The funeral cortege trundles slowly towards Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue stadium. Joined by hundreds of mourners, the congregation approaches the grounds bearing wreaths, banners and handmade memorials in remembrance of the departed.
It’s the final day of the 1997/98 season and Doncaster are playing host to Colchester United. Only today’s match is just a mere footnote to the real reason why many of the thousands gathered at the ground are in attendance. They’re here to say goodbye.
Inside the stadium, a trumpeter blasts out a rendition of the Last Post, while grown men shed tears into their red-and-white scarves before laying a floral display. The sense of sorrow is overwhelming.
But despite the funereal atmosphere, nobody has died. The only casualty is Doncaster Rovers, a club on the brink of oblivion.
Today’s match is the culmination of one of the most depressing seasons English football has ever seen. And not just because the South Yorkshire outfit’s beleaguered squad are due to set a Football League record for the most defeats in a season – their tally of 34 losses still stands 20 years on.
Worse still than the humiliating end to Doncaster’s 75-year Football League tenure is the fact that many in the crowd expect 1997/98 to be club’s final campaign in any division.
Lurching from one calamity to the next, Doncaster’s year reads like a film script. The groundwork for such a disastrous tale was laid in 1993 when businessman Ken Richardson took over.
Initially hailed as a saviour after splashing the cash to bring in a host of new signings, any positivity quite literally went up in smoke less than three years later.
When the main stand at Belle Vue set fire one night in 1995, the discovery of empty petrol cans nearby sparked suspicion of foul play. And when Richardson was arrested and later charged for conspiracy to commit arson, the sky began to fall in on Doncaster.
Reportedly valued at £18m, the land that Belle Vue was built on was considered to be the most lucrative of any football ground in the country outside London.
However, Richardson’s plan to move to a new stadium and cream off the profit was scuppered due to a council covenant placed on the site.
With a court date set for January 1999, Richardson was released on bail and free to continue running the club. But he soon found Doncaster a less-than-welcoming place to return to – especially when he decided to withdraw all financial support for the club.
It meant that by February 1997, Donny were facing a court winding-up order and shedding senior pros at a frightening speed. Add to that claims by then-manager Kerry Dixon that he wasn’t picking the team and optimism was pretty low on the eve of the new season.
Dixon didn’t last long and left the club in August, triggering the first of several managerial changes. His permanent replacement Dave Cowling didn’t arrive until more than a month later, but departed within just nine days due to Richardson’s meddling in team selection.
By the time Uruguayan Danny Bergara took up the reins, the writing was already on the wall. Eleven defeats and only four points from their opening 15 matches had already anchored Rovers to the foot of the table. Goals were raining in against them, including an 8-0 home drubbing by Nottingham Forest in the League Cup.
Bergara soon became the next victim of Richardson’s interference and threw in the towel before the end of the month, only to return soon after as director of football. He’d work in tandem with general manager Mark Weaver, a frontman for Richardson who had limited experience of working at a football club.
The unlikely couple did manage to secure a first win of the season at the 21st time of asking with a 2-1 victory Chester City at the start of December, although it was nothing more than a rare success in a season of drudgery.
With tensions between the club’s ownership and fans at breaking point, attendances plummeted and those supporters who remained on the terraces targeted their ire at Weaver. Protests, pitch invasions and abuse became hallmarks of a visit to Belle Vue, with the hatred boiling over into more severe threats.
“I’ve got a couple of security lads who travel with me to every game, home and away,” Weaver told Channel Five documentary, They Think It’s All Rovers, at the time.
“I’ve had death threats both to the club and my home in Manchester. They’d cut out a colour picture of me from the local newspaper, with my head chopped off and blood dripping down. It said, ‘leave or else, Donny Boot Boys’.”
As the defeats stacked up, Doncaster continued to catapult towards the relegation trapdoor. By spring, demotion out of the Football Team was inevitable, but whether the shambles that would be left behind would even be capable of competing in the Conference wasn’t so certain.
With only one senior pro left on the books, Bergara called upon youth teamers to fill the starting XI. He was even forced to hold voluntary training sessions on a local park because the club had no facilities available, nor money to pay expenses for players to attend.
Things got so bad that goalkeeper Dave Smith, who was Weaver’s neighbour, was signed from a Sunday League side to play against Darlington. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well – Smith was substituted at half-time as Rovers were stuffed 5-1, never to play again.
The remaining youth team, which was canned before the season ended, wasn’t immune from farce. With no staff left to train them, they were forced to hold sessions in the Belle Vue stands and, on one occasion, a group of them were locked in the players’ entrance after the door handle broke.
It appeared that Doncaster Rovers were a club only heading in one direction. After relegation was confirmed, the final match of the season was picked by Save The Rovers as the perfect time to make a stand.
After the mock-funeral march to the ground before the game, fans – some dressed as pallbearers – were invited onto the pitch to lay flowers in the hope it would quell any trouble. However, when one pitch invader led the way for hundreds more to follow during the first half, the players were forced to return to the dressing room.
A large-scale protest followed, with supporters calling for Richardson and Weaver to sell the club. A poisonous atmosphere festered and, with concerns for his safety, Weaver was advised to leave the ground by police.
Weaver’s departure wasn’t as undignified as Richardson’s, though. The owner was found guilty of his role in the 1995 fire and sentenced to four years in jail, with the key piece of evidence as ludicrous as the mess he had overseen at Donny: a mobile phone left at the scene by the hired hand who set the fire, containing a message sent to Richardson saying, “the job’s been done”.
While Doncaster returned to the Football League in 2003, Richardson and Weaver didn’t surface again. The mark they left on the club, however, will never truly be laid to rest.
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