Fires, threats & friendship: Inside the worst year in Football League history
It was only the 10th minute when the fans in Doncaster Rovers’ Popular Stand began blowing whistles and Matt Smith, by his own admission, started “shitting it”.
The whistles were Smith’s signal to start a pitch invasion in the hope of having Doncaster’s clash with Hull City abandoned, a protest in a desperate attempt to attract the attention of the FA and convince them to take action against owner Ken Richardson’s stewardship of the club.
With Richardson at the helm, Doncaster were a sinking ship destined for the depths of the worst season in Football League history: 46 games, four wins, eight draws and 34 defeats; 30 goals scored, 113 conceded.
Smith turned to a younger fan who had earlier promised to join him. “Right, come on then.”
The supporter’s youthful exuberance sadly deserted him in the heat of the moment, and he stood, rooted to the spot, resembling a “frozen bunny”.
Realising he was now going to have to go it alone, Smith sprinted for the centre circle. Clad in a Rovers training top and white baseball cap, as soon as his destination was reached, he sat down right in the middle of the Division Three fixture, which – unlike many Doncaster games that season – was still finely poised at 0-0.
The rest of the Popular Stand was meant to follow Smith’s lead, but he waited and waited for what felt like half an hour. It was actually closer to half a minute. Finally, his loyal friend Neil Tissington joined him, followed closely by some stewards.
“What are you doing?”
“Well you’re going to have to come off.”
“We’re not fucking moving.”
At that point, Hull’s Doncaster-born defender Scott Maxfield, who joined his hometown club later in his career, arrived at the scene.
“Get off the pitch you fucking idiots. I’ll fucking kick your arse if you don’t get off the pitch.”
“If you kick me, I ain’t moving,” Smith replied. “They’re going to have to airlift me out of here because I’ll say I’ve got a spinal injury.”
A belated roar went up from the side of the pitch. Supporters were at last taking their cue to enter the field of play.
In the midst of the mayhem, Alan Brown, frontman of post-punk three piece Big Flame – who were once described by the Manic Street Preachers’ Richie Edwards as “the most perfect band” – ambled around the pitch to the Town End, chaining himself to the goalposts while all the attention was on his friends in the centre circle.
Play was stopped for around 20 minutes. As the fans returned to the stand, Smith gave his hat to one supporter and his training top to another to avoid being identified – not by police, but by “cronies” of Richardson, who had made a habit of threatening any dissenting voices.
Brown, meanwhile, solemnly told two policeman who had asked for a saw from the groundsman’s shed that the key required to unchain him was in his sock.
For once, the media paid attention to what was happening at Doncaster Rovers. It was a rare victory for Smith and co in a dismal, dark campaign – and it was followed by an even rarer success.
When the game finally restarted, Adie Mike swivelled on the edge of the box to find the Hull goalkeeper out of position and bent an ugly shot into the far corner. Doncaster won 1-0. It was their fourth and final victory of a long season.
Incredibly, in time added on for for the removal of an 80s post-punk vocalist from the goal-frame, Adie Mike scores to give Rovers their fourth and final win of the season. pic.twitter.com/WLBBTgOaFw
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 27, 2018
• • • •
Today, Smith is sat in a small pub next to Doncaster train station. His training top and baseball cap have been long since swapped for a shirt and tie.
On TV, Sky Sports News presenters are getting increasingly excited by the breaking story that Liverpool have paid a record £67million to sign Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker. Such reports are about as far removed from Smith’s experience of professional football as possible.
Sipping a pint of lager, he is half laughing, half perturbed by his bravado on April 4, 1998. As CEO of a company which helps fund social enterprises, he can’t help but worry what the consequences would be these days if he were to find himself on the back page of The Times for leading a mini-revolt against the footballing authorities.
Back then, disrupting a Fourth Division fixture was at least an exciting interlude to a life spent arduously fighting for the survival of Doncaster Rovers.
Born and raised in the town, Smith was at university in Preston during the 1997-98 season. Rather than studying, however, he was instead using his time to fax notes to the FA every day, primarily asking: “What are you doing about Doncaster Rovers?”
There was never a response – “the FA were living up to their name by doing FA” – but Smith carried on regardless.
“At least you’ve got to pick this up.”
“Are you bored yet?”
From bad to worse
The subject of Smith’s ire was Ken Richardson, but a lot had happened to get to this point – to the club, to the town and to the people at the heart of the community.
A poor football team was hardly a new phenomenon in South Yorkshire. Rovers had spent the majority of their existence in the lower reaches of the Football League, and while 1997-98 proved to be their nadir, they still had relatively recent experiences of painstaking incompetence.
Six years earlier, with the club facing a winding up order, it took Doncaster until January to win their second league game of the 1991-92 season as they eventually finished 21st in the fourth tier.
“We had a crap ground; the car park looked like a set from a World War One film with trenches all over the place. We were just…Donny,” Smith says.
“We never aspired to much apart from getting a few decent wins a season and staying in the League.”
