During the mid to late 1990s, while the Premier League reaped the almost ridiculously ostentatious rewards of the Sky TV boom, supporters of many smaller clubs found themselves having to mobilise against a rash of asset stripping new club owners. Each protest brought its own stark images, be they the collecting tins outside Bootham Crescent as York City were run into the ground by Douglas Craig, the desperate pitch invasion at The Goldstone Ground after David Bellotti and Bill Archer sold Brighton’s stadium to developers and pocketed the money, or the black card protests at Selhurst Park after Wimbledon announced their move to Milton Keynes. Perhaps the most vivid and poignant images of the era, however, came from Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue. As the club tumbled out of the Football League in 1998, Doncaster’s supporters marched a coffin from the town centre to the stadium and, as The Last Post played, they performed the last rites for a club that seemed to be at death’s door itself.
The key player in the collapse of Doncaster Rovers was businessman Ken Richardson. Richardson had previous – he had been at the centre of the “Flockton Grey” betting scandal of 1982, when an average racehorse running in a nondescript race at Leicester was swapped for what was, effectively, a “ringer”. Richardson and his trainer, Stephen Wiles, bet £20,000 on the fake horse, but he was charged with conspiracy to defraud after bookmakers became suspicious and was banned from ownership by The Jockey Club for twenty-five years and sentenced to a nine month suspended prison sentence. Having pitched up at Belle Vue (and it’s worth pointing out that, while there was no such thing as a “Fit & Proper” test for club owners at the time, Richardson would have passed the one currently used by the FA), the club suddenly lost their main stand to fire in 1995. This time it was an insurance company that became (perhaps unsurprisingly) suspicious and involved South Yorkshire police. By the time Doncaster fell out of the Football League, fifteen points adrift at the bottom of Division Three and with a goal difference of -83, Richardson was awaiting trial for conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to commit arson. Richardson, it transpired, had paid a former SAS man £10,000 to start the fire. Worryingly for the SAS, he hadn’t been difficult to track down, having left his mobile phone at the scene of the crime. Richardson was jailed for four years in 1999.
Rovers, penniless and facing almost certain closure, then finally got lucky. John Ryan, a local businessman said to be worth £20m, stepped in a bought the club for £50,000. He promised a new stadium and a return to the Football League, but first the club had to arrest its slide. Under former Rovers player Ian Snodin, they narrowly avoided relegation and stabilised to sixteenth place. The following season, they rose to mid-table, and continued their year-on-year improvement until, in 2003, they were promoted back into the League in the Conference’s first play-off final, after a 3-2 win against Dagenham & Redbridge at The Britannia Stadium. In their first season back in the Football League, they won the Third Division championship, and in December 2006 they left Belle Vue, as Ryan had promised eight years earlier, for a new stadium, the 15,000 capacity Keepmoat Stadium. After four years in League One, they were promoted last weekend when a goal early in the second half from James Hayter was enough to beat Leeds United at Wembley.
For all the continuing perceived injustice coming from Elland Road over the last few months (which culminated in a fairly unbecoming display of petulance from Leeds’ supporters before the play-off final last weekend), one gets the feeling that maybe they just haven’t quite suffered enough. The Football League bent over backwards to help Leeds United, creating an arbitrary points deduction that prevented them having to relegate them still further because of the way that the club handled its affairs last summer. The supporters, who should have been hurling their invective at the people that had got the club in that mess in the first place, missed this point spectacularly, choosing instead to swallow Bates’ frankly ludicrous story about them being forced “under duress” to sign an agreement to not take the matter to court. Leeds’ supporters chose to ignore the truth and throw their lot in with Ken Bates instead. The independent arbitrators brought in by the Football League, however, saw through the smokescreen, and Leeds ended up hoisted by their own petard of hubris and self-inflicted victimhood, and their defeat at Wembley was a morally uplifting way for last season to end. Leeds United, as I have mentioned here before, benefited considerably from the way in which they exited administration, spending heavily on players (by League One standards), and will start next season as the favourites to get promotion back into the Championship. Doncaster Rovers, by contrast, have earned their season in the sun in the hardest way possible and deserve our congratulations.