A phone call of destiny, a comedy show and a career-saving discovery - Chris Brown talks his first two seasons back at Doncaster Rovers
In almost every conceivable way, the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons could hardly have been more different for Doncaster Rovers.
One brought the disastrous ‘Experiment’, with foreign mercenaries holding little to no connection with the club failing to prevent Rovers’ four-year stay in the Championship ending with a whimper.
The next saw a group characterised by their tremendous fighting spirit and relentless determination power to a league title.
Chris Brown lived through both, enduring his own personal struggles for form and fitness over the first 18 months before playing a key role in the run to the League One championship.
Just two months after returning - he spent seven successful months on loan with Rovers in the 2003/04 season - the club was turned upside down.
The manager who signed him, Sean O’Driscoll, was unexpectedly sacked, with Dean Saunders arriving as his replacement, armed with the extensive contact book of super agent, Bawtry-based Willie McKay.
In a matter of months, former Premier League stars El Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda and Habib Beye were among those arriving at the Keepmoat, to put themselves ‘in the shop window’ to potentially secure top flight deals once again.
While Rovers’ profile grew immeasurably, the change in direction tore apart the squad, with a definite split between those in a close-knit, committed group and those seeing their own stints as very much a stop-gap.
And Brown felt it was doomed from the start.
“It was just a comedy show really, from the off,” he told the Free Press.
“Dean came in with big ideas, Willie McKay was at the training ground a lot.
“We kept getting these lads in that didn’t want to be there.
“Take Herita Ilunga out of it, who we got from West Ham and was an unbelievable pro.
“When you think about the lads we already had there - Simon Gillett, John Oster, George Friend, Brian Stock, Adam Lockwood - they were honest lads who would do anything for the club.
“You’d got these honest pros who gave everything in training day in, day out.
“And then you’d got Habib Beye flying in on a matchday and not giving a monkey’s.
“Even in training, we were getting trialists in from all over the world, not having a clue what was going on and they were ruining training sessions.
“Dean had committed to the ‘Experiment’ as he called it and he had to see it through.
“It was just a disaster of a season for everybody.
“It’s so frustrating to look at the lads that were there, such a good group under Sean that had done so well and it just turned into a comedy show.”
Brown was one of O’Driscoll’s final signings as Rovers boss - and it was hardly the most typical of transfers in how it arose.
“My contract came up at Preston and I didn’t have anything,” the 35-year-old said.
“It was early July and most players were back so I thought I’d just ring Sean out of the blue to see where he’s at in terms of numbers and see if he fancied it.
“From my first spell, as soon as I went back to Sunderland after that loan, I felt that at some point I’d want to go back to Doncaster. I always felt I’d end up back.
“Every time I played against Donny, I’d bump into John Ryan and he’d be saying when are you coming back? That’s only because he liked my dad!
“He wasn’t as bothered about me but he used to like watching my dad [Alan Brown played for Rovers in the mid-80s].
“Ringing Sean like I did, I think it’s the best thing you can do as a player because agents aren’t involved and you can have a normal conversation.
“He wanted to make it happen and in the next couple of days we got it done.”
Brown had been a popular player when on loan with Rovers in their first season back in the Football League, helping them to the old Division Three title with ten goals in 22 appearances.
After an injury-hit final year at Preston North End, a return to somewhere familiar brought an opportunity for a fresh start for the hard-working striker.
But the real start of his permanent Rovers career would still be some time off.
“It was a nightmare start for me - I was crocked,” he said.
“I did the second half of pre-season but I was struggling.
“I was getting a lot of nerve pain and back pain.
“I think I only started a couple of games under Sean in the end.”
It was not going well for O’Driscoll either. A run of one point from the opening seven matches would ultimately bring to an end what had been a success-laded stint at the club.
Brown said: “I remember the last few games - and obviously he was an unbelievable manager and his record at Donny spoke for itself - but I got the impression enough was enough.
“The players were clashing a lot with him in meetings - by all accounts it was like that anyway when they were doing well, it was always an open field in discussions.
“They’d not won in so many games the season before so I think the time was probably right.
“I was more an outsider looking in but I think something needed to change.”
Chosen to lead that change was Saunders, who arrived from Wrexham with assistant Brian Carey plus the plan formulated by McKay.
Brown said: “He tried to lift morale and to be fair he probably did in training.
“But it was just the lack of organisation.
“And if you’re getting lads in who don’t want to be there, it doesn’t matter what level you’re at or how good a manager you are, you’re going to struggle.
“And I think the writing was on the wall early doors.”
Though there were flashes of brilliance from the likes of Diouf, Beye and Chimbonda alongside the reliability those club stalwarts brought, Rovers would spend more than 90 per cent of that season in the bottom three of the Championship, finishing bottom and seeing their relegation to League One confirmed with three matches still to play.
