“Shambolic” is one way of describing it, but in truth, this falls a long way short of telling the whole story.
A disaster from start to finish, that season saw a once proud football club reach its nadir, becoming a laughing stock in the process as a result of some scandalous mismanagement by then-owner, Ken Richardson.
It took Rovers 21 attempts to record their first league win, one of only four that term as they went on to lose 34 of their 46 Divison Three fixtures and finished up with a goal difference of minus 83.
That playing record saw them relegated to the Conference, 15 points shy of 23rd-placed Brighton, and remains the worst in Football League history, but with a revolving door of managers, an absentee chairman picking the team and a woeful lack of resources, what chance did the club’s first-team players have?
As much as they struggled during a turbulent nine months, that group of footballers recieved a heroes’ reception from the Belle Vue faithful after their final game of the season.
The reason? Because although a lot of them might have been found wanting in terms of ability, most of those who pulled on the Rovers shirt that year very obviously gave their all out on the field – depsite the circumstances.
The ire of the Doncaster supporters was reserved for Richardson and his right-hand man, Mark Weaver, not their floundering team.
“The fans really got behind us when they weren’t protesting against Richardson and Weaver. They were good to me,” revealed Adie Mike, a former Manchester City striker and one of just a handful of senior pro’s who started and finished 1997/98 a Rovers player.
“I wasn’t used to that. I was used to getting slated. I thought to myself ‘they actually like me, I’ll try and pay them back’.
“I think they recognised that as players we gave our all. It was very difficult. Some lads were out of their depth, we never had a settled team, but even when we knew that those above the manager were picking the side we still went out and tried our best.
“After how badly the first 10 matches went, we didn’t know where a win was coming from. We were kind of defeated before we went out a lot of the time. No-one wanted to get battered, however it was usually just a case of how many we would lose by.
“But, despite everything, the team spirit among the core of the group was good and we always tried.”
Mike joined Doncaster permanently in the summer of 1997 following a spell on loan from Stockport County at the back end of the previous campaign.
Having cut his teeth at City and played in the Premier League alongside the likes of Niall Quinn, Peter Reid and Steve McMahon, he was totally uprepared for what was to unfold.
“It was a bit of a culture shock coming from where I’d been, playing with some very good players. The training pitches were great at Man City, everything was professionally run. Doncaster was the total opposite,” Mike said.
“When I came on loan and Kerry Dixon was manager, the training was actually good, even if the facilities weren’t.But after he left it was a bit of a joke. There was nowhere to train sometimes, or it might be a park or a schoolfield.
“This was supposed to be a professional football club and we’d have to go train in a park. I’d be thinking to myself ‘really?’
“We didn’t even know who’d be taking training sometimes. Quite often, we [the players] would talk in the warm-up about what we needed to do and then just took it upon ourselves to organise something.
“I’ve never known anything like it before or since. It was shambolic.”
The seeds for Rovers’ season of woe were sewn during 1996/97 when the club began experiencing financial problems.
Richardson – on bail having been arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit arson at Belle Vue – transfer-listed most of Doncaster’s best players to try and balance the books.
Working with his hands tied behind his back, manager Kerry Dixon left just three games into 1997/98, leading to Colin Richardson, Dave Cowling and pipe-smoking Uruguayan Danny Bergara all coming and going before the end of November.
Next to try his luck in the dug-out was general manager Weaver, whose only previous experience in football had been a year spent organising Stockport’s club lottery. You couldn’t make it up.
“There was so much unprofessionalism,” Mike said.
“Danny got us to swap shirt numbers to try and confuse the opposition. When he said it, the lads were just looking at each other. We were like ‘really?’
“The idea backfired. I think it confused us as well. If something like that works, you don’t end up looking stupid. Most of the time, these things didn’t work.”
One Bergara brainwave that proved more of a success saw Mike re-deployed in a new role.
“It was another one of Danny’s bright ideas,” revealed Mike, who netted four times in 44 league appearances.
“He said ‘you’re not scoring enough so you may as well go and play at the back.’ One of our centre-halfs then got injured, so I did.
“I played alongside Lee Warren and I enjoyed myself. I think I did okay, better than I did as centre-forward most of the time.”
Despite everything that went on that year at Belle Vue, Mike still looks back on his spell in South Yorkshire fondly.
“Even though we were getting beat every week, I enjoyed my time at Doncaster,” added Mike, who spent the majority of the rest of his career playing in non-league and is now director of a company that charters flights on private jets.
“I look back on the experience fondly, although I don’t think many of my team-mates do. I’ve spoken to a couple who remmember that season as an absolute joke. For me, the fans were great and they’re one of the reasons I enjoyed it. I also got to play regular football, which was what I needed at that time after having a few injuries.
“It was certainly a different experience, a weird experience, but I wouldn’t change it. I could have signed for Bradford instead of Doncaster, but I have no regrets.
“I still look out for the club’s results and I’m glad to see them doing well back in the Football League.”
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