One of the Yorkshire success stories of the season so far is the largely unheralded rise of Doncaster Rovers. Nick Westby spoke to Dean Saunders about the club’s hard-working revolution.
Dean Saunders regards the FA Cup as the best thing he ever won, yet if he continues to orchestrate Doncaster Rovers’ renaissance, he could well have a new career high come May.
Rovers won their game in hand on Tuesday to move level on points with Tranmere at the top of League One.
Ahead of his first full season in charge, Saunders’s remit was merely to ensure the club consolidated in the third tier and did not continue what could have become a freefall back down the divisions they had worked so hard to climb.
Twenty games in, and after a run of four straight wins and 10 from the last 13, Saunders and Rovers are far and away exceeding expectations.
They are the form team in the division and the county, and as they prepared for tomorrow’s trip to Oldham in the Cup competition he cherishes, Saunders attempted to give an insight into why it has all been going so well.
“The players have done tremendously and they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do,” said Liverpool’s 1992 FA Cup-winning striker.
“I’ve not had a moment’s problem with any of them.
“Because we’ve got a small squad, players have not been out of the team very long, no one’s been sat in the stands with their shirt and tie on not playing, and that sometimes helps.
“They’ve all been onside and they’ve got a great team spirit, and you can see that on the pitch. The players know why they’re getting results, and it’s not just a case of turning up. They know it’s all the little bits that people don’t notice that are making us hard to play against.”
With the enthusiasm of a trainee, Saunders was whipping in free-kicks to his players at their Cantley training ground yesterday long after the main session had ended.
Saunders is as hands-on a manager as you could come across, with his willingness to help improve his players by sharing the wisdom of an honour-laden playing career infectious.
“My strongest point is my enthusiasm for football,” he said. “I love going out training with the players. I even love it when we’re struggling for points because I like to solve the problem.
“When you’re winning I get a bit edgy because you’re waiting for a slap in the face. Have I done everything I can do? That’s what I’m asking myself.
“At the end of the day if you work hard good things happen to you. That’s what my dad told me and that’s what I’ve based my career on.
“I come in every day and get the job done. It’s easy to sit back and let things go on around you, but as the manager you can come in some days and it’s non-stop aggravation, sometimes nothing to do with football, but if you don’t deal with them it affects how you play on the pitch.
“I’ve been relentless behind the scenes, making sure everyone is earning a living off the club and not stealing a living.”
Saunders is aware it can all change in a flash. He mischievously refers to Rovers’ position as “two wins from safety” but even though targets are being realigned, he knows nothing has been accomplished yet.
Doncaster have a threadbare squad, and now greater expectations upon them. He has to guard against complacency, which is why he refuses to let his players sit back and enjoy the view from the top.
January could be a big month in determining the club’s destiny. They need quantity rather than quality, but with a budget that was slashed from £8m to £2.7m in the summer giving him little leeway, he will have to be shrewd. Hence the need for a lucrative FA Cup run.
“It’s a big game for us,” said Saunders, whose side beat Oldham 1-0 on Tuesday. “The club only has three or four revenue routes and this is one.
“We could do with winning and getting a good draw in the next round. Bradford PA was a bit of a banana skin for us, but the rewards of winning that was Oldham away. The rewards of winning this are bigger because of what could await.
“It’s really important for the club and for the players’ own careers if we can get a plum draw. But you need to beat teams like Oldham to get the plum draw.”