English Football

A day at the promotion races: Doncaster and the Rovers

The goal that won promotion for Doncaster Rovers. Photo: PA

YOU CANNOT avoid politics and trains when you visit Doncaster. As soon as you arrive at the railway station, you come across a plaque that commemorates two local trade unionists, Mr Steels and Mr Holmes. It’s a town that has also been heavily influenced by the railways – both the Mallard and Flying Scotsman, trains that induce a flutter of excitement with those people that stand at the end of platforms collecting numbers (and there are a few of them at the station), were built at Doncaster.

Personal recollections of Doncaster range from bumping into racing commentator Brough Scott at the station and also something as trivial as recalling an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads being filmed there. As for politics, Doncaster and its surrounding area were badly impacted by the miners’ strike in the 1980s. The aftershock of that period is probably still being felt today as the local economy has moved from traditional, industrial revolution mode (the deep mines of Yorkshire were at the heart of this growth) to a town that provides low-wage and insecure employment, characterised by shopping centres that could really be anywhere in Britain. In 1980, there were 10 deep mines in and around the town, employing 17,000 people. Today there are none.

The changing face of Doncaster can be evidenced as soon as to leave the station. English is not necessarily the lingua franca of the young. I asked two people the way to Doncaster Rovers and they could not tell me – they were the sort of age that should really know the location of the local football team, but I had picked the wrong folk. “No good asking them,” said the next chap I asked, a mid-30s Doncaster shirt-wearing Dad with his little lad. “Most of them cannot even speak English. Get the Bus from the interchange, just a quid. Not from Mansfield, are you?”. Even in that brief, clipped conversation, it was clear there exists a degree of dissatisfaction about Doncaster’s lot – the town, in fact, voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union – to the tune of 69%.

Football has always been a distraction to the working man and in 2016-17, Doncaster Rovers or “Donny” to use their nickname, are doing their best to lift the most sagging of spirits. “We’re going up today,” was the parting shot of the man at the station, clenching his fist as he waved me Bon Voyage on the number 55 bus. It wasn’t the last time I was told that this was a day of destiny.

“Donny” were virtually there, top of Football League Two and poised for a quick return following relegation in 2016. The visit of Mansfield brought with it some tension – a local derby and the visitors known for having a challenging nature among their following. Plenty of police around in Doncaster and extra security measures were being taken by the stadium staff. “Bloody hell, I’ve been coming here 60 years (he meant club, not stadium) and I’ve never been locked out,” said one Yorkshire wag complaining that it was 1.45pm and the gates had still not opened. “What’s going on?…you usually try and keep us in the ground not stop us getting in,” he laughed.

The steward explained that because of the importance of the game and the opposition, a special briefing had been taking place. “They’re expecting a bit of bother. They’re worried that the fans will run across the pitch if we go up today.” Matey wasn’t having this. “Tell bloody [Gavin, CEO] Baldwin to get the ground open, we’re gasping for a beer.”

The Keepmoat is something of a “cookie-cutter” stadium, but in my opinion, much grander and more comfortable than the club’s old home at Belle Vue. Baldwin has commented in the press that he’s been disappointed with attendances this season, a view shared by a friendly local as I enjoyed a pre-match beer. “We should be getting more, but we never seem to get higher than around 6,000 if we’re doing well,” he said.

Actually, Doncaster’s crowds have been far worse in the club’s chequered history. In the 1980s, they were regularly touching 2,000 and in 1988, their average was below that level. They’re currently at the lowest level since moving to the Keepmoat, but promotion should take them up again.

“This team is very vulnerable,” said the Donny fan. “People will be looking at the current team and trying to take them away from us in the summer. Quite a few clubs are interested in Marquis, for example.”

John Marquis joined the club from Millwall in the close season of 2016 and had scored 26 goals before facing Mansfield. He’s on a two-year deal, but his success in 2016-17 has meant he’s been targeted by clubs like Norwich and Ipswich. From an economic perspective, Doncaster may be wise to sell him while his stock is high – Marquis is 24 and spent a lot of his time on Millwall going out on loan. He’s just been named League Two player of the year.

We looked over at a picture of Alick Jeffrey that formed part of the club’s history on the wall of the stand. He’s a club legend and they’ve not only named a street after him, “Alick Jeffrey Way” that fringes the stadium, but also a bar in the ground. Jeffrey was one of the most well-known players outside the top flight during his career. He almost signed for Manchester United in 1956 but broke his leg so badly he had to quit the game. If that had not happened, history may have been very different as he would surely have been part of the famous “Busby babes” side. Busby’s number two, Jimmy Murphy, called Jeffrey “the English Pele”, so he was obviously a genuine talent.

He returned to the game after a spell in non-league football and had a second stint at Doncaster where he is considered to be their best ever player. It is also sometimes forgotten that Kevin Keegan played for “Donny” before moving to Scunthorpe and then Liverpool.

It is the nature of football that people will often consider contemporary success as being the best of times. It was interesting to hear a veteran Doncaster fan proudly claim that “supporting Donny has never been better”, but then if you look at the honours list, this is not a club that is used to having garlands placed around its neck. It’s quite miraculous that they reached the Championship in 2008 and 2013, but to quote my pre-match pal, “Doncaster are really third and fourth tier, that’s our natural habitat.”

So promotion from the fourth tier is really so important. Gavin Baldwin got his wish in a better turnout, there were almost 10,000 in the ground by kick-off. A win for “Donny” would clinch promotion.

Manager Darren Ferguson was appointed in October 2015 and survived relegation. This season, his team have been very powerful at home, losing their unbeaten record on March 26 against fellow contenders Plymouth Argyle. They bounced back impressively with a 5-1 win at Grimsby Town.

Unsurprisingly, the mood was a little tense as the game started. Doncaster pressurised Mansfield, but their goalkeeper Jake Kean was in fine form, notably when he stopped Marquis’ header early on.  Mostly, though, Mansfield’s defence was solid and it was starting to look like an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” type of afternoon.

With 17 minutes to go, Kean was finally beaten when Doncaster substitute James Coppinger’s corner was headed home by Tommy Rowe. Mansfield had a late effort from Ben Whiteman that threatened to spoil the party, but Doncaster won 1-0 and yes, people did run on the pitch in celebration!

Darren Ferguson said that the main aim was to seal promotion in front of the home fans. “This is the perfect scenario,” he commented. I didn’t hang around. On occasions like this, you feel you are almost like an uninvited guest at a party. It also made getting away from the stadium that much easier. Next season, there may be more people in the way of a quick exit.

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