In Matt’s old house there was a framed picture up on the wall. It was a photo of him, sat on a patch of grass with legs crossed and head bowed beneath his baseball cap. I knew the date and time at which the picture had been taken as well as he did; Saturday 4 April, 1998, just after ten past three in the afternoon. I knew that because at that very time Doncaster Rovers were taking on Hull City at their old Belle Vue ground, and because the patch of grass on which Matt was sitting in the photo was the centre spot.
This was but one single snapshot from the many standout images of Doncaster Rovers’ 1997-98 season. That April afternoon, if Rovers failed to win, the spectre of relegation from the Football League which had loomed large on the horizon all season like a heavy summer sunset, would become reality. So, with the nation’s press in attendance, and knowing that at last our plight might reach a wider audience, Rovers supporters – led by Matt’s solo stroll to the centre-spot – took to the field in one last desperate bid to make the football authorities, and other football fans, take note of just how our hometown club had been purposefully run into the ground. As other fans streamed from the Popular Stand to join Matt, and police and stewards were distracted by the gathering crowd in the centre-circle, another Rovers supporter – and former lead singer of Manic Street Preachers’ favourites Big Flame – Alan, set about chaining himself to the Town End goalposts.
What perhaps sums up the abject absurdity of this season more than anything is the fact that back then, none of that previous paragraph seemed at all remarkable or unusual. So Alan is going to chain himself to the goalposts whilst Matt walks out and sits on the centre spot? Fair enough, meet you on the Pop Side about half two then yeah? Same as usual.
Despite the self-righteous hype and the feted glory that is used to sell modern football, the true nature of the game itself means that every team should one day endure failure. Teams will always have bad seasons. Rovers have certainly had their fair share; indeed I write these words in the summer wake of another particularly insipid relegation. However, no Football League club has ever endured as terrible, as hopeless, as turgid and as torrid a time as Doncaster’s annus horribilis of 1997-98, and given the game’s current omnipresence it’s hard to imagine any club will ever do so again.
League tables don’t lie after all. Played 46, won 4, drawn 8, lost 34, scored 30, conceded 117, with another 14 goals shipped in the club’s four cup games; all of which were lost. Officially the worst the league has seen. Ever. In black and white a disaster of a season, but the numbers tell only a fraction of the story. This was a failure of cataclysmic proportions; a season so absurd, so devoid of hope that with a month of it still to go we had reached such a nadir that chaining a man to a goalpost appeared the least extreme, and most viable option remaining to save the club we supported. This was the epitome of hopelessness. This, we presumed, was the end.
This is the story of the very worst that English League football ever was, and probably ever will be. But before ploughing on into the mire of the late 1990s South Yorkshire it’s important you first familiarise yourselves with the key cast members.
Ken Richardson, seller of sacks, switcher of horses and future arsonist. Uncle Ken’s skulduggery had already seen him cause sporting headlines. In 1982 Richardson’s horse Flockton Grey had romped home twenty lengths clear on its debut in a race at Leicester, despite odds of 10-1. It was a win that belied belief, and with good reason; the two-year old Flockton Grey would actually transpire to be a three-year old called Good Hand. The bookies refused to pay out, the Jockey Club showed Richardson their tiny door, and so, banned from horse-racing, he’d turned his crooked hand football. Prior to pitching up at Doncaster Rovers he’d taken non-league Bridlington Town on two adventures; firstly to Wembley in the FA Vase, and then to the wall in a huff.
In 1993, not long after becoming majority shareholder at Doncaster, Richardson tried to sell the land on which Rovers’ Belle Vue ground stood, placing and advertisement for it in the Telegraph; a particularly brazen move, given that it wasn’t even the club’s to sell. And, at the point at which you join our story, Richardson was also facing charges of conspiracy to commit arson. One summer night in 1995 the fire brigade were called to put out a blaze in Belle Vue’s Main Stand. At the scene they found a mobile phone, the same phone from which a message had been left on Richardson’s answering machine stating ‘Job’s done’. As it turned out it wasn’t, but in January 1999 Richardson would be; finally sentenced to three years in prison following a prosecution and trial that had dragged on since his arrest in 1996 during a midweek Rovers match. For now though, he remained in position at Rovers – albeit unofficially. Richardson had gradually dished out all manner of club roles to family and associates; his daughter and niece were directors, with the former also company secretary. Ken Haran, who’d given evidence in Ken’s Flockton Grey trial, invariably held the title of chairman, but it was clearly an empty role; though never written in record, Richardson was playing puppet-master to more inhuman characters than Jim Henson. He took to using the term ‘benefactor’ for his role. Safe to say the fans found other things to call him, and with much fewer letters.
