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A mans game?

I wrote this for issue 77 of PopularSTAND magazine at the beginning of the 2015/16.  Time has moved on since, much like some of the names included in the article, but the sentiment remains:

One morning in early October last year I found myself on the familiar journey to the Keepmoat, though with the Rovers away, my visit was to watch an under 11 team to which my daughter belongs. It was a crisp Saturday morning, as usual we were running late and found the parking spaces near to the sports pitches typically full, forcing us to head further round the stadium for a space in which to abandon the car. We jumped out and as the doors slammed behind us began to hurriedly make our way back towards the pitches. My eye was drawn to the row of parked cars which ran snuggly alongside the edge of the ground. It appeared on first glance as though 50 Cent must have been putting on a concert, as the tarmac was lined with black 4x4s and sports cars, each equipped with the uniformed alloy wheels and blacked out windows, one such vehicle could be heard gently thumping away some ‘music’ whilst it rhythmically rocked it’s occupant.
car doncaster roversI was still pondering quite what was happening when a face emerged, making its way towards us. I recognised him, but couldn’t think where from – work? School? Another Dad late for the mornings football? I couldn’t be sure and despite my fierce squinting I couldn’t place him.
“Is that one of the Rovers players Dad?” asked my daughter, her sharper, younger eyes identifying that the badge on his tracksuit top matched her own. I again looked at the bloke, now scurrying towards the entrance, almost nervously and awkwardly avoiding eye contact. “Yes, that’s Dean Furman” I replied, the pieces dropping into place. The players were gathering to travel to their away game.

No sooner had the words left my lips then other members of ‘Fiddy’s’ entourage made their way towards reception, all uniformly clad in both club leisure wear and a vast array of jewellery, watches and wash bags. I looked at my daughter’s face, as Kyle Bennett and Reece Wabara jovially waltzed by with perfectly styled barnets and intricate facial hair, to see her fixing something of a suspicious gaze towards Rovers’ finest.

I was a little more concrete in my outlook. Having spent a large sum of money already in watching our diamond clad charges deliver a number of gutless performances already that season I was totting up in my head the cost of the motors the trio had left behind. While edging past 6 figures the final straw appeared at the end of the queue of pimped out rides. Harry Forrester, the source of the stifled music, threw open the driver’s door on his personalised number plated BMW and emerged with full complement of bling, sporting a ridiculously large baseball hat which he was forced to gently ease out of the car before carefully using his immaculately manicured trainers to place his feet firmly on the ground, somewhere that I fear from looking at them, most of the players struggle to keep theirs.

Harry Forrester

Harry Forrester

My 10 year old summed it up perfectly when asking, faced screwed into a mix of confusion and contempt “Why are they all like that? They’re ridiculous”

The sense of injustice had built up inside me throughout the preceding half dozen or so footsteps, but given the time, my proceeding rant couldn’t be directed towards those most deserving of it, instead my little girl was forced to nod quietly, as I recounted exactly what those players had done to ‘earn’ the money which paid for them to look so ridiculously stereotypical over the last six games. Six games, of which they had lost four and only scored in two. I felt vein popping anger at the ease and nonchalance at which none of it seemed to matter to them. It got me so angry because it mattered so much to me.

I’ll never come to terms with it and I’ll never be able to identify with players who are so far removed from the rest of us. I find it almost impossible to get behind someone who’s first concern appears to be the quality of their hair product or procuring the latest Nike’s.

When Paul Dickov announced at the end of last season that he needed ‘a squad of men’ it conjured a large sigh of relief. I recalled some names of the past, the likes of which would fit the bill, names like Alan Warboys, Jack Ashurst, John Schofield – proper men who not only would run through brick walls for the side but you could also imagine just washed with a bar of soap, spent under a fiver on a haircut and looked suspiciously at a fella with an earring.

I remember seeing Tim Ryan during his pomp in the local Sainsbury’s of a Saturday night, getting stocked up with fags before a night out, or turning up to play 5 a side at the Dome only to find that Ian Duerden was lining up for the opposition. I recall stumbling from the Karisma nightclub late one evening in the late 90’s to find Colin Sutherland slumped in a bus stop outside. Slurring some inaudible words with eyes as glazed as an iced bun, he was and still remains to this day, the drunkest I have ever seen a man.

