DONCASTER Rovers chairman John Ryan will be glad to see the back of 2011 but insists the future is looking bright again at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Ryan feared the worst three months ago when Rovers sat rock bottom of the Championship with only a single point from the first seven games of the season.
The decision to sack manager Sean O’Driscoll and appoint Wrexham’s Dean Saunders split supporters and there has been widespread cynicism over the involvement of agent Willie McKay in subsequent transfer deals.
However, with Rovers now only two points adrift of safety entering the second half of the season, Ryan has no regrets about either move.
Saunders is winning over the doubters and the arrival of players including El-Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda has put the club firmly back on the map.
To some, this may sound like pie in the sky, but McKay has also assured Ryan that Rovers will be Premier League contenders in 12 months.
“We had to make a decision whether to accept our fate and go down meekly or roll up our sleeves and show some fighting spirit,” said Ryan. “The bottom line is we would have been relegated if we had not changed things – and after working my guts out for 14 years, and putting in more money than anyone else, I was not prepared to let that happen.
“A lot of the negativity towards Willie’s involvement has stemmed from jealousy,” he stressed. “There have been quite a few clubs trying to poach his services but he wants to help us get into the Premier League.
“We are doing nothing that half the other clubs in the Championship do not do. It’s not an abuse of the system. Loads of clubs get loads of loans. How did Stoke City get out of the Championship? They loaned a load of guys about 6ft 4in and bulldozed their way out and now they are an established Premier League club.
“We have a two-year agreement but I hope it will last even longer than that. He has delivered so far and who could have imagined that ‘little old’ Doncaster Rovers would be signing players like El-Hadji Diouf or Habib Beye?
“These are top international players and I simply cannot envisage relegation with Willie bringing that sort of quality to the club.”
Thanks to his extensive network of contacts, McKay has persuaded big name players and leading clubs to essentially subsidise Rovers’ battle plan. The players involved sign only short-term deals but view their stay as a stepping stone to more lucrative destinations.
Diouf has agreed in principle to stay at Rovers for another 18 months despite interest from mega-rich Russian side Anzhi while Chimbonda is wanted by Canadian club Montreal Impact. West Ham United’s Herita Ilunga and Blackburn’s Herold Goulon also have an option to leave next month.
Even if they all leave, McKay has a list of players willing to join Rovers on similar terms including Mustapha Bayal Sal, Stephane Dalmat, and strikers Habib Bamogo and Mamadou Bagayoko.
“Some will leave in the New Year but we would like them to stay,” says Ryan. “We know it won’t be easy because they are being offered big money to go elsewhere.”
Ironically, the possible sale of Billy Sharp – one of the club’s longer serving players – may have the greatest influence on whether Rovers stay up or go down this season.
Sharp wants to move to the Premier League and has been linked with Stoke, Wigan Athletic and West Bromwich Albion.
Ryan does not want to sell the former Sheffield United striker but has vowed to honour a gentlemen’s agreement allowing the player to talk to any club offering £3m for his services.
“It will be very difficult to hold onto Billy Sharp next month and it will be very hard to replace him,” admitted Ryan. “Billy is the best striker in the league and I would go as far to say he is the best striker I have ever seen playing for Doncaster Rovers. There is a lot of interest but no guarantee that he will leave. He knows our position, everyone loves him at the club, and he has been a fantastic ambassador for the club when you consider everything that he has gone through. He will always be a hero in my eyes, whether he stays or goes.”
Rovers manager Saunders recently revealed that Rovers pay only £20,000 a week for players who would normally command a total of around £265,000 a week. The sale of just one player, presumably Sharp, would cover that outlay and also provide money for further new players.
Despite his success in steering Rovers from the Conference to the Championship during his 14-year reign as chairman, there are still supporters who fail to appreciate the size of Ryan’s generosity.
Not content with a return to the second tier of the English game after a 50-year absence, many still prefer to watch other local clubs, leaving Rovers with average gates of less than 8,000.
Ryan is all but resigned to this apathy and perhaps promotion to the Premier League would be the only way of filling a 15,000-capacity stadium.
“A lot of fans still like to remind me how badly we are doing,” Ryan said. “That’s the nature of football. People don’t always appreciate someone until they have gone. Maybe when I am not here anymore, they might realise how good I was for the club.
“But it is still my dream to take this club to the Premier League. In fact, Willie has promised me that he can get the club into the Premier League. If we stay up this season, that will be the target next season.
“This has been the unluckiest year for injuries in the club’s history. I will be glad to see the back of 2011,” he added. “But I do see signs that we are moving in the right direction and I am convinced we will get out of trouble. You don’t beat clubs like Southampton and Leicester City if you are not a good team.”