Lady luck shines on Saunders

New era: Dean Saunders celebrates Rovers' win. Picture: steve taylor
New era: Dean Saunders celebrates Rovers' win. Picture: steve taylor

WEDNESDAY: Doncaster Knights’ boss Brett Davey thought that his playing days were over when he took over as the Championship club’s director of rugby in the summer.

But the 39-year-old was forced to come out of retirement in the club’s opening British & Irish Cup game against Nottingham at Meadow Lane on Wednesday night when both fly-halves cried off.

The B & I Cup is treated much like football’s Carling Cup in the group stages in that clubs often play weakened sides and Knights, who fielded five players on Sheffield Tigers’ books, were no exception.

Davey produced glimpses of the class player he was during his playing career and scored Knights’ only try during a first half where they were second-best for long periods and trailed 25-7 at one stage.

I had thought that it would be a damage limitation exercise in the second half. But after failing to capitalise on a spell of lengthy territorial pressure, Knights made a real fight of it in the last 25 minutes and Nottingham were relieved to hang on for a 33-29 win.

I had to wait quite a long time to talk to Brett after the game as he needed a massage.

I played my last game of union at 39, so I knew how he felt.

THURSDAY: Doncaster Rovers’ new loan signing Jon Parkin spoke to the media after training with his new team-mates for the first time.

It was easy to see why the 6’ 3” Cardiff City striker is nicknamed ‘The Beast’ because he is built more like a rugby forward than a footballer.

I also had a chat with Rovers’ teenage midfielder James Baxendale. With injuries cutting deep into the club’s resources, the former Leeds United junior found himself on the bench in five out of the club’s first six league and cup games, getting on in three of them.

“I was certainly involved at first-team level earlier than I expected,” said Baxendale, who had always supported the club prior to joining them on a one-year deal. I

“I enjoyed being involved in the squad and the buzz on match days, even if I didn’t get on,” he said.

“It was brilliant coming on for my debut against Tranmere in the Carling Cup and against West Ham in the league; I absolutely loved it playing at the Keepmoat Stadium.

“I got in the team earlier than I thought that I would due to injuries and I thought that I did okay.”

Baxendale hasn’t featured in the match-day squad this month and the prospects of him doing so in the immediate future don’t look too bright.

Although keen to be involved again, Baxendale takes a realistic view of his situation.

“It’s part of the game.” he said. “When I signed that was the understanding. I didn’t expect to be involved as quickly as I was because we’ve got a very strong midfield when everyone is fit.

“Training is very competitive and I’m learning every day working with the senior players. I’ve definitely improved whilst I’ve been here.

“I enjoy training but I miss there not been a match at the weekend because that’s what I’ve always been used to. That’s why I look forward to the practice matches because I see them as a chance to try and impress the manager in a competitive situation.”

Rovers No 2 Richard O’Kelly stood in for manager Sean O’Driscoll - who had a prior engagement unconnected with the events to unfold later that evening - at the regular Thursday afternoon press conference at Cantley Park.

Richard, who always seemed to enjoy dealing with the media more than the Rovers’ boss, was on top form.

FRIDAY: Like most people with an interest in football, I awoke on my day off to hear that manager Sean O’Driscoll and his No 2 Richard O’Kelly had been fired late the previous night.

Normally when a club have gone 10 or so games without a win - let alone 19 as in Rovers’ case - it comes as no surprise when a manager is sacked.

But I honestly believed that even if Rovers were to be relegated back to League One it would be no means certain that O’Driscoll would be shown the door given his achievements during his five years in charge and his relationship with chairman John Ryan.

That view had been strengthened in the last couple of weeks with Ryan publicly defending O’Driscoll.

There will have been a growing number of fans wanting a change at the top as Rovers got ever nearer equalling their club-record 20 games without a win.

Although I have no means of knowing, my gut instinct was that O’Driscoll had more supporters than critics and that the majority of fans would have given him until the end of next month to try and turn the tide with the help of the returning key players.

You simply have to take the number of long-term injuries that Rovers have had to contend with into account when. analysing O’Driscoll’s record over the last six months.

The choice of Wrexham boss Dean Saunders as O’Driscoll’s replacement was as much of a shock as his sacking given his lack of managerial experience at Championship level.

Having said that, he’d enjoyed a very successful playing career, had coached at a high level, and was doing well in charge of Blue Square Bet Premier League Wrexham.

I rung O’Kelly to offer my commiserations on his departure and to thank him for all the help he had given me over the years.

I always found him a likeable man who knew his stuff and cared passionately about the club.

I couldn’t get hold of him but left him a message, making it clear that I wasn’t wanting any comments as I rightly suspected that he wouldn’t be able to talk.

But he was good enough to ring me back later that evening and I was able to thank him.

SATURDAY: It was a dawn of a new era for Doncaster Rovers with Saunders, an altogether different character to O’Driscoll, having charge of his first game against Crystal Palace.

The timing could have been better as Rovers would have equalled their worst ever run of games without a win had they lost or drawn against the Eagles.

I was surprised to see Billy Sharp on the bench knowing he’d not been back in full training long and hadn’t played any sort of a warm-up game since being carried off with damaged ankle ligaments in the first game of the season.

Money can buy you most things in football. What it can’t buy you is luck and Saunders certainly had his fair share of it on the day.

The first piece of luck to come Rovers’ way was when Palace had strong claims for an early penalty turned down after striker Glen Murray had took a tumble just inside the box when being tackled by skipper George Friend.

The second slice of luck, a commodity in short supply as far as Rovers are concerned in recent months came when former Palace man John Oster scored what turned out to be the winning goal with a 25 yard shot on 65 minutes which took a huge deflection to wrong-foot the keeper.

Rovers got better the longer the game went on and could have had a couple more goals in the closing stages.

All in all a dream start to life at Doncaster for Saunders.

As was to be expected, Saunders was much in demand by the media after the match and he must have been hoarse by the time he had finished doing the various interviews but he remained chirpy throughout.

MONDAY: Saunders revealed that there would be no permanent role for Rovers’ director of football Mickey Walker, who was in the dug-out with him in Saturday’s game.

He told journalists that, as expected, he would be bringing in his own backroom team from Wrexham.