IMG_2219However, he and his kin were like the rest of us, we moved in similar circles, we did similar things and we battled the same demons, whilst we were happy to see them on something of a pedestal, we could relate to them and we were all in it together. It’s a feeling which is fast fading for me, I can’t relate to the modern footballer in any way. Yeah, I’ve been to Nando’s, but to be honest I didn’t much care for it. I’ve tried sifting through their Twitter feeds but am left numbed by pictures of body kits and boots, shout outs and endorsement and even one ‘urgent’ plea for a decorator- obviously not urgent enough for an underachieving League One forward to dirty his own hands and open a tin of emulsion.

These days a third tier footballer earns life changing money and whilst it is not their fault, it has hastened their detachment from the rest of us. Paul Dickov’s recruitment policy gave me renewed hope, someone to relate to, to get behind. Someone who would feel the pain felt on the terraces and bare the scars just like the fans. A squad of men? That’d be great, to be honest, I’d settle for a few normal blokes.


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Then or now? Doncaster Rovers 1997-98

doncaster roversThe Easter period saw us rack up the worst run of form in the Rovers history. It got me thinking, I know the last few months has been terrible, but I’m sure I have seen worse? I sat through every home game of the 1997-98 season during which we were rightly crowned as the worst team in English footballs modern era.
My mind drifted back to such devastating lows and the band of incompetent misfits which oversaw such a period and I couldn’t get the two to match. How could that season, where the club was dismantled from inside out compare favourably to our last few months as a proper football club once more? Well, obviously the two clubs bear no comparison, where we are now bears absolutely no resemblance to then I do not wish to suggest otherwise, though in terms of players I began to muse, could any of those be better than out current record-breaking crop? Would any of that fateful season at the end of the 90’s get into today’s side? Surely not, let’s take a look.
imageThe record clinching game this season was the defeat against Blackpool, so let’s take the 11 from that day and compare them with the squad from 1997-98. Anyone who played a game for the club during that year will be considered, would any of that group have been preferred to the 11 who took the field vs Blackpool?

Goalkeeper: Remi Matthews or Dean Williams
From the 97/98 squad, Dean Williams. Played 7 times during that doomed season but had made over 80 appearances in a Rovers shirt in the 3 years beforehand. Always looked a bit smaller than his officially recorded height of 6’1” but he was a good keeper. Good shot stopper and a reliable figure at the back during some quite difficult times.
Special mention goes to Tony Parks, UEFA cup winner with Spurs who also made 6 appearances in 97-98 for the Rovers, but at 35 was past his prime and must’ve been bewildered by what was happening in front of him
I’m going for Williams over Matthews.

Right back: Mitchell Lund or Martin Pemberton
imageAt right back I would put forward Martin Pemberton. Martin played a number of positions during his time with Rovers, usually midfield or full/wing back and made 27 appearances that season before escaping and ending the season with 6 games at Scunthorpe. He was mobile, decent on the ball and got up and down pretty well. He went on the play league football for Stockport and Mansfield (who paid £10,000 for him) over the course of a decent career. It may be harsh on youngster Lund, whom I am a fan of, but I think if pressed I would go for Pemberton.

Centre Backs: Craig Alcock and Andy Butler or Ian Gore and Lee Warren.                                                                             imageLee Warren was the player of the year during 97-98, not much of an accolade to be fair, but followed that up by winning the same award the following year as the club rebuilt in the conference, amid stronger competition for the title. Lee had been a Rovers for a couple of seasons prior, playing really as a ball playing midfielder, to not much affect if I’m honest. A player of a good pedigree it wasn’t until his switch to defence that he really shone and became Mr reliable over those two seasons, rightly becoming a fans favourite along the was.
Ian Gore moved from Torquay where he had been signed to replace Darren Moore, before joining the Rovers to play alongside, strangely enough, Darren Moore. A decent, solid centre back, Gore actually played 25 league games that year though they were all an uphill battle, again he was of good pedigree, playing over 200 times for a good Blackpool side. The only draw back to Ian Gore was that at 5’11” you sometimes wondered if he was big enough for a centre back, though he had enough aggression and determination to make up for a lack of height and at least he was reasonably mobile. I’d take Lee Warren over Alcock every day, Gore or Butler? I’d prefer both to be a bit taller, close run thing this one for me, but go on then, Andy Butler.

