Compared to this time last season, Doncaster Rovers have transformed their image in a remarkable way. On the field we have recovered from the mess left at the end of last season, which saw the club have a team full of players brought in by Willie McKay in a shop window ‘experiment’ to build a whole new team. We now have one of the best away records in the Football League and currently sit second in the table, one point behind leaders Bournemouth, with the chance to be promoted and possibly become League One Champions this Saturday when we travel to third place Brentford in a winner takes all match for promotion.
Off the field, however, has seen the real transition. Towards the end of last season the club, in partnership with the supporters trust the Viking Supporters Co-operative embarked upon a journey of fan engagement in an attempt to restore the pride and support of the Doncaster Rovers fans after many supporters left the Keepmoat Stadium last season feeling disillusioned with the club.
The idea behind it is a pretty simple one: The business model of most clubs in the country dictate that the quickest way of putting bums on seats is by winning and success, but out of the 92 clubs in the country, only a handful are successful, which makes it very unsustainable. So Doncaster are determined to improve every single other aspect of the match day experience to try and make the match as enjoyable as ever, despite what the result might be.
This new approach to building a support base (and keeping that base) began with an incredibly huge fan survey covering as many aspects as the match day experience as possible, including pre-match atmosphere, the club shop, ticket office, concourses, choice of food/drink, travel, parking etc. The results of this widespread survey set the mechanics in motion and since we as fans have seen the bar at the Keepmoat Stadium renamed the “Belle Vue Bar” in honor of our much remembered home for 84 years. This has been decorated by memorabilia donated by the fan-base, and if you go in there on match day you can order a unique pint of ‘1879’ – a Rovers beer named after the year we were formed.
An improved bus service has been put on for matchdays and a new catering contract has been put in place to improve the food and drink aspect. Cash turnstiles, singing and unreserved sections have been trialled at cup games this season and a smoking bubble introduced so that those of us who crave a cigarette after watching tense football can relieve our needs at half-time with a quick ciggie! To top it off Rovers fans were invited to submit designs for next seasons shirts, with fans voting on those shirts, meaning that both the home and away shirt next season will have been designed by the fans, for the fans.
When Dean Saunders made the switch to Wolves earlier this season the club interviewed an eight-year-old fan for the vacant managers job, showing everyone just how much this club has embraced the fan engagement concept, adequately named ‘In Rovers We Trust.’
Meanwhile back on the field the Rovers have had an encouraging season back in League One after a four year stint in the Championship. The main highlights of this season include doing the double over M180 neighbors Scunthorpe United. After conceding late equalisers at Shrewsbury Town, Tranmere Rovers and Bournemouth we managed to score minutes later to secure three points in all three games showing that this new Doncaster Rovers may not play the pretty football we were known for under Sean O’Driscoll, but we are much more physical, stronger and efficient in front of goal.
When Dean Saunders left the club, a day after we beat Colchester 1-0 at home and sitting second in the table, there was a lot of speculation as to who would succeed him. With names flying round such as Mark Robins, Steve Cotterill and even ex-player Mark Wilson being tipped for the job , few were surprised when Brian Flynn was named the man tasked with continuing Doncaster Rovers form to seal promotion to the Championship.
In his first game in charge as caretaker manager the Rovers were playing at Broadhall Way against old Conference rivals Stevenage and with 15 minutes on the clock it seemed the resilience of Doncaster Rovers left with Dean Saunders. However the Rovers got back on level terms and with seconds remaining Rob Jones headed home the winner. The next game at home to Leyton Orient saw an average but efficient 2-0 performance keep Doncaster on track to challenge Tranmere at the top of the league.
However Brian Flynn’s Doncaster aren’t unbeatable and we did suffer defeats to MK Dons, Bury, Walsall, Carlisle and Coventry. Struggling Portsmouth held us to a draw and we managed to get lucky to stop Yeovil winning 10 games in a row. Results against Hartlepool, Crewe, Bournemouth Swindon and Tranmere however have kept us in the mix and a win last Saturday would have kept us top of the table, going into the last game of the season against Brentford knowing that even a 1-0 loss would send us up.
Last Saturday, after a year of rebuilding, was the chance to sign off 10 years back in the Football League in style in front of our home fans. A huge fan engagement program off the pitch and a table topping side on the pitch was the ingredients of 11,000 fans making their way to the Keepmoat in the sunshine to romp the boys home. Unfortunately Notts County had other ideas and a wonder goal early in the game was just enough to deny Doncaster the chance to be promoted and after Bournemouth passed us into first position, it gave Brentford the chance to overtake us and put us third when they played relegated Hartlepool in a 5:15pm kick off.
Luckily for the Rovers the Monkey Hangers held on, with the draw making the headline game in League One next week the clash between the Bees and the Rovers at Griffin Park. Brentford have the best home form in the decision, boasting 14 wins and only two defeats. Doncaster Rovers meanwhile boast the best away record with 14 wins and an incredible 46 points picked up away from home and 35 goals scored, the most in the division.
Both teams have conceded the same amount of goals, with Brentford conceding just 21 goals at home (only Leyton Orient have conceded less) and the Rovers conceding the same away from home, the best defensive record away from home in the division. Brentford are known for fast attacking football, while some of Doncaster’s better results have come after withstanding lots of pressure from the home team and hitting them on the break.
If Brentford win then they are promoted with Doncaster left to play either Sheffield United, Swindon or Yeovil in the play-offs. If the Rovers win then Brentford could slip to fifth. A draw will be enough for Doncaster, but not for Brentford. In the reverse fixture Brentford had more possession and chances, but thanks to poor finishing the Rovers’ only two shots on target in the second were enough to secure the win. Its been seven years since Doncaster won the final game of the season and it couldn’t be more difficult to predict the result, but as the club named their famous fan engagement project; In Rovers We Trust.
Written by Lee Croft, We Are Going Up’s Doncaster Rovers blogger
Lee tweets at @mr1croft