Injury restricted Brown to only 12 appearances that season.
But as 2012/13 approached, there was positive surrounding the striker and the club he represented.
The Experiment was over, and the small number of players that survived it had optimism that what would follow simply could not be as bad as the previous 12 months.
Saunders began putting together a squad with the single-minded goal of winning promotion. He wanted, what he termed, ‘men’ - those with strong character and commitment.
The mood in the camp changed as the big names quickly vanished, and was only heightened as new faces such as David Cotterill, Rob Jones and Billy Paynter arrived.
“Even the first day of pre-season was unbelievable,” All this had passed.
“And to be fair to Dean Saunders, his recruitment that next season was absolutely spot on.
“The first day of pre-season, it was like there was a weight off everyone’s shoulders. “Everyone was enjoying themselves and all of a sudden it became a close-knit bunch again.
“We didn’t have many numbers. There was only a few lads that still had time left on their contracts and I don’t think he’d signed anyone by the time we came back.
“It was a slow-burner during pre-season but even though we were small numbers, it was enjoyable. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t want to be there. There wasn’t any egos.
“When everybody came back in, I thought ‘we’re going to have a good season’ just purely on the first few days of pre-season.”
While Rovers started superbly and rarely looked back, Brown’s hopes of doing the same were hit.
The issues with his back persisted, while the form of Paynter and loan signing Iain Hume meant that starts were infrequent after the first couple of months of the campaign.
“I started the season well and Billy Paynter came in and hit the ground running straight away and then he brought Iain Hume in who also did very well,” Brown said.
“It was then a case of me or Billy.
“I struggled, like I did in the whole of my career with back trouble and getting myself right for games, especially two games a week.
“And that was the first time I’d really played at League One and I struggled to get going.
“I couldn’t get momentum in my season.
“It was frustrating and to be fair to Billy, he was better than me in that first half of the season and I probably didn’t deserve to be playing.
“I disagreed with Dean a lot. He contradicted himself in the way he wanted to play.
“We had a couple of bits on the training ground, I wouldn’t say fall-outs, I’d like to think it was constructive debate.
“That didn’t reflect on me not being in the team, it was one of those things where Billy was doing well and that was the way it went.
“I did play my fair share of games but I was struggling.
“At this point, my second spell at Donny was a disaster. In my first season I hardly played and in the second season I wasn’t fit and I couldn’t get going.”
Such struggles would soon be forgotten.
Saunders jumped ship to Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers with chief scout Brian Flynn stepping in to replace him alongside captain Jones.
The change in management was not the turning point for Brown however - it was something he had long been searching for.
“I’ve never spoken about this,” he said.
“It was something I’d done my whole career - when i got in from training I’d be looking stuff up to try to get me fit, like stretches and stuff like that.
“I was obsessed with looking at stuff to get my body right for training and games.
“A couple of days after Dean left I stumbled across this stretch or something I did to loosen off my back.
“That week when Jonah [Jones] had got the job, I was flying in training just from this one thing that I’d started doing.
“By all accounts, Jonah wanted me in the team anyway. Billy was suspended I think so I was going to play but I was absolutely flying
“I did that stretch for the rest of the season and barring six months at Preston, that was probably the best spell of football that I had in my career.
“I’d gone from being a bag of spanners in the first half of the season and, other than breaking a bone in my foot, that was the most consistent run I had at a decent level of performance.
“It sounds mad but I was obsessed with looking for something that all my career and I just wished I’d found something like that earlier.”
Barring missing six matches due to that broken bone, Brown started every league match until the end of the season following Saunders’ departure.
The Welshman had put Rovers on course for promotion. And with Brown leading the line, they continued on that path until the fateful afternoon at Brentford.
Rovers arrived at Griffin Park for the last game of the season sitting in second place. The only team that could overtake them? Brentford.
After 93 nervy minutes, Brentford won a penalty that would have sent Rovers into the play-offs. But in 18 seconds of madness, the spot kick was missed and Rovers broke away, with James Coppinger’s goal sealing not only promotion, but the League One title.
“It was all a bit of a blur,” Brown said.
“It was a strange atmosphere for the 90-odd minutes before the penalty was given. It was cagey and I can;t really remember us having many chances.
“A draw was probably a fair result but it could easily have gone either way as it showed.
“I’ve never felt anything like it, first of all when they missed the penalty and then 20 seconds later it was just hysteria.
“I see myself on clips with the lads down behind the goal but I honestly can’t remember. It was just a massive blur and everyone was the same.
“I remember me and Neil Sullivan getting drug-tested afterwards. We were allowed in the changing room but the fellas from the FA had to come in with us.
“We couldn’t really take part in the celebrations!”
Rovers were on an upward curve, and so was Brown’s career.
Part Two coming soon - Brown talks his final season at Rovers and the struggles of being forced to retire