Through Sliding Doors: Moments That Shaped Modern Rovers
Football is truly a game of moments. Hundreds of unpredictable battles play out over the course of a single match on any given Saturday, whilst decisions off the field can send the fortunes of players, managers and clubs in completely different directions. At Doncaster Rovers, the past two decades have provided a catalogue of these moments, many of them adding up to memorable success.
However, some key instances which led Rovers to where they are today could have had polar opposite effects to the ones they had. Rather than waste our time wondering whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow should have made that train, we instead decided to speculate on three such moments in time and how they could so easily have altered the entire course of the club’s recent history.
One disclaimer before we begin: this piece focuses on off-field forks in the road of history, as often-replayed memories in games are all part of the beauty of football’s inherent drama as a sport. That means no musing over Marcello Trotta hitting the net instead of the crossbar, Ashley Vickers keeping up with Francis Tierney or Riyad Mahrez deciding not to dive over James Husband’s leg to win a penalty.
Copps Almost a Miller
One man has been a near continuous presence in all of Rovers’ great achievements of the past 15 years. James Coppinger has played an integral role in three promotions and a cup win on his way to a record-breaking 637 appearances and counting, but what it could easily have never happened. The blonde-haired winger endured a tough start to life in South Yorkshire, failing to net a single goal in his first season, and by the time the 2005-06 campaign was underway, he was struggling to get in the side.
Manager Dave Penney was trying to work out his best XI, and Copps didn’t always feature in it, making way for such luminaries as Uros Predic and Adam Hughes. Having started only three of the first league games, the situation was worsening and Coppinger looked likely to be consigned to the list of Rovers disappointments before him that included John Sheridan, Justin Jackson and Jermaine McSporran.
The Guisborough native admitted in an interview with the D3D4 Podcast last year that the opportunity arose for a loan move out of the club, and though it seems preposterous now, his destination was to be Millmoor to play for Rovers’ bitter local rivals Rotherham United. It is fair to say the Millers were a club on a downward spiral, freshly relegated out of the Championship and soon to descend further into the bottom tier, but the switch could have given Coppinger the kick up the backside he needed to realise his potential.
Penney though changed his mind on the move, possibly because he realised his exotic summer signings Predic and Hughes were not much to shout about, and Coppinger rewarded the renewed show of faith with a pair of assists on his return to the side against Scunthorpe. That performance earned him a start against Manchester City in the Carling Cup, a famous night in which the winger netted one of the decisive penalties past England keeper David James in a shoot-out, and from there he never looked back.
Coppinger has spoken extensively about his mental health struggles during his early career, and credits Penney with having a positive impact, and for putting him in touch with motivational coach Terry Gormley, a figure who has had a huge influence on Coppinger. His first goal in the hoops came in November of 2005 just before a cup Quarter Final against Arsenal, and the evergreen midfield maestro has been a first-choice player for Rovers ever since.
Imagine a world where James Coppinger is a Rotherham legend who made less than 60 appearances for the Rovers, let alone 600. Actually, on second thought let’s not bother.
Rovers Redemption for King Kev
Long before the phenomenon of “memes” came to figure in everyone’s lives, a recurring feature of any speculation around the manager’s position at Doncaster Rovers involved mentioning Kevin Keegan. The Armthorpe-born forward was one of the sport’s first superstars in Britain but never pulled on the shirt of his hometown club after missing a trial set up by his father, going on to stardom with Liverpool and England after getting his start down the M180 at Scunthorpe in a classic Sliding Doors moment in its own right.
That early near-miss by Rovers made for a great narrative then if the man dubbed “King Kev” by Newcastle fans were to ever come home as a manager, and in John Ryan the club had a chairman who loved a good story and had the ambition to try and pull off an audacious move. By the time Dave Penney’s incredible tenure in the hot seat had come to an end, former England boss Keegan was available having left Premier League Man City the year before.
Rovers of course were a lowly League One club at the time, but Keegan had previous for such a move. Barely a year after coming close to winning the English title with the Magpies, Keegan joined Fulham, then of the third tier and owned by another true character in the ambitious Mohammed Al-Fayed. Keegan and Ray Wilkins led the Cottagers into the then First Division, and Ryan had designs on repeating the feat in South Yorkshire with Keegan in charge.
The return of the prodigal son to his boyhood club would have made news across the country, but it never came to pass despite extensive rumours and media speculation. Ryan instead turned to Sean O’Driscoll, a little known but accomplished head coach who had caught the Rovers board’s attention two years prior when he led his Bournemouth side to a 5-0 demolition of Penney’s side. O’Driscoll turned the team into the “Arsenal of the North” and went on to become the club’s greatest ever manager, but it could have been so different.
Keegan was known for turning his teams into entertainers, with an attitude of “if you score three, we’ll score four!”, and it would have been curious to see Rovers play in his image. O’Driscoll pulled the club into the second tier playing cultured, technical football and created a philosophy that the Rovers hierarchy still aim to replicate to this day. Without him, the last decade-plus would look incredibly different. No Hayter, no Stock, possibly no Wembley and no Championship.
Or, King Kev could have catapulted Donny into the big time, 40 years on from watching Alick Jeffrey light up Belle Vue. Personally though, we wouldn’t trade the glory years under Sean and co. for anything.
Ryan’s Wrong Direction
Fast-forward to 2014 and things were very different at Doncaster Rovers. Relegated from the Championship, O’Driscoll and the team he built had all gone – except for Coppinger, naturally – and chairman John Ryan had stepped down in dramatic fashion prior to a game at Barnsley the previous season, taking to sitting with the fans in the away end at Oakwell as something of a last stand having fallen out with his fellow directors.
The cosmetics entrepreneur saved the club from oblivion in 1998 and led Rovers back to prominence, but attempted to secure fresh investment in 2013 in the form of the incredibly dubious Sequentia Capital, a hedge fund entity that Terry Bramall and Dick Watson were right to distance themselves from. Ryan made a fresh salvo following that season, but this time he had a much more high profile partner in tow.
Louis Tomlinson shot to fame as part of boy band One Direction, making a point of highlighting his Doncaster routes and fandom for the Rovers during the group’s rise. Ryan enlisted Tomlinson’s help and began a crowd-funding campaign to raise what he claimed were additional funds to the capital already available to take over and run the club, but soon after national media reported the imminent sale the whole thing collapsed.
It transpired that the money raised through the crowd-funder – which largely amounted to enticing fervent pop music fans to buy Tomlinson merchandise – was in essence the only money being used and Tomlinson told his fans he was “misled” over this aspect of the venture, whilst Ryan blamed the Football League for failing him on their “Fit and Proper Persons” test used to assess all ownership changes of member clubs.
Neither Ryan nor Tomlinson have really been active around the club since, although both still support their boyhood side, but whilst this brief summer dalliance with fame is often forgotten now by fans, it is intriguing to ponder how far the charismatic duo could have taken Rovers had the promises been true. A bigger budget and a guaranteed spotlight could have propelled the club forward, especially at a time when everything was trending down and was only to get worse before it got better.
Two years later, Rovers dropped briefly into League Two. Rebuilding anew under Bramall and Watson – succeeded by his son Andy having passed away in 2017 – has served the club well and, back on a stable footing in footballing and financial terms, the future looks bright under their stewardship.