Mark Weaver. The puppet on the end of Richardson’s strings; the smug defiant face of the regime. Weaver looked like the man they’d get to play Quentin Tarantino in a Crimewatch reconstruction, and seemed to wear a suit as comfortably and as effortlessly as you or I would wear bee-keeping equipment. Weaver had an interesting football CV, just a year or so previously he’d been a club-lottery salesman at Stockport… and, well, and that was it. He often claimed to reporters that if it were up to him he would walk away from the club. But it was up to him. And he didn’t. Instead he stayed, relayed messages and even team-talks from the increasingly absent Richardson, and over the course of this one season managed the unique trajectory from shop manager to general manager to team manager to player-manager.
Characters established, onto the opening scene. August. Kerry Dixon stands centre-stage. Dixon had been in charge at Doncaster a year. His arrival at Belle Vue, initially as player-manager, had been a surprise for many, particularly his predecessor Sammy Chung who had first learned of Dixon’s appointment just 90 minutes before the opening game of the previous season. Chung discovered Dixon had replaced him not by phone nor by fax, but by opening the door to what he presumed to be his office to find the former Chelsea forward sitting at what, until that precise moment, had been Chung’s desk. Dixon would preside over just three games this campaign – an opening day defeat at Shrewsbury, an 8-0 League Cup pummelling from Nottingham Forest, and a 5-0 home loss to Peterborough – before moving on, unhappy that his team selection was being ‘influenced’ by the chairman, in much the same way that Kim Jong-Un might ‘influence’ the North Korean media’s political reporting.
Most clubs would act defiantly to rubbish such claims of interference. Uncle Ken took a different approach, and not only did he pick the team for the next game, he plonked himself on the bench too, taking a seat between substitutes and archetypal hired goons. Unsurprisingly Rovers lost. They lost the next game at home to Exeter as well, a result which dropped the club to the foot of the table and the position in which they would remain for the next eight months; a vertical stripe of 24s beneath the word ‘position’ on the match programme’s ‘Stats’ page. On the progress charts we’d already flat-lined and the kids weren’t even back at school.
September saw the introduction of Colin Richardson (no relation) to the manager’s position. Well, sort of. He was there. People had apparently seen him. There was an arse-print on his desk chair. Sightings of a perm bobbing about in the depths of the dug-out, a Geordie accent carried on the breeze, and grainy footage purported to feature him raising his head from the murky waters of the Loch before disappearing into a Portacabin. It was under the invisible regime of Richardson, C, that Rovers finally chalked up their first point with a Prince Moncrieffe goal securing a draw at Mansfield. Moncrieffe would go on to be top scorer, doubling the tally of his nearest challenger and scoring more than a third of all Rovers goals. He scored eight.
Towards the end of the month Richardson C looked to bring in some much needed experience and so turned to 37-year-old defender Andy Thorpe. With over 500 games in the Football League to his name Thorpe certainly had experience, unfortunately the last of those League games had been more than five years previously. He’d spent his last two seasons at Chorley prior to being chucked into the Doncaster side; less a lifebelt, more a wreath at a sea burial. Thorpe played twice – a goalless draw with Cambridge (point number three), and a loss at Torquay – before electing to return to the more professional, more secure world of the Unibond League.
Thorpe was one of 45 players used that season, a high proportion of which tellingly never played League football anywhere other than their stint at Belle Vue. Two such players arrived at the end of October, just in time for the visit of fellow late 90s basket cases Brighton. This was a must win game if Rovers were to hold out any hope of… well, just if we were to hold any hope. Whoever was now picking the team rang the changes; out went two-goal top-scorer Moncrieffe and goalkeeper Gary Ingham. In for their debuts came new signings David Smith and Rod Thornley. The latter came fresh from ninth tier North West Counties League Warrington Town, and if his rise appeared meteoric it was nothing compared to that of goalkeeper Dave Smith, who joined from Stockport… not County, but the town’s Sunday League, where he’d been playing for Bramhall. Cynics suggested that Smith’s inclusion came by virtue of him living a few doors down from a certain Mr Weaver; a theory neither his physique, nor his goalkeeping performance did little to dissuade. The Brighton game would represent both Smith and Thornley’s sole afternoon as professional footballers. Rovers lost 3-1, and were reported to the FA for fielding a weakened team.