Left Back: Aaron Taylor Sinclair or Ian Clark.                                                         imageClark could operate as a winger, wing back or full back. He had a good left foot and was mobile. Went on to enjoy a successful 4 year spell with Hartlepool following his escape from Rovers. Close one this for me, Taylor Sinclair is bigger, but due to his penchant for not defending properly and crap distribution I’ll go for Clark at left back.
Wide right: James Coppinger or Simon Ireland.                                                  Highly rated as a youngster Ireland enjoyed a big money to Blackburn for £200k before moving to Mansfield for £60k in the search for first team opportunities before arriving in Doncaster, initially on loan, for another five-figure fee apparently.  A tricky winger who never came close to getting anywhere near where his young potential suggested he might. Showed occasional flashes of quality but in the main was less than average.
Needles to say id go for Coppinger, obviously. Be serious.

Wide left: Riccardo Calder or Mike Smith.                                                                        I liked Mike smith, he had a super left foot. And a right foot too, but that was strictly for standing on only. The scouser got up and down really well, was quick, tricky and had some quality. He also famously scored a break away goal out of the blue as the hapless Rovers somehow recorded a 1-0 win away at then play off chasing Peterborough in 1998. Smith or Calder? I know it’s getting daft, but Smith for sure.

Central midfield: Tommy Rowe and Harry Middleton or Jim Dobbin and Martin McDonald                                                                                                                     imageMartin McDonald was a tough tackling central midfielder who could put his foot in and was actually not bad in the centre of the park. He had decent distribution and would look to move the ball on once he had won it. Enjoyed a successful season in league football with Macclesfield after the debacle of 98.
Jim Dobbin was 34 on his return to the rovers in 1997 having spent a long and successful career playing for Barnsley, Rotherham and Grimsby Town. Jim was a good player and a quality passer of the ball, his legs had gone by then but he had loads of experience and plenty of quality. I saw him recently as he directed a scowl towards me which preceded a minor verbal disagreement between the two of us over who had right of way round a parked car. In order to maintain a balanced view of things I won’t allow this to taint my view (though I was definitely right. Definitely).image
I’d have McDonald over Rowe and so it comes down to would you have a young Harry Middleton or a mid 30’s Jim Dobbin? (I’d have Ritchie Wellens actually but that’s by the by) Again, maybe harsh on Harry, but I’d go Dobbin.

Strikers: Andy Williams and Gary McSheffrey or Adie Mike and Prince Moncrieffe.                                                                                                                             A hot prospect in his youth, Adie Mike joined permanently following a loan spell in 1997 partnering Colin Cramb up front. He actually played (and played well) a number of times as centre back that year and was decent in the air, decent on the deck and had some pace. The goal he scored against Hull city in a ridiculous 1-0 win that year sticks in the memory still.

Moncrieffe scores at Lincoln (honest)

Moncrieffe scores at Lincoln (honest)

Prince Moncrieffe was young, raw and very quick. He liked wearing oversized baseball caps and didn’t seem to understand the offside rule. He was a 20-year-old from the Manchester area with friends whose reputation was ‘questioned’ from time to time. However the Prince had an undeniable knack of getting in behind defences and scoring goals. By early January he scored 8 times in the league and was featured among Division Three’s top scorers list so, in keeping with the ethos that year, the management decided to move the biggest attacking threat in the team to right-wing back. Needless to say, he didn’t find the back of the net again, but up to that point had scored 8 league goals in 19 starts.
There is a huge part of me that wants to include Moncrieffe in this mashed up 11, and Mike for that matter, but for all his recent failings, Andy Williams has 14 goals to his name this season, and was league one player of the month as recently as the turn of the year. McSheffrey is not an out-and-out striker, but has the pedigree and the quality to merit inclusion over these two.

So there you go, based on my reckoning (which maybe clouded by both rose-tinted looks into the past, and a frustrated assessment of the present) 7 of the 11 who played against Blackpool on Easter Monday to become holders of the worst run of form in the history of Doncaster Rovers would be replaced by members of what is universally acknowledged as the worst team in the history of Doncaster Rovers. Things are worse than I thought… Continue reading