JOHN RYAN admits Doncaster Rovers have surpassed all expectations with their start to the season and has paid tribute to the sterling job being done by manager Dean Saunders.
The Welshman was handed a firefighting brief in the summer to slash the wage bill and get a host of high-earners off the books in the wake of Rovers’ relegation from the Championship and has somehow managed to do that while also building a winning side.
The smart money was on Rovers having a season of transition, given the onerous task Saunders faced heading into pre-season.
But chairman Ryan, who says he would have been satisfied with a top-10 or 12 finish in League One in August, is now hopeful the South Yorkshire club can claim a play-off spot.
Rovers currently occupy the final play-off place heading into this afternoon’s home encounter with Bournemouth and despite Saunders’s side losing out in midweek to Crewe Alexandra, which ended a run of four successive wins in all competitions, the gloss has not been taken away from a fine opening three months of the season.
Ryan said: “To be honest, I would have been happy to finish in the top 10 or 12 this season. But now I think we have a good chance of getting in the play-offs and that is our season’s goal now.
“We have won six out of the last eight and that is not bad.
“Obviously, it was disappointing on Tuesday night, but overall, I think we have done very well.
“Coming down from the Championship is a killer because you do not have any parachute money and most teams take at least a year to adjust to their new surroundings.
“But I think Dean has done a great job in putting together a side on a limited budget.
“The budget had been taken up by a few players that were on big money and we could not do much about it. But we have managed to move some players out and sign some good players. I am very pleased; we are sixth in the league and are doing a lot better than I thought we would be doing at this stage, if I am honest.
“The revenue you lose from going down costs you around £6m. You lose about £3m in TV money and gate-wise it is probably £2m and sponsorship is maybe another £1m. It is a tremendous burden and we have brought the wage bill down from about £9m to £3.9m.
“All players bar one had a relegation clause and we have got rid of most of the big-earning players that we could and also fashioned a new team.
“I must admit that some of the signings like Rob Jones, Dave Cotterill and David Syers have been excellent ones and we have an excellent team.
“We have gone to Notts County and Tranmere recently and beaten them and that is a sign of a bloody good team.”
Big defender Jones, who Rovers are hoping will be fit for today’s encounter after coming off on Tuesday with a head injury, has particularly proved a huge hit since arriving at the Keepmoat from Sheffield Wednesday and Ryan concurs with many supporters who feel that if he had been on board in the heart of defence last term that Rovers would have stayed up.
He added: “I do think if we had Rob last season we would have stayed up because we lost so many goals in the last five or 10 minutes of games.
“With him on board, it is a different kettle of fish. I know Rob had to go off quite early on Tuesday night and I am sure that affected the result because I am sure if he had stayed on, we would not have lost.
“There is a lot more steel to us these days. We probably do not play as much pretty football, but we are an effective League One side. To put that together so quickly when a lot of the players did not have a proper pre-season has been remarkable really. Hopefully, we can keep it up.”
Hailing the job done by Saunders, who has won over many fans after initial scepticism when he arrived from Wrexham and somewhat controversially replaced Sean O’Driscoll in September, 2011, Ryan added: “You take a punt with any manager, don’t you? When we brought Sean O’Driscoll in, it took the fans at least a year or so to get used to him.
“We brought Dean in and he is very likeable and enthusiastic and he is doing a super job.
“I do not think anyone could have done any better under the circumstances and the fans are appreciating the job he is doing and quite right too.”
One slight downer for Ryan is that Rovers’ crowds are down around a third following relegation with this season’s average of 6,111 – currently the seventh best in League One – comparing with last year’s level of 9,341.
But the chairman remains hopeful that – if Saunders and his side continue the good work – a number of Doncastrians will return again to watch their hometown side.
He added: “We have a loyal core, which is good. But it is like everything else; when you drop a league, you do lose a lot and, hopefully, we will get back sooner rather than later to get those fans back.”