In Matt’s previous house there was a photo on the wall. It was of himself, sat on the grass, legs crossed, head bowed beneath his baseball cap. The picture was taken at Belle Vue as Doncaster Rovers took on Hull City. The date, Saturday 4th April 1998. The time, just after ten past three. The piece of grass on which Matt was sitting, the centre-spot.
This was just one of many stand-out images from Doncaster Rovers’ 1997-98 season. That afternoon, if Rovers failed to win, the inevitability of relegation would become a reality. And so with knowledge that the press were present, supporters – led by Matt’s solo stroll to the centre-spot – took to the field in a last bid to make the football authorities take note of how their club had been run into the ground. As other fans joined Matt and the stewards were distracted by events in the centre-circle another supporter, Alan – the former bass player of Big Flame no less – set about chaining himself to the Town End goalposts.
What sums up the abject absurdity of this season more than anything is the fact that back then, none of that previous paragraph seemed at all odd. Alan is going to chain himself to the goalposts whilst Matt is sat on the centre spot you say? Ah fair enough. Teams have bad seasons. Rovers have had many, indeed they’re having one right now, but no club has ever had as terrible, as hopeless, as torrid a time as Doncaster suffered in 1997-98. The record speaks for itself; P46 W4 D8 L34 F30 A127 GD-93 Pts20. Officially the worst. Ever. But it’s the circumstance and environment of that year which contains the story. When chaining yourself to a goalpost is the last viable option you feel you have available to save the club you support, then you’ve reached the epitome of hopelessness.
So this is it, as bad as English League football ever was, and ever will be, but before ploughing on into the mire of the late 90s it’s important you meet the key cast members.
Ken Richardson, future arsonist. Seller of sacks. Switcher of horses. Banned from horse-racing, but not from football. He’d previously taken Bridlington Town on two adventures; firstly to Wembley in the FA Vase, and then to the wall in a huff. In 1993 he tried to sell the land on which Belle Vue stood; a particularly brazen move, given that it wasn’t the club’s to sell. Charged with conspiracy to commit arson after a fire in the Main Stand in 1996 (a mobile phone left at the scene had last been used to leave a message on Uncle Ken’s answer phone; “Job’s done” and he later would be) Ken preferred the term ‘benefactor’ for his role. We preferred the term ‘twat’ or worse. Chairman was used as something of a grudging compromise.
Mark Weaver. The puppet on the end of Richardson’s string. The smug defiant face of the regime. Looked like the man they’d get to play Quentin Tarantino in a Crimewatch reconstruction, wore a suit as comfortably and as effortlessly as you or I would wear bee-keeping equipment. Weaver had an interesting football CV, he’d been a club-lottery salesman at Stockport just a year or so previously… and that was it. He often suggested that if it were up to him he would walk away from the club. But it was up to him. And he didn’t. Instead he stayed, relayed messages and even team-talks from the increasingly absent Richardson, and in this one season made the rare trajectory from shop manager to general manager to team manager to player-manager.
Characters now established, onto the opening scene. August. Kerry Dixon stands centre-stage. Dixon had been in charge at Doncaster a year. His arrival, initially as player-manager, had been a surprise for many, most notably his predecessor Sammy Chung who had first learned of Dixon’s appointment just 90 minutes before the opening game of the 1996-97 season when he opened the door to what he presumed to be his office to find the former Chelsea forward sitting at what up until that precise moment had been his desk. Dixon would preside over just three games this campaign – an opening day defeat at Shrewsbury, an 8-0 League Cup pummelling from Nottingham Forest, and a 5-0 home loss to Peterborough – before moving on, unhappy that his team selection was being ‘influenced’ (i.e dictated) by the chairman.
Most clubs would act defiantly to rubbish such claims of interference. Uncle Ken took a different approach, not only picking the team for the next game, but plonking himself on the bench too between substitutes and archetypal hired goons. Unsurprisingly Rovers lost. They lost the next game at home to Exeter too, a result which dropped them to the foot of the table where they would remain for the next eight months; a vertical stripe of 24s where the ‘position’ column on the programme’s ‘Stats’ page should be. Even on the progress charts we were already flat-lining.
