PALLBEARERS, pitch invasions, death threats, pandemonium – and above all, the putrid stench of a once-proud club being contaminated by the actions of its reviled owner.
Reach for the history books and fans of Yorkshire’s football clubs can all point to tough times in their existence at sporadic junctures. But no-one has suffered such a desperate and debased time of it as followers of Doncaster Rovers did in 1997-98, some two decades ago.
It was a season in which relegation out of the Football League was truly only part of the story; a mere by-product of the anarchy and chaos off the pitch with the crazy events of that infamous campaign captured in a Channel Five documentary entitled: ‘They Think It Is All Rovers.’
But the statistics are still worthy of examination, if only for their incredulous nature.
Rovers, officially ‘managed’ by four bosses in that car-crash of a campaign, recorded just four wins in their 46 league games in the Third Division and ended the season 15 points adrift of safety in a season of staggering ineptitude.
They were not just stuck at the bottom of the league, they were welded to it. All season.
A Doncastrian by birth, I was among that number, with my premise being that it would surely be the final time that Rovers would play at a renowned stadium in their long history.Leon Wobschall
Along the way, Doncaster managed a mere 30 goals and conceded a colossal 113, with that haul incorporating one 8-0 defeat, a 7-1 drubbing, a 5-0 thrashing and two 5-1 reverses. All told, Rovers conceded three goals or more in 20 of their league fixtures.
It took them 21 matches at the start of the season to register their first league victory and in total, they lost 34 games, a Football League record.
The final loss arrived on May 2, 1998, in a 1-0 defeat to Colchester – Rovers’ 17th home league defeat in that atrocious campaign – with many among that 3,572 crowd harbouring genuine fears that the club would not just descend into the non-league wilderness, but cease to exist.
That funereal mood in what was the bleakest of seasons was aptly reflected by a group of Rovers fans who arrived at the ground in a mock-funeral cortege from the nearby Park Hotel.
Flowers were laid behind the Town End, while a bugler played The Last Post. Tears were shed by many supporters, before the hurt turned into recriminations towards the club’s absent ‘benefactor’ in Ken Richardson and his similarly despised general manager, Mark Weaver – who bore the brunt before leaving the stadium early after initially pledging not to attend.
It was a bitter end to a bitter season and it was incredible to think that just a decade later, Rovers would finish the 2007-08 season with promotion back to the second tier for the first time in almost half-a-century.
For those loyal Rovers diehards present at Wembley in May, 2008, and who also attended on that rather more painful Spring afternoon just under 10 years earlier, it was the ultimate cathartic moment.
Somewhere, just somewhere amid those post-match celebrations, defiant chants of: ‘Are you watching, Richardson’ may have been detected among Rovers fans with long memories.
For wholly contrasting reasons, 1997-98 was memorable; nay infamous. In truth, it was a season which always carried hazard warning lights.
Richardson – out on bail having been arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit arson at Belle Vue after a botched plot to burn down Rovers’ home in June,1995 – was losing interest and wanted out.
Earlier in February 1997, debt-ridden Rovers were subject to a winding-up order, with 10 players put on the transfer list and a transfer embargo imposed. Then-manager Kerry Dixon also went onto publicly reveal that he was not picking the team, with Richardson ‘advising’ him.
Star performers Darren Moore and Colin Cramb were sold in the summer, with Dixon soon leaving early on in the new season, with a perfect storm brewing with the club placed in administration and the wage bill slashed.
The shambolic situation was soon obvious on the pitch. In their first home game against Nottingham Forest in the first leg of the League Cup, Rovers were eviscerated in an 8-0 thrashing.
In their Belle Vue league opener with Peterborough just five days later, Rovers endured a similarly wretched 5-0 defeat.
The tone was set on and off the pitch. But despite the most obscenely one-sided first-leg result in the history of the League Cup, it did not stop over 300 Rovers followers making the trip to Nottingham for the second instalment.
A Doncastrian by birth, I was among that number, with my premise being that it would surely be the final time that Rovers would play at a renowned stadium in their long history.
Obscurity or perhaps much worse beckoned with Rovers ranks being a mixture of little-known non-league players with next to no league experience and kids thrust into a toxic situation.
Losses started to stack up and crowds dwindled, with a couple of autumnal nadirs arriving.
The first arrived at Belle Vue on October 4, 1997, on an afternoon when fans of both Rovers and visiting Brighton joined together in something akin to a love-in as they vehemently protested against hated owners Richardson and Bill Archer.
But it was the presence of a debutant goalkeeper in Dave Smith, whose previous club was Stockport Sunday League side Bramhall, which attracted infamy.
A decidedly rotund Smith – a neighbour of Weaver – was substituted at the break in what turned out to be his only professional football appearance, while Richardson and Weaver were advised by police to leave the ground at half-time amid a heated protest. Soon after, Rovers were trounced 5-1 at Darlington, prompting Richardson to pledge that he would stop attending fixtures and would not ‘even help’ with picking the team.
Youth-team coach Dave Cowling was soon appointed as manager and lasted for the princely sum of nine days, citing interference as part of his decision to leave. His successor was veteran Uruguayan coach Danny Bergara. But the rot had long since set in.
Little solace was found in a punishing winter, although Rovers did break their wretched winless streak at the 21st time of asking in a 2-1 win over Chester in front of a Belle Vue crowd of just 864 on December 2, 1997.
Rovers picked up just two more wins until April 4 when they beat Hull City 1-0 in a game which saw one home fan attempt to chain himself to a goalpost.
The inevitable was confirmed seven days later when Rovers’ 75-year Football League stint ended after a 2-1 loss at Chester.
A chaotic campaign was maybe best summed up in the club’s final away game at Swansea’s Vetch Field when Bergara told his players to switch shirt numbers in a vain bid to try and confuse the opposition.
It was that sort of season...