So angry had the protests now become, that during the Brighton match the police had advised Richardson and Weaver to leave the ground for their own safety. These were anxious times in Doncaster; the brief optimism of Labour’s general election victory in May couldn’t disguise nor distract from the fractured communities the previous government had left in its wake. Seven of the town’s nine coal-mines had closed in the past decade and the two that remained did so with scaled back workforces. With the collieries went the focus of local communities; sports clubs, social clubs, and yes, brass bands too. Now the town’s football team appeared to be dying a similarly forced death, and again it felt like no-one else cared. In such desperate times comes similarly desperate hope. Such was the despair at Richardson’s tyranny that in October, Anton Johnson – part of a potential takeover consortium – was able to ride into town as a potential saviour, when at any other time he’d have been driven out of it on a rail. Johnson had previous in football. In the mid-1980s he’d almost taken Southend United to the brink, stooping so low as to raid the supporters’ loan fund for £70,00 they never saw again. In 1985 the Football League banned him from ever becoming involved in football again. Yet, twelve years on, he was being seen as our safe option – the Football League even cleared his involvement. Johnson had the support of most fans; a case of better the devil you know, or at the very least better the devil who’ll dare take the mic a supporter meeting, but in hindsight Richardson’s stubborn selfishness in refusing to sell-up probably saved the club in the long-term, even if it felt like the real death-knell at the time. Bored of waiting, Johnson instead took control of Scarborough; they were non-league within a year.
Away from the boardroom – of sorts – popular youth-team manager Dave Cowling was next to try his hand at first team management, and would be the latest to step down due to ‘interference’ from Ken Richardson. Cowling oversaw two games; a defeat at Colchester and then a home loss to Swansea before receiving a phone call from Rovers’ self-styled benefactor. Though Richardson had not been seen since the Brighton debacle, he still saw fit to pick up the phone in his hollowed-out volcano just outside Driffield to call Cowling and tell him who would be staring and who’d be on the bench for the following weekend’s trip to Scarborough. Cowling, wisely, saw no reason to stay and pretend this was anything other than Richardson’s line-up, and duly left the club.
November; fourth month of the season, four points on the board, and a fourth manager in what passed for control. Pipe-smoking, cap-wearing Uruguayan Danny Bergara was now at the helm, but unlike Dixon, Richardson and Cowling, Bergara had an ace up his sleeve. He was a man with a cunning plan. Rather than assigning the shirt numbers by position, he would dish them out at random to try and confuse the opposition. It bloody worked too, with both Cardiff City and Barnet so bamboozled by the madness of a central midfielder wearing number two and a full-back sporting eleven that they could only regain their senses long enough to bumble toward perplexed draws. Unfortunately for Bergara, the other five sides Rovers faced during the month, somehow managed to carry on completely unphased by his numberwang and duly inflicted five defeats. Curses. Having failed to revolutionise fourth tier tactics in quite the way he’d hoped Bergara relinquished his manager’s jacket at November’s end – sadly not to don a doctor’s coat in an effort to further bewilder opponents – but to focus instead on coaching the first and youth teams.
Thankfully Mark Weaver knew just the man to take over from Bergara: Mark Weaver. Speaking of the manager’s self-appointment, midfielder Jim Dobbin later told local television ‘As a person I didn’t much dislike him, I just didn’t think he had much idea about football.’ It was, tellingly, the most ringing of endorsements the new boss received. As for Weaver’s own view? ‘I was just lucky enough to win my first game in charge.’ Unbelievably, he did just that; highlighting just how useless a barometer of a manager’s ability his first game in charge can ever be. At the 24th attempt, Rovers finally won a game of football. A 2-1 victory over Chester City, although only 864 were there to see it.
Weaver’s self-satisfaction wouldn’t last, with the next three games giving a much more accurate portrayal of his managerial prowess as Rovers shipped sixteen goals. Eight of those came in one afternoon at Brisbane Road, and it could have been more had Leyton Orient not withdrawn their front two for the final fifteen minutes out of sympathy.
The New Year, like December, began with an unexpected victory as Rovers defeated Shrewsbury 1-0 at Belle Vue through a Prince Moncrieffe goal. Post-match on local radio Moncrieffe was asked his thoughts about ‘making double figures’ – Prince presumed the interviewer meant as a goals target for him, where as he actually meant points for the club; Rovers now had 12 on the board. For the rest of the month normal service resumed; three games, three defeats, ten goals shipped. February brought unexpected hope on the field with a shock 1-0 win at promotion chasing Peterborough and the signing of Padi Wilson. An impressive winger, Wilson scored in a 2-1 loss at Cambridge and looked to possess a real threat. Sadly the local constabulary concurred, and within a month of signing Wilson was at her majesty’s pleasure, imprisoned for three months for driving whilst disqualified.