September saw the managerial introduction of Colin Richardson (no relation). Well, sort of. He was there. People saw him. There was an arse-print on his desk chair. Sightings of a perm bobbing about in the depths of the dug-out, a Geordie accent carried on the breeze, and grainy footage purported to feature him raising his head from the murky waters of the Loch before disappearing into a Portacabin. Under the invisible regime of Richardson, C, Rovers did chalk up their first point though with a draw at Mansfield; Prince Moncrieffe scoring the goal. Moncrieffe would go on to be the side’s top scorer, doubling the tally of his nearest challenger and scoring more than a third of the team’s goals. He scored 8.
Towards the end of the month Richardson looked to 37 year-old defender Andy Thorpe to bring in experience. Having played over 500 games in the Football League Thorpe certainly had experience, but the last of those League games had been more than five years previously. He’d been turning out for Chorley for two seasons when he was chucked into the side; less a lifebelt, more a wreath at a sea burial. Thorpe played twice – a goalless draw with Cambridge (point number three), and a loss at Torquay – before trundling off back to the significantly more secure and professional world of the Unibond League.
Thorpe was just one of 45 players used that season, a high proportion of which tellingly never played League football anywhere other than their stint at Belle Vue. Two such players would arrive in October when fellow mid to late 90s basket cases Brighton came to town; a must win game if Rovers were to hold out any hope of… well, just if we were to hold any hope. Whoever picked the team rang the changes; out went goalkeeper Gary Ingham and two-goal top-scorer Prince Moncrieffe. In for their debuts came new signings David Smith and Rod Thornley. The latter came from North West Counties League Warrington Town, and if his rise was sizable it was nothing compared to that of goalkeeper Dave Smith, whose previous club was Bramhall, of the Stockport Sunday League. (Smith’s rise was of course in no way linked to his happening to live a few doors down from a certain M. Weaver. Not at all. No). The Brighton game would represent Smith and Thornley’s sole afternoon as professional footballers. Rovers lost 3-1, and were reported to the FA for fielding a weakened team.
Popular youth-team manager Dave Cowling was next to try his hand at first team management for a trip to lose to Colchester. Cowling oversaw the next game too (a defeat at Swansea), and then stepped down, resigning due to interference from Ken Richardson. The chairman, absent since the Brighton game, had contacted Cowling from his hollowed out volcano in Driffield to tell his manager who would be starting and who’d be on the bench for the trip to Scarborough the following week.
November, fourth month of the season, four points on the board, and a fourth manager in what passed for control. Pipe-smoking, cap-wearing Uruguyan Danny Bergara was now in charge but unlike Dixon, Richardson and Cowling, Bergara had an ace up his sleeve. He was a man with a plan. Rather than assigning the shirt numbers in order, he would dish them out at random to try and confuse the opposition. It bloody worked too. Well, sort of. Cardiff and Barnet seemingly bamboozled by the madness of a central midfielder wearing Number 2 so much they could only stumble to perplexing draws. Unfortunately the other five sides Rovers faced somehow carried on undaunted by Bergara’s numberwang and inflicted five defeats. Curses. At November’s end Bergara relinquished his manager’s jacket, sadly not to don a doctor’s coat in an effort to bewilder opponents, but to step down from his role.
Nevermind. Mark Weaver knew just the man to take over from Bergara: Mark Weaver. “As a person I didn’t much dislike him, I just didn’t think he had much idea about football,” was how midfielder Jim Dobbin saw Weaver’s self-appointment; the senior pro’s words the most ringing endorsement the new gaffer received. As for Weaver’s own view? “I was just lucky enough to win my first game in charge.” He did as well. Highlighting just how useless a barometer of a manager’s ability his first game is, at the 24th attempt, Rovers won a game. A 2-1 victory over Chester City, although only 864 were there to see it.
The next three games would give a more accurate portrayal of Weaver’s managerial prowess as Rovers shipped sixteen goals. Eight of those came at Brisbane Road, and it could have been more had Orient not withdrawn their front two for the final fifteen minutes out of sympathy.
