Doncaster promised bigger things ahead

Rovers' new chairman, John Ryan, plans to transform his club from a laughing stock into a thriving, winning team. By Rupert Metcalf
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The Independent Online
"STAND UP If Your Seat's On Fire" is the name of an Internet web-site dedicated to the fortunes of Doncaster Rovers, a football club which was the laughing stock of the Nationwide League last season. They are now trying to rise from the ashes in the Football Conference - with the help of a multi-millionaire whose company enhanced Melinda Messenger's breasts. The jokes, it seems, may just get bawdier.

The title of the fans' web-site refers to the most notorious episode in the six-year reign at Rovers of Ken Richardson, a waste-paper baron whose control of the club culminated in last season's catastrophic Third Division campaign.

Richardson is due to stand trial early next year on charges of conspiracy to commit arson, following a fire in June 1995 which damaged part of the main stand at the run-down Belle Vue ground. Despite scepticism from supporters, it does seem, though, that his extraordinary era is over.

Rovers' new chairman is John Ryan, who grew up in a council house in Doncaster and has been supporting the team for 40 years. His first spell as a director ended in disputes with Richardson. Now he is back, craving "genuine success for the club" and a rapid return to, at least, the Third Division but with higher goals in mind.

Ryan has made his millions from Transform, Europe's biggest cosmetic surgery company, which enlarged the assets of Ms Messenger, the often- exposed model and television presenter. He drives a racing green Bentley Turbo and lives in a pounds 400,000 house in Cheshire. His home brought him notoriety last year, when the BBC television series Neighbours At War reported on petty disputes between him and his neighbours over allegedly tasteless renovations to his house and garden.

Rovers' fans do not care about Ryan's garden, though - they want his money and they want him to give them back what they had lost: hope. Last season Richardson and his sidekick, the club's general manager Mark Weaver, were the targets of a campaign of abuse from the fans. It seemed justified: by the end of term the team had no manager, no coaches and were not required to attend training sessions.

Just four wins from 46 games meant that Rovers finished 15 points adrift and were relegated from the League. Takeover rumours were frequent distractions last season, and they continued throughout the summer until this week, when Rovers revealed Ryan as their chairman and the men behind their new owners.

The club is now owned by Westferry, a development company based in the Isle of Man and run by an Irish entrepreneur, Aidan Phelan. Westferry intends to build a new stadium for Rovers within the next 15 months in partnership with the local council, which owns both Belle Vue and the new site at nearby Doncaster Leisure Park. Ryan will work with Westferry and intends to take full control of the club when the new ground is complete. In the meantime, he has said he has already invested "a substantial seven- figure sum" in the club.

On the pitch there is hope, too. This month Rovers brought back a past hero to become player-manager: Ian Snodin, who began his career at Belle Vue before moving on to Leeds and Everton. "I've got Doncaster at heart," he said after his first home game in charge, Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Southport. "I arrived here as a 14-year-old and had some great times, winning promotion twice."

When Snodin returned, on 1 August, he had a squad of only five players. It was quite an achievement, then, just to field a team for last Saturday's debut in the Conference, a 1-0 defeat at Dover. His major recruit so far made his debut on Tuesday: the former Wales and Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall.

"If I came from Denmark, I would probably have got a job with a Football League club," Southall, 40 next month, said. He is only at Belle Vue on a short-term basis, and is still hoping to play at a higher level.

"Different class," was Snodin's verdict on his former Goodison colleague, who was not at fault for Southport's winner. Rovers were enthusiastic but unlucky on Tuesday. With more new faces to follow to join Southall, the former Leeds and Oldham striker Tommy Wright and the other recent signings, points will be won sooner rather than later.

"I'm still looking for three or four players," Snodin said. "We're nowhere near the finished article." Another old team-mate of his, the former Leeds and Republic of Ireland playmaker John Sheridan, was a spectator at Tuesday's match, and he may join Rovers' still full-time squad if his current trial at Huddersfield does not work out.

The Southport game was watched by the highest Conference crowd of the night, 3,663, quite an achievement when Yeovil, Rushden, Hereford, Woking and Cheltenham were all playing home fixtures. The support is there, and if Ryan, Snodin and the other people who are keeping this proud club alive can transform the fortunes of Doncaster Rovers, a miracle will have happened in South Yorkshire.

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