It had been a long time coming and there will be those who believe that there was an air of inevitability about it, but when the relegation of Doncaster Rovers from the Championship last weekend, it came with a degree of controversy that only the end of the domestic football season can bring. The battle for Doncaster last weekend was already an uphill one – rooted to the bottom of the table, they needed to win all of their remaining matches in order to secure a fifth season of football in England’s second division, but a questionable red card and two goals in stoppage time meant that Portsmouth (who went into the match in an identical situation to them) managed to keep their season alive for another week while the home side fell through the trapdoor.
Whilst Doncaster supporters were perhaps right to question the refereeing decisions that eventually sealed the clubs fate, though, there had been an air of inevitability hanging over this relegation for much of the season, and its final confirmation may also be a cloud with one silver lining – the end one of this season’s more questionable experiments in team management. The arrival of the agent Willie McKay at The Keepmoat Stadium as autumn turned to winter last year was, depending on your opinion, either an act of desperation from a club that already knew that its cards were marked or a bold experiment that would bring Premier League quality players to a club that otherwise would not be able to afford such luxuries. McKay’s plan was simple – to bring players into the club on short-term deals with an eye to rehabilitating careers that had otherwise gone off course and then selling them on for a profit. The players would be of a high enough quality to save the club from relegation and everybody would be happy… wouldn’t they?
Things turned out considerably more complicated than that, of course. Some of the club’s support was immediately alienated by this development, whilst even those that were prepared to give it a chance were well within their rights to feel a little queasy at the idea if their club being used as a shop window for a profiteering agent. Had the experiment come off and the club managed to drag itself up the table, there is a reasonable chance that supporter angst over it all might have dissipated – after all, there is nothing quite like success on the pitch to send the moral compass of any football supporter haywire – but this did not follow. Doncaster Rovers have ended the season with thirty-three registered players and having used no less than forty this season. It has been reported that fourteen or fifteen of these players are now out of contract and are likely to be released at the end of the season. Such numbers do not tally with the normal profile of a successful club – if anything, they betray typical numbers for a club that is trying and failing to find the right mix of players.
As is also customary in these situations, Doncaster also had a managerial change to contend with this season. Dean Saunders had drawn attention to himself in getting Wrexham into the Blue Square Premier play-offs at the end of last arson in spite of frequently chaotic goings on behind the scenes at The Racecourse Ground at the time. Given that he is represented by McKay, it was no great surprise to see him turn up at The Keepmoat Stadium to replace the previous incumbent Sean O’Driscoll, but his time at the club has been less than happy. Having signed a three year contract with the club just six months ago, it seems unlikely that he will be forced out of the club soon, but Saunders will be under pressure for a strong start to next season. One of the few consolations of relegation for supporters of clubs that suffer this date is the prospect of a better season the next time around. Saunders will be expected to deliver on this.
It is worth remembering at this time, however, that Doncaster Rovers is a football club whose very continuing existence is something that was far from certain for several years. The club was relegated out of the Football League in 1998, and just weeks after this chairman Ken Richardson was found guilty of paying three people to set fire to the main stand at the club’s original home, Belle Vue, with a view to an insurance pay-out. The club struggled in its first season as a non-league club, but things sooned picked up and the club returned to the Football League via the play-offs in 2003 and since then two further promotions, a Johnstones Paint Trophy and a new stadium have followed. Much of this is thanks to John Ryan, who remains in control of the club to this day, and his role in its rebirth means that he can be forgiven the McKay experiment.
Put in a little historical perspective, then, there is nothing disastrous about Doncaster Rovers’ relegation from the Championship this season. The club has certainly been through considerably rougher times than this in the not so distant past and come through them and, although the stong of relegation is always hard to take when it comes, supporters of the club should be enormously proud of what they have achieved since they regained their poise at the start of the last decade, and should remain confident that next season should see the club shake off the losing habit in which it has found itself this season. There will be costs – relegation from the Championship to League One will cost the club money – but the management that got the club from the Blue Square Bet Premier to the Championship in just five years should be plenty capable of dealing with these. This season has been a small blip for Doncaster Rovers, but the near-miracle of the club’s change in fortunes over the last decade means that relegation from the Championship will likely come to be seen as a mere drop in the ocean.
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