Here’s what the ground looked like then by the way. Six years those bins were like that. We were so far gone no-one could be arsed to pick them up. pic.twitter.com/Ew1PO0wBjb
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 27, 2018
Richardson arrived in 1993, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest the club would never be the same again.
There was an initial optimism when Richardson first appeared as ‘football consultant’ at Doncaster for the Isle of Man-based company, Dinard Trading, which had taken over the club. This was an era when, in Smith’s words, the internet “was pretty much just for big companies and pornography”, meaning supporters were naive to Richardson’s past.
Having become a self-made millionaire with his company East Riding Sacks, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Richardson topped up his income by becoming involved in horse racing, claiming to win between £70,000 and £90,000 a year.
As would become a theme over the next two decades, his first involvement in professional sport ended in a combination of controversy and farce.
Suspicion arose when a 10-1 outsider named Flockton Grey, owned by Richardson, entered its first race for two-year-olds at Leicester Racecourse. Trainer Stephen Wiles had failed to oversee a winner in two years, yet the debutant thundered to victory by 20 lengths.
After a long investigation, it was found that the horse racing under the name Flockton Grey was in fact a ringer. The three-year-old Good Hand’s success was suddenly much less impressive, and much less profitable for Richardson.
In 1984, he was banned from racing for 25 years, given a nine-month suspended prison sentence and fined £20,000 after being convicted of conspiracy to defraud.
Rather than deter Richardson, this encouraged him to turn his attentions to football.
In 1990 he took over non-league Bridlington Town and initially funded the development of their ground, building a new main stand, clubhouse, turnstiles and their first ever floodlights. Few teams at that level could boast such luxuries.
A brief period of success followed on the pitch, too. In 1992-93, Bridlington won the Northern Premier League Division One and triumphed at Wembley in the FA Vase final, beating Tiverton Town 1-0.
But by the end of the following season, Bridlington ceased to exist. With Richardson now also involved with Doncaster, he decided to move the Seasiders to Rovers’ ramshackle stadium, Belle Vue, selling Bridlington’s ground for redevelopment in the process.
Fans unsurprisingly struggled to make the 130 mile round trips for ‘home’ games. Crowds barely reached three figures. Bridlington were relegated and decided to fold completely, reforming in 1994 when fans created a phoenix club from a local pub side.
With Bridlington no longer a concern, Richardson was now solely focused on Doncaster, promising to oversee the club’s rise to the newly-formed Premier League within five years. He also made no secret of his wish to sell Belle Vue and the land it was situated on in order to move Rovers to a new ground.
Doncaster sat on the most expensive site in the Football League outside of London, with a redevelopment value of £18million. And so, in 1994, Richardson placed an advert for the Belle Vue in the Daily Telegraph. There was only one problem: he didn’t actually own the stadium, Doncaster Council did.
Still, many fans were in support of Richardson as there was an inherent distrust of the government and local authorities in Doncaster, with the town having suffered badly from the closure of mines and the effects of deindustrialisation under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative leadership.
“Deindustrialisation meant you had communities that effectively had no reason to be anymore,” Smith says. “The village was there because the pit was there. Once the pit went, everything else starts to disintegrate.
“There are no jobs, your social fabric starts to unwind, the economics of the area decline, shops close, and you just get into that cycle of just the decline of an area. It had huge consequences for the whole town.”
With residents looking for answers and leadership from the local council, they instead found scandal.
What became known as Donnygate saw a host of Labour councillors convicted of fraud for offences ranging from fiddling expenses to accepting bribes from property developers in what The Guardian described as “a planning scam which stole millions from local council taxpayers’ pockets”.
If Richardson was to pick an enemy regarding Belle Vue, the council were an easy target to curry favour with the local support.
“When he first came most people felt really positive about it,” Smith says. “A lot of people believed he was going to do something positive.
“There was talk of a move and investing in playing staff so I think people were optimistic to start with. Partly because nobody had ever really seen it happen before. Nobody thought someone would come into a club and just destroy it.”
There were, however, causes for concern. The club’s three-person board of directors eventually consisted of Richardson’s daughter, his niece, and Ken Haran, who had given evidence in Richardson’s defence as part of the Flockton Grey trial. Haran held the nominative title of chairman but Richardson was always the man pulling the strings, referring to himself as the club’s “benefactor”.
Up in flames
The most eye-catching event came not long after the council refused to allow Richardson to sell the ground. One evening in June 1995, a small fire erupted in the Main Stand, burning a hole in the roof and causing £100,000 worth of damage.
Perpetrator Alan Kristiansen, a former SAS soldier, had left his mobile phone at the scene of the crime. Police found the phone, alongside a message which had been left on Richardson’s answering machine: “The job’s been done.”
Richardson was arrested during a midweek game in 1996, but his trial would not take place for another three years.
Come the start of the 1997-98 season, it did not take long for public opinion to turn firmly against Richardson; any fans still undecided about having an owner who was out on bail soon cottoned on that something wasn’t right when things started to go desperately wrong on the field.
In the summer preceding the campaign, promising players Darren Moore and Colin Cramb were sold, and manager Kerry Dixon left after only three games: a 2-1 opening day defeat at Shrewsbury; an 8-0 thrashing by Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, in what was Doncaster’s most high profile fixture for years; and a 5-0 rout from Peterborough.
