From Ken Richardson to Carlisle: A childhood journey through Doncaster Rovers’ dark years

The aftermath of the Main Stand fire at Belle Vue The aftermath of the Main Stand fire at Belle Vue
The aftermath of the Main Stand fire at Belle Vue
“Richardson out”.

As somebody born in Doncaster in 1990 and regularly taken to Belle Vue to see the Rovers from the age of five, those two words are as imprinted in my childhood memory as my mother’s call of “tea’s ready” as I relentlessly whacked a football against the side of the house pretending to be Colin Cramb.

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Go to game, lose game, watch hundreds of fans hurl the words “Richardson out” at Richardson’s fall guy and Rovers’ general manager, Mark Weaver.

Doncaster Rovers celebrate winning Division Three in 2004.Doncaster Rovers celebrate winning Division Three in 2004.
Doncaster Rovers celebrate winning Division Three in 2004.

That was the weekly ritual and my first real experience of football.

It wasn’t long before I was joining in with the chants, my squeaky voice presumably the least of Weaver’s problems amongst the angry mob of Rovers faithful.

Just in case Weaver or Richardson were hard of hearing, the words “Richardson out” were even spray painted on the outside of the old Popular Stand.

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My naive mind, unaware of the corruption and real-life threat posed to the Rovers, would often wonder “The instructions seem clear, why doesn’t he just go?”.

One Saturday as I approached my seat in the main stand, I noticed a hole in the stadium roof.

“Dad, what’s that?” I asked. “That’s where the chairman tried to burn our stadium down, son” he replied.

Without the capacity to suspect Richardson’s motives (to force the club to have to move stadium and thus free himself up to sell the valuable Belle Vue land) I was just as puzzled by the charred stadium roof as I was by Richardson’s apparent confusion as to whether he was welcome or not.

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Richardson had hired a former member of the SAS to set the ground ablaze for £10,000.

It would later transpire that Richardson’s hired SAS arsonist left a mobile phone at the scene of the fire.

The same mobile phone that left a message on Richardson’s answer machine stating, “The job's been done”.

In a time where clothes were loose and mobile phones like bricks, I often wonder at what point on the way home from the fire did the expert arsonist realise his adidas poppers were now miraculously staying up around his waist unsupported.

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Weaver, the walking embodiment of Richardson’s crooked ownership as Richardson’s interest and appearances at Belle Vue waned, was not short of surprises either.

Have you ever spoken to somebody that claims the game left them behind? They could have made it, had it not been for the leg break, the alcohol, the bad luck.

In the season of 1997/98, it seemed that Mark Weaver had listened to his neighbour’s tale of football woe a little too compassionately. ‘I manage a team, have a run out next Saturday if you want, Division 3’.

Before you could say ‘hang on a minute you can’t play your neighbour he plays Sunday League football in Stockport’ Mark Weaver’s portly friend was running out on to the Belle Vue pitch against Brighton for his first and last game as a professional goalkeeper.

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In a world where I would ceaselessly try to raise one eyebrow and imagine I was WWF’s The Rock, in a world where my pocket money was spent solely on Pokémon cards, it was Belle Vue that most seemed like a fantasy land, that felt like the only place where absolutely anything could happen.

The impact of Richardson’s reign at the club on me was paradoxical.

Pride to be different, that I don’t wear a Manchester United or Liverpool shirt to non-uniform day.

Embarrassment that my club has to borrow their football kits when even my children’s Sunday league team has their own.

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Humour, probably misplaced by my lack of maturity, at [insert any event from the 1997/98 season].

Anger that my dad and others each week are coming away from the match feeling downtrodden and betrayed.

As a young lad there was a feeling in my mind of ‘why us?’. A feeling that we were cursed, the Jack Sparrow of football teams, sailing down the Football League searching for our version of ‘parlay’ to avoid harm from our enemies.

A feeling that the end is nigh, of grief. Our fans even held a mock funeral for the club on the final day of the 1998 season. The very first funeral I ever attended. This will all be over soon, after all, the grown-ups keep saying ‘we won’t be here next season’.

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Rovers eventually wriggled themselves free of Richardson’s hold and the future began to look less bleak.

We signed some professional footballers. We began to win some football matches.

The ship steadied and gone were the days where we struggled to field 11 players.

There were Ian Duerden’s goals, Sir Francis Tierney’s shoulder drops past helpless defenders, the Conference play-off final at the Britannia.

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Things began to feel different, but the scars of Richardson’s reign lived on within me and a personal feeling of cynicism remained.

Cynicism can be useful but if overused can do more harm than good.

My cynicism at the time prevented me from truly revelling in Dave Penney’s resurgent Rovers like I could have done as we regained our Football League status and began to play some of the best football in Division Three.

What if the new owner loses interest like Richardson did? Couldn’t it all happen again? All the other clubs must still be laughing at us for what happened before. Why is the nation so busy yelling “Free Deidre”? Don’t they know about “Richardson out”, don’t they care about us?

Then something changed.

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Are there games that your mind can take you back to in an instant, that within seconds of thinking about you can feel the weather, hear the songs and see the game replayed out in front of you?

Doncaster Rovers v Carlisle on 8th May 2004 was for me one of those games.

I can still feel the weather.

I’d spent most of my childhood shivering with cold as the wind blew through the old Main Stand, often with my mouth behind my scarf producing a sort of DIY central heating system, blowing into my scarf and pushing my jawline into the heat of my breath.

Not this time, this was a scorcher.

I can still feel the heat on my back, evaporating the feelings of embarrassment I had felt over the years being a Rovers fan as Greg Blundell headed home the winner to seal Rovers’ status as Division Three champions.

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I can still see the Carlisle players at the end of the game stood on the Belle Vue turf totally inconsolable as they were relegated out of the Football League.

Sponsored by Eddie Stobart at the time, each of them looked like they wished they could be transported to another realm. Presumably a realm where their teams highlights still appeared on Goals on Sunday.

I can still see the Rovers’ and Carlisle fans negotiating with stewards to be allowed to mix (something I am yet to see repeated at any ground).

Suddenly the Rovers red and white and Carlisle blue meshed together, looking more like something you’d see outside Buckingham Palace than Belle Vue.

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As the fans integrated, many shook hands and became acquainted for the remainder of the game.

Other people stood in front of me were now facing the same plight we had faced in 1998. No more ‘why us?’ because now it was them.

I can still hear the Rovers fans singing ‘Straight Back Up’ as Carlisle fans sang ‘Champions’ in a combined orchestra of irony and empathy.

The wit of both songs not lost on either set of fans until the final whistle, there was a now a sensation of humour at Belle Vue that didn’t feel tinged with any feelings of shame.

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We weren’t laughing at ourselves and what’s more we weren’t laughing at anybody else; we were laughing with them.

For most of my life Belle Vue had been a place where grown men and women repeatedly came together to express feelings of anger, where it felt like we survived together but didn’t live very much.

On May 8th, 2004 that changed. Embarrassment replaced with pride. Cynicism replaced with optimism. Richardson’s dark legacy replaced with our team’s bright future.

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