Opinion: Is Doncaster sport on the way up in 2019?

Rovers, Dons, Knights and Belles had contrasting fortunes in 2018.
Rovers, Dons, Knights and Belles had contrasting fortunes in 2018.

It was just over a year ago that I was on a serious downer about professional sport in Doncaster.

Doncaster Rovers were trundling along in the bottom half of League One and Doncaster RLFC had just finished in their lowest league position since 2010, no closer to regaining Championship status. 

But it was the plight of Doncaster Knights and Doncaster Rovers Belles - and the fact their balance sheets were dictating their league status rather than performance on the pitch - which really got me down. 

Money talks, sadly. The goalposts had moved and the town was getting left behind. Doncaster had been well and truly priced out of elite level sport.

So, 12 months down the line, how are things looking now?  

Well, there's good news, bad news and certainly no magic money fairy.

Rovers and the Dons have at least moved in an upward trajectory.

But Knights and Belles have endured a tough year - and Belles' fall from grace was undoubtedly the most depressing local sports story of 2018.

Let's stay positive for a moment. 

Rovers have kicked on under the tutelage of Grant McCann and will at least start the new year in a league position which roughly matches both the team's ability and the club's spending power.

Whether they can stay in the top six remains to be seen. There is a lot of work still to be done and results will need to improve against the sides above and around them in the table if they are to achieve their goal.

However, after the recent painful slide from the Championship to League Two, the club now appears to be moving very much in the right direction again.

The same is true of the Dons.

Richard Horne's side improved on sixth place to finish third in last season's League One before losing in disappointing fashion at home to Workington Town in the promotion play-offs.

A club record sequence of ten consecutive wins clearly suggests there are strong foundations in place to mount another promotion assault.

But you get the feeling it might be now or never when it comes to ending the club's four-year exile from the Championship.

This year there are no Bradford Bulls, or big fish like them, in the third tier. There are no foreign franchise teams.

Just like their Club Doncaster brothers, the Dons must learn how to win the big games.

The picture is less rosy at Castle Park where Doncaster Knights, play-off finalists in 2016 and fourth a year later, must start winning to simply preserve their Championship status.

To say the club endured a difficult 2018 would be an understatement. 

The sudden death of prop Ian Williams in February after he collapsed in training put things firmly into perspective. 

Knights' form understandably dropped off at the end of last season but, worryingly, the poor results rolled over into this campaign. They have won just four of their last 16 league matches since tragedy struck.

Mercifully, director of rugby Clive Griffiths has made a full recovery from the heart attack he suffered while out jogging in early September.

But positivity is otherwise pretty thin on the ground at a club unlikely to go up in the near future, due to the RFU's decision to scrap the promotion play-offs, but which should certainly not go down.

Equally sobering are the dwindling attendance numbers at their Armthorpe headquarters.

Just 888 watched the first home game of the season against Hartpury College, a rather damning indictment of a competition that has become mundane and predictable.

Knights' on-the-field struggles rather pale into insignificance when it comes to the cataclysmic collapse of the Belles, for whom a top flight return now looks like a pipe dream.

Three years ago they still had a place at the top table alongside the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Now one of the most famous names in the sport is facing a battle to avoid relegation into the fourth tier of the English game.

It's hard to believe Belles were crowned FAWSL2 champions last May. 

Since then the withdrawal of their major sponsor and subsequent cash flow issues resulted in them losing their Super League licence, their manager and entire senior playing squad. 

The youngsters left behind, still wet behind the ears, were thrust into a competitive FA Women's National League Northern Premier Division and have inevitably struggled.

The Belles celebrate their 50th anniversary this year and will argue that the heart and soul of the club, their ethos of youth development, is still intact.

But in their current guise they have become nothing but a feeder club and they will not return to where they belong, in the upper echelons, until the protracted takeover by Club Doncaster is concluded.