Light at the end of the tunnel: An exclusive interview with John Ryan (full version)

Rovers' chairman John Ryan watches his side against Barnsley. Picture: Andrew Roe
Rovers' chairman John Ryan watches his side against Barnsley. Picture: Andrew Roe
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JOHN Ryan claims to be the most positive person in Doncaster - and it is very hard not to agree with him.

Doncaster Rovers’ saviour is confident the club will claw their way out of trouble and survive in the Championship for a fourth year running.

No surprise there really.

After all, this is the man who helped Rovers battle back from a much worse position; from potential oblivion.

This is the man whose glass is always half full, and he is desperate for the town to embrace that ideology when it comes to its proud football club.

But when I met Ryan before Monday’s morale-boosting and much-needed win over Barnsley, there was also a hint of realism about the chairman who dared to dream.

For all of the self-made millionaire’s positive thinking and positive predictions, the last 12 months have taken their toll on John Ryan.

Rovers’ outspoken chairman admitted that he has considered his own position after the stresses and strains of sacking Sean O’Driscoll - a manager he both admired and cherished.

But the dawn of a new era in Doncaster’s history - and a fresh start in 2012 - has got train-lover Ryan back on track.

“I have considered my position,” Ryan told me.

“And I tend to think I’ll be respected a lot more once I’ve gone than I am now.

“I’ve had to put up with quite a lot of abuse, and when you’re putting a lot of money into the club that’s hard to take.

“It’s a difficult job being a football club chairman, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

“It’s not good for your health.

“When things are going well it tends to be the manager who takes the plaudits.

“When things are going badly it tends to be you who gets the brickbats.

“We had no option but to change things and to do things in a different way,” said Ryan, reflecting on 2011, a year of meteoric transition at the Rovers.

“Our gates just aren’t good enough for us to compete with the likes of West Ham, Southampton, Birmingham.

“When I grew up in Doncaster we could rely on the fans to come out and support us but these days we just can’t seem to do it.

“We have to cut our cloth accordingly.

“Dick [Watson] and I have put £4 million into the club over the last year and at times I think one or two people are very ungrateful.

“Some people tend to think there’s a long string of people who want to come along and put money into Doncaster Rovers - I can assure them that there is not.

“Apathy reigns unfortunately.

“But that’s life.”

The statistics that led to O’Driscoll’s demise are there in black and white.

In 2011 Rovers won just eight league games out of 48.

According to new boss Dean Saunders, who Ryan describes as “a breath of fresh air”, Rovers need another nine wins over the next four months to survive.

“It’s a new year and a new start,” said Ryan.

“I’ll celebrate if we finish fourth bottom, given the start we had.

“I’ve been here 14 years and last year was definitely the worst year I’ve had as chairman.

“We finished last season badly and started this season badly.

“But we’ve gradually improved and I’m hoping our luck will change. We’ve got a run of two or three home games now and we’ve got the chance to get a bit of momentum.

“We would have been relegated by now if we hadn’t changed things.

“The change of manager wasn’t a difficult decision to make in the end.

“Sean did a very good job for us but, in my opinion, he had lost his way.

“He told me he was struggling and the best thing he could offer was relegation, with a hope of rebuilding in the summer.

“But it’s taken us 50 years to get up to this level, I’m not going to give it up without giving it a really good go.

“Dean Saunders has come in like a breath of fresh air,” he added.

“He’s enthusiastic and he gets on well with the players.

“I’m sure our luck will change at some stage.

“The place is a lot more positive and at least we feel we have a chance of avoiding relegation.

“If we can win in the FA Cup and against Cardiff that would give us a massive boost.

“We’ve beaten some good teams at the Keepmoat in recent weeks so hope springs eternal.”

Readers of Ryan’s regular column in the Free Press will realise that referees were certainly not on his Christmas card list.

And, along with his current positive but realistic outlook, a siege mentality also drives on Doncaster’s supremo.

It is a mentality only intensified by the reaction Ryan has received in some quarters to the so-called McKay Project, the revolutionary transfer policy of agent-turned-Rovers consultant Willie McKay which has seen 13 players move to the Keepmoat Stadium since September.

“Longer term, if we can stay in the Championship we can plan for aggressive assault at the other end of the table,” said Ryan.

“If we get relegated then it’s a real back to the wall situation.

“If the worst does happen then there’ll be a lot of changes - that’s for sure.

“It’s doubtful whether we’ll be able to continue the experiment with Willie because we will have lost that Championship status.

“You’re not going to get an El Hadji Diouf coming in to play in League One.

“But we’re not thinking about that - we’re thinking about staying up.

“I think we’ll stay up.

“I think a few other people in football are jealous of the experiment,” he added.

“Some people don’t like it.

“But I couldn’t care less what other people in football think.

“Most people in football want Doncaster Rovers to be relegated, particularly referees.

“You only have to look at the penalty decision we got at Burnley for instance.

“Teams like ourselves and Barnsley get a raw deal in this league.

“In League One or League Two we’d probably get a much better response from officials because we’d be ex-Championship.

“Nobody thinks we should be in the Championship, even a few people in Doncaster seem to think like that.

“But I’m doing my absolute utmost to make sure we stay in the Championship.”