JOHN RYAN is unequivocal about what the grand opening of the Keepmoat Stadium 10 years ago today did for Doncaster Rovers.
“We became a proper football club again,” said the former Rovers chief and leading figure in the move from a dilapidated and run-down Belle Vue to a new state-of-the-art £32m home when speaking to The Yorkshire Post over the festive season.
Ryan may no longer be involved at Doncaster, a club where he had two spells on the board, but his pride at the giant strides taken by Rovers under his watch remains undimmed.
With good cause, too. He is, after all, the man who rescued football in the town after the club had hit rock bottom following the disastrous reign of Ken Richardson.
Under Ryan, a return to the Football League preceded two further promotions but it is surely the Keepmoat Stadium that remains the enduring legacy of his stint at the helm.
“The opening of the new stadium for the first time was a very proud moment,” said the 66-year-old lifelong fan about the New Year’s Day visit of Huddersfield Town in 2007.
“From where the club had been when I took over in 1997 to having a stadium like the Keepmoat, it had been a remarkable journey. The facilities were incredible and totally divorced from what we had at Belle Vue, as much as we loved the old place for all those memories.
“Getting Doncaster Rovers back in the League was big but the new stadium was key. We all knew Rovers couldn’t truly push on until we moved.”
There had, on the release of plans for a new Lakeside Sports Complex five years earlier, been plenty of scepticism in Doncaster. Similar plans had been mooted and come to nothing.
However, the moment preparatory work got under way on the site in July, 2005, the excitement became palpable. At last, the town’s sports fans would have a stadium to be proud of.
Fast forward 18 or so months and even the wretched weather that had wrecked New Year celebrations across the country could not put a dampener on Rovers’ house-warming party as nine-man Huddersfield were beaten 3-0 in front of 14,470 fans.
“A great day made even better by the result,” recalls Ryan, afforded a standing ovation by supporters 45 minutes before kick-off. “So much effort had gone into getting Doncaster Rovers into a new stadium that it was an emotional day for all of us.”
Doncaster, when leaving behind Belle Vue, became the 26th club to move home in the past two decades.
As sad as it can be to see an old ground disappear, few mourned Rovers’ departure for long. Certainly no-one in the media, the facilities being more suited to the demands of the Fifties with plug points scarcer than a Rovers fan wishing former owner Richardson all the best.
For the big games such as the 2005 League Cup victories over Aston Villa and Manchester City, reporters, many having to sit in the crowd due to the press box being full, had to balance laptops on knees while nervously keeping an eye on how low the battery was getting. Hence why it was not just Doncaster fans cursing Quincy Owusu-Abeyie when he sent the quarter-final tie with Arsenal to extra-time.
One consolation amid this discomfort for us humble hacks was the presence of Dr Jim Wilson and his family, supporters with season tickets next to the press box who would often keep yours truly in sweets for the entire 90 minutes.
The switch to the Keepmoat unfortunately brought this to an end due to the family relocating to the opposite side of the new stadium but that was the only downside to the move.
State-of-the-art facilities awaited both the media and supporters. Ditto the players, who instead of fighting over four showers at Belle Vue had their pick of 11, plus five baths. The home dressing room was also 11 times bigger than had been the case at the old ground.
A further benefit for the club quickly became evident during attempts to strengthen Sean O’Driscoll’s squad. Where before Ryan had kept any prospective signings away from Belle Vue with the much more modern Cantley Park training ground instead being the subject of any familiarisation tours, now the Keepmoat could be shown off in all its glory.
“We’d had some great days but Belle Vue just wasn’t up to it any more,” says Ryan. “The move set us on our way as a club. We went to Cardiff and won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy a couple of months after moving and then Wembley a year later to beat Leeds to win promotion.
“Our first year in the Championship also brought an average crowd of 12,000. That was very different from my first year at Belle Vue. We were lucky to get 2,000 back then.”
Rovers, of course, have had a tough time on the pitch lately with two relegations in three seasons having dumped the club back in the basement division.
Approaching the halfway stage, however, Darren Ferguson’s men sit on top of the table. Ryan, for his part, believes the Keepmoat gives the club a big advantage over many of their peers.
“Thanks to the infrastructure, I do believe it will only be a matter of time before we are back up again,” added the former Doncaster chief. “The foundation that the stadium provides means a return to the Championship in the future isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.”