A rare beam of sunshine cut through the dull Doncastrian gloom on Valentine’s Day as Rovers trip to face Brighton was adopted as a football supporter love-in. Fans from clubs around the world descended on Albion’s temporary Priestfield home for the Fans United forerunner, The Heart of Football. The fixture between the League’s 91st and 92nd ranked clubs was fittingly, and perhaps inevitably, a dour 0-0; indeed the game’s main highlight came pre-match as Brighton’s PA operator paid a non-too-subtle nod to Rovers’ absent chairman with a medley of fire-related songs. For Rovers fans, there was at least some comfort in the realisation we weren’t totally alone; the FA had failed more than one of us. There may have been little we as football supporters could do, but at least we could do it together.
After the sweetness and love of Brighton the blunt edge of cold normality awaited back home the following Saturday as supporters arriving for a 1-0 defeat to Torquay were greeted by an effigy of Ken Richardson hanging from the Belle Vue car park entrance. Rovers had been in administration since October, and in March the dearth of available funds truly began to bite, especially after a crowd of just 739 turned up for a midweek game with Barnet. A record low, in a number of senses. The following week the club’s coaching staff – both of them – were laid off for five days, and when they next turned up at the ground they were given £75 each and told to go away. No more coaching, no more training. Players were now just turning up for games.
It’s worth noting that among the ever-changing dross that made-up this Rovers squad there were a handful of decent men, trying desperately to earn an honest wage. Among them, captain Lee Warren, a solid dependable defender, and Adie Mike and Mike Smith; a pair of capable forwards whose promise was regularly and fatefully stifled. When Rovers travelled to 21st place Cardiff in mid-March, Mike and Smith were deployed at centre-back and left-back respectively. Rovers lost 7-1, with Mike’s late consolation goal celebrated by the travelling dozens as if it were the winner.
By now Mike, Smith and Warren were three of just seven full-time professionals in the Rovers squad. Ahead of the transfer deadline day Mark Weaver made that eight by making a marquee signing… himself. When Rovers played Lincoln at home the next week Weaver mercifully chose not to pick himself, but instead thrust seven members of the youth team into the matchday squad. Though they lacked any kind of experience beyond boot cleaning and the odd paper round, the teenagers at least possessed a pride in representing their home town as they struggled bravely to a 4-2 defeat. Barely old enough to drive, some of them still at school, they retained their places ‘til the end of the season.
Whilst the kids had the undoubted support of those on the terraces; fan protests against the club’s regime, led by the Save the Rovers group, were becoming increasingly vociferous and often unashamedly brazen. At Rochdale at the end of March, one Rovers fan decided he could do no worse than Weaver and so elected to sit in the dugout, hopping over the perimeter wall and onto the bench with the words ‘Come on, shift up Mark, now… what the hell is going on?’ Protests and acts such as these were carried out at great risk, though not necessarily of arrest. For most of the season prominent members of Save the Rovers had been receiving menacing anonymous phone calls in the early-hours, some even had their tyres slashed. Then, on one November morning several of the supporters’ group opened their front doors to find their respective cars coated in cream paint.
And so to April, and that match against Hull. Win or most probably bust. Not just relegation, but the very likely death of the club as a result. Ten minutes in, a chorus of whistles from the Pop Side gave Matt his cue to stroll to the centre spot, and as he did so Alan slowly edged his way round the now condemned Town End terrace towards the goal. The on-pitch protest lasted several minutes before, point made, the Rovers fans began to file back to the stands. Matt exchanged his cap and coat with other fans à la Escape to Victory in order to blend back into the meagre crowd and, as two policemen suggested going to the groundsman’s shed for a saw, Alan reluctantly admitted the key was actually in his sock. Two hours later, deep into time added on for the removal of an 80s post-punk vocalist from the goal-frame, Adie Mike found a pocket of space on the edge of the penalty area and swivelled and struck a desperate winning goal. Rovers had won their fourth game of the season. They were safe for at least another Saturday, and, for one last time at least, the supporters could jump and yell in celebration rather than anger.
It was of course, merely a brief delaying of the inevitable. Relegation was confirmed a week later, with a 2-1 defeat at Chester City. On the final day of the season Rovers fans walked solemnly together from the Park Hotel to the ground carrying the coffin of the club in a mock-funeral cortege. Wreaths were laid behind the Town End. A bugler played The Last Post. Tears were shed and the pitch invaded several times. But it was to no avail. Still the Football Association cared not a jot that one man had unashamedly taken apart a town’s sporting history. The game was lost 1-0, the club, we thought, was lost forever.