so key to their club’s success. Such fears seem well-founded as a number of loanees have already returned to their parent clubs after failing to inspire an upturn in Donny’s fortunes.
McKay’s misguided belief that this could be a model for clubs of Doncaster’s size and limited fan base to survive in the Championship significantly overlooks the last three years in which they have punched well above their weight, even securing a top-half finish in the 2009/10 season. The club has long taken into account its inherent disadvantage in the transfer market, but has prospered nevertheless by recruiting players ready to slot into a pre-ordained system of passing football. All the while the necessity of selling has never impeded their progress, with substantial profits being made on a conveyor belt of talent including the likes of current Leicester duo Richie Wellens and Matt Mills.
O’Driscoll, following on from the groundwork laid by Dave Penney, always built with an overarching ideal in mind and created a team which was greater than the sum of its parts. This is in marked contrast to the current alliance of Saunders and McKay, who have overseen an influx of talented yet often temperamental players. A club once without ego, and who used the loan market for its primary purpose, to test out young players like Jordon Mutch and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, has since become a bizarre experiment in discontinuity and the first port of call for McKay’s stable of clients and contacts.
The astonishing long-term transformation the club has undergone during Ryan’s tenure is at risk of being irreparably damaged by a series of short-sighted decisions. Just a day before dismissing O’Driscoll, Ryan even cited fellow Yorkshire side Sheffield United, and the three managers they used in last year’s relegation to League One, as an example of the potential perils arising from unnecessary upheaval. Yet having failed to heed his own highly prescient advice, Doncaster are now facing not just the prospect of relegation, but of losing their hard-won reputation for forward thinking and good football.