The Thursday Preview: Doncaster Rovers Vs Leeds United
This Sunday sees Sheffield Utd and Sheffield Wednesday battle it out for bragging rights in the Steel City derby. But, for Blades and Owls fans who retain enough of a sense of perspective to be able to take a step back, there won’t be much to brag about, regardless of the outcome. After all, the clash will be played out in the third tier of English football. The victors can puff out their chests all they like, but they’ll have won the footballing equivalent of a tallest dwarf contest.
The ailing fortunes of the bitter Sheffield rivals are exemplary of the fact that recent years haven’t been kind to Yorkshire clubs. The largest county in the UK can’t boast a single representative in the top flight. No doubt all the more galling for regional pride, then, that across the Pennines Man Utd and Man City are Premier League powerhouses busy obliterating the opposition and even the clubs hailing from the modest Lancashire towns of Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton all have their defensive frailties analysed by Alan Hansen rather than Steve Claridge (for the time being, at least).
It’s not quite been all grim oop north, though – one club has been quietly bucking the trend, punching impressively above its weight rather than pathetically underachieving. After winning promotion in 2008, Doncaster Rovers quickly established themselves in the Championship, refusing to be intimidated or overawed by their supposedly more illustrious opponents. On the pitch manager Sean O’Driscoll created a compact and fluent footballing side, while off it an enlightened board lent enthusiastic but financially prudent support. Rovers were a shining example rather than a cautionary tale.
As has been superbly chronicled by Glen Wilson of Donny blog Viva Rovers, all that changed on 23rd September when O’Driscoll’s five-year reign was brought to a brutal and unsentimental end, reportedly by text message. Admittedly things had started to look rather less rosy, in that the club finished only one place away from a return to League One last season and were on a run of 19 games without a win when O’Driscoll was given the boot. But the board’s decision still seemed to outsiders, and indeed many Donny fans, to display a disrespectful lack of gratitude to a man who’d brought improbable success and entertaining football on a shoestring. And it seemed downright disgraceful in the context of John Ryan’s unequivocal backing of O’Driscoll barely hours before: “I can’t think of any manager that is better equipped for the job, and those clubs who sack managers willy nilly end up relegated. The board and I are not going down that path. You only have to look at our neighbours Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday – need I say more?“. The chairman went from benevolent supremo to Machiavellian schemer in an instant.
The man jumping eagerly into O’Driscoll’s grave was Dean Saunders, no doubt delighted to be offered an opportunity to escape the uncertainty at Wrexham that just also happened to be a significant step up. It’s customary for new managers to ask for a guarantee of funds to work with – but, as Glen’s pointed out, the board’s sudden and rabid willingness to back Saunders with wads of cash denied to O’Driscoll means that the ousted manager has every right to sit at home feeling more and more embittered every time another fallen Premier League star signs up.
Pascal Chimbonda was the first – presumably just a coincidence that he shares an agent, Willie McKay, with Saunders… He was followed by West Ham’s Herita Ilunga on loan and now one-time England ‘keeper Chris Kirkland. The rumour mill, cranked up to warp speed, has linked Donny with loan moves for Newcastle’s Dan Gosling as well as Ilunga’s Hammers teammate Frederic Piquionne and former Real Madrid midfielder Mahamadou Diarra. (I’m still not sure whether the Sun did genuinely think Lassana Diarra was a target, or whether they just mixed their Diarras up. Still, any excuse for that “French ‘n’ Saunders” pun…)
For those dismayed by events at the Keepmoat, results since Saunders’ arrival have frustratingly borne out the hierarchy’s decisions. Seven points from his first three games in charge (wins over Crystal Palace and Peterbrough and a draw against Hull) have propelled Rovers out of the relegation zone and above managerless self-styled big boys Nottingham Forest. But there are a lot of games to go yet, and a rookie gaffer and a slew of marquee signing mercenaries aren’t really what’s required when you’re grubbing around at the bottom of a league as tough and competitive as the Championship.
While Ryan pointed to the Sheffield clubs to illustrate his argument about the folly of “hot-headed” sackings, Glen noted of the prelapsarian Donny: “We had learned from the examples of our county neighbours heading in the opposite direction and were choosing an alternate path.” If ever there was a warning as to the dangers of greed, grasping ambition, gross mismanagement and financial recklessness, then Leeds are it, plummeting from the semi-finals of the Champions League to the old third division in the space of six seasons. Their nightmare was a Schadenfreude addict’s dream.
League One proved to be as far as Leeds would fall, though, and now they’re on an upward curve again. Last season’s first campaign back in the Championship culminated in a very respectable seventh-placed finish, missing out on the play-offs by just three points. Inevitably the summer saw a couple of high-profile departures: Bradley Johnson, a prime example of Norwich manager Paul Lambert’s policy of recruiting cheaply from the Football League; and Kasper Schmeichel, under something of a cloud, to be reunited with Sven-Goran Eriksson. But there remained the nucleus of a strong side: elegant Argentine marksman Luciano Becchio; classy Scotland international winger Robert Snodgrass; tenacious central midfielder Jonny Howson, an academy product who at just 23 is already captain and the club’s longest serving current player.
Nevertheless, when the new season kicked off it seemed as though the Whites were suffering something of a hangover. A comprehensive opening-day defeat at newly promoted Southampton was followed by a home loss to Middlesbrough during which both Howson and tricky Ivorian winger Max Gradel were red-carded. That game was preceded by protests from fans disgruntled at the lack of summer investment – fans who were subsequently branded “morons” by owner Kuddly Ken Bates – and before August was out 2011 Fans’ and Players’ Player of the Year Gradel had scarpered for St Etienne.
Since then, though, it’s all turned around – largely thanks to Ross McCormack. Having rediscovered the mojo that netted him 23 strikes for Cardiff in 2008/9, the predatory Scot has plundered nine goals to date, in the process becoming the first Leeds player to score in six consecutive matches for over half a century. Donny have no excuse for being unaware of the threat he poses, either, given that he scored five times on loan at Rovers back in 2006.
Also making an impression this term has been Ramon Nunez, who clearly benefitted from a two-month loan spell at Scunthorpe at the tail end of last season and been rewarded for his form with a new four-year deal. Four of his five goals have come in the League Cup, including (ominously for Donny) a brace as the white-shirted visitors triumphed at the Keepmoat. (I wonder whether he’s any relation of Mackem, er, goal machine Milton Nunez?)
The apparent financial strictures haven’t prevented manager Simon Grayson from supplementing his squad with the short-term signings of experienced Finnish duo Mikael Forssell and Mika Vayrynen, but he and his club’s supporters will be particularly encouraged by the emergence of two potential new stars. Defender Tom Lees, who cut his teeth with loans along the M62 at Accrington Stanley and Bury, made the best possible amends for an own goal against Hull by promptly scoring at the right end, while midfielder Adam Clayton salvaged a point with his first-ever goal for the club in injury time at Upton Park. Wonder how long it’ll be before the red-tops exhaust all the U2 puns?
The promise of a bright future, then – but Leeds could yet be plunged back into turmoil, if the vexed issue of ownership rears its head. David Conn’s prodding and poking around in the murk have earned both the Guardian and Auntie Beeb an Elland Road ban from Kuddly Ken. Still, while that issue might have repercussions in the coming weeks and months, it won’t have any bearing on tomorrow night’s game. Bates’ side have beaten all three of their Yorkshire opponents thus far and I expect them to start showing the Doncaster board the folly of their actions.