January, like December, would start with an unexpected victory as Rovers defeated Shrewsbury 1-0 at Belle Vue with a Moncrieffe goal. In post-match interviews the Prince was asked his thoughts about “making double figures” – he thought they meant goals for himself, the interviewer actually meant points for the club; Rovers now had 12 on the board. Normal service resumed for the rest of the month; three games, three defeats, ten goals shipped. February brought unexpected hope with a shock 1-0 win at promotion chasing Peterborough and the signing of Padi Wilson. An impressive winger, Wilson scored in a 2-1 loss at Cambridge and looked a threat. Sadly the local constabulary concurred, and within a month of signing Wilson was at her majesty’s pleasure, imprisoned for three months for driving whilst disqualified.
Valentine’s Day witnessed a rare beam of sunshine through the gloom courtesy of a love-in with Brighton, as fans from clubs around the world descended on Albion’s temporary Priestfield home for the Fans United forerunner, The Heart of Football. The fixture between the Football League’s 91st and 92nd ranked clubs was perhaps fittingly a dour 0-0; indeed the highlight came pre-match as the Brighton PA operator paid a subtle nod to Rovers’ chairman with a medley of fire-related songs.
After the sweetness and love of Brighton what passed for normality resumed a week later as supporters arrived for a 1-0 defeat to Torquay to find an effigy of Ken Richardson hanging from the entrance to the Belle Vue car park. Rovers had been in administration since October, and in March the dearth of available funds really began to bite, especially after a record low of just 739 turned up for a midweek game with Barnet. The club’s coaching staff, both of them, were laid off for five days, and when they next turned up at the ground they were given £75 each and told to go away. No more coaching, no more training. Players were now just turning up for games.
On 14th March Rovers went to 21st place Cardiff City and lost 7-1. Adie Mike’s late consolation goal celebrated as if it were a winner. Adie Mike and Mike Smith, a pair of capable forwards, were two rare decent players amongst the dross. At Cardiff they were deployed at centre-back and left-back respectively. By now Rovers squad contained just seven full-time professionals. Ahead of the transfer deadline day Mark Weaver moved to make that eight by signing himself. The next week, Rovers played Lincoln at home and thrust seven members of the youth team into the matchday squad. Though they lacked experience the teenagers certainly possessed commitment to the cause of their home town club as they struggled bravely to a 4-2 defeat. The kids duly retained their places for the trip to Rochdale at the end of the month, and indeed for the remainder of the season.
By now protests by supporters, led by the Save the Rovers group, were becoming more voiciferous and increasingly brazen. At Spotland a spectator decided he could do no worse than Weaver and elected to sit in the dugout, simply climbing over the fence and onto the bench with the words “Move up Mark, what the hell is going on?” Protests and acts such as these were carried out at great risk, though not necessarily of arrest. Prominent members of Save the Rovers had been receiving ad-hoc early-hours phone calls most of the season, some had had their tyres slashed, and one November morning several stepped out their front door to find their respective cars coated in cream paint.
So to April, and the match against Hull. Win or most probably bust. Ten minutes in whistles from the Pop Side gave Matt his cue to stroll to the centre spot, and Alan began to edge round the Town End. The on-pitch protest lasted several minutes before, point made, the Rovers fans filed off; Matt exchanged his hat and coat with other fans à la Escape to Victory to blend back into the meagre crowd and, as two policemen suggested going to the groundsman’s shed for a saw, Alan admitted the key was actually in his sock. Two hours later, deep in time added on for the removal of an 80s post-punk vocalist from the goal-frame, Adie Mike swivelled and struck a desperate winning goal. Rovers were safe for at least another Saturday, and for one last time people could celebrate.
The inevitable relegation was instead confirmed a week later, with a 2-1 defeat at Chester City. On the final day of the season Rovers fans arrived at the ground in a mock-funeral cortege from the Park Hotel. Flowers were laid behind the Town End. A bugler played The Last Post. The pitch was invaded several times. But it was to no avail. Still the FA cared not one jot. The game was lost 1-0, the club, we thought, was lost forever. That was hopelessness; that was the worst ever season.