Forest put so many goals past Rovers in the League Cup that the local news had to speed up the footage to fit them all in their highlights round-up. pic.twitter.com/WUTVNHTznl
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 26, 2018
Dixon departed, complaining that Richardson was picking the team, but he could hardly have been surprised at the struggle of working under such a figure. Dixon himself had been appointed unbeknownst to then-manger Sammy Chung, who only found out he had been replaced when he turned up for the first game of the 1996-97 campaign to find the former Chelsea striker already sat in his office.
From then on, Belle Vue was a revolving door of players and managers as Rovers hit the bottom of the table at the five-game mark and stayed rooted to the spot for the rest of the campaign. Their league position may have remained consistent, but the decay only intensified.
Hardly concerned about dispelling Dixon’s allegations, Richardson himself appeared in the dugout for a period, followed by spells from Colin Richardson (no relation), popular youth team boss Dave Cowling (lasted 10 days before getting sick of Richardson and leaving), Danny Bergara (stood down after seven games but continued to coach the side) and, finally, Mark Weaver.
Richardson aside, Weaver provoked the fury of Doncaster supporters more than any other figure at Belle Vue that season. Football aficionados could be excused for being unfamiliar with Weaver at the time of his appointment. His previous experience in the game came as Stockport’s club lottery salesman.
At Doncaster, his role was unofficially titled ‘Richardson’s puppet’, but at various stages of the season he was formally known as ‘shop manager’, ‘general manager’, ‘team manager’ and finally ‘player-manager’.
1997; General Manager Mark Weaver organises a Rovers Roadshow in a local pub. A chance for players to meet the fans… except Weaver forgot to tell the fans.
Seven turn up. pic.twitter.com/dlHhoXnWwH
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 26, 2018
Remarkably, Weaver actually won his maiden game in charge as a 2-1 success over Chester on December 2 earned Doncaster’s first three points of the season.
But the following three matches proved it was just a blip: Notts County 5-2 Doncaster; Doncaster 0-3 Rotherham; Leyton Orient 8-0 Doncaster. The latter could have been much worse had Orient not taken their two strikers off with 15 minutes left in an admirable act of sympathy.
“I think people were just kind of resigned to the fact that we were a small club in a town that didn’t really care and nothing was going to change,” Smith says.
“It sounds really dark, but it’s easy to get to that point.”
• • • •
At the start of 2018, a craze swept across Twitter in which fans compiled a thread of tweets documenting their club’s ‘banter era’. The idea was to highlight the gallows humour required to support smaller clubs, where absurdities and farce are surprisingly common.
This did not stop fans of some of the biggest and most successful clubs in Europe joining in, completely missing the point with a brazen lack of self-awareness. The first stage of Manchester United’s ‘banter era’, for instance, involved reaching the Champions League final.
Sick of reading “Arsenal fans whining about losing a cup final to a really good side like it’s some kind of personal affront”, Glen Wilson, editor of Doncaster’s popularSTAND fanzine, vowed: “So, you want a ‘banter era thread’? Oh we’ll give you a ‘banter era thread’.”
Turn off Arsenal Fans TV, mute Piers Morgan, put down your homemade laminated A4 #WengerOut signs and settle in for a history lesson.
This is Doncaster Rovers, 1997-98 – the most batshit League club there has ever been and ever will be pic.twitter.com/uWnZ7OBtSS
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 26, 2018
A total of 56 tweets followed documenting Rovers’ 1997-98 season, sending Twitter into meltdown with a compilation of slapstick defeats and off-field ignominy – a season beyond parody.
The reality at the time, however, was much darker for the likes of Smith.
Doncaster’s Supporters’ Club were trying to engage peacefully with Richardson and Weaver, but while they continued trying to work constructively, they were given short shrift.
Smith could understand why the Supporters’ Club had to take that route, but he was “young and full of anger”, and so helped form RIFA – Rovers Independent Fans Association – with the remit of being “more militant, more aggressive and much more critical of the ownership”.
That did not come without risks. Supporters who sang anti-Richardson songs at Belle Vue had their photos taken by “henchmen” amid plans to introduce ID cards which would be withdrawn from anyone who was identified shouting abuse.
There were also many instances of physical intimidation from what Smith describes as the “Manchester underworld”.
“I was probably being a bit of a dickhead, but you don’t back down. You just front it up and hope it doesn’t kick off.”
“I’d get threatened at the car park at Belle Vue by his mates,” he says. “There were a group of them from Manchester who would come over, and there were some local lads that were being paid by them to be bodyguards – some lads who I guessed fancied themselves as a bit handy.
“The funny thing is that my mum’s partner’s daughter was dating one of these guys, so she was telling me what they were saying about all of the fans.
“I got threatened pretty much every time I went to a game. Some people reported them, but I was 19 years old and just said, ‘Whenever you want to try it, try it.’ I was probably being a bit of a dickhead but you don’t back down. You just front it up and hope it doesn’t kick off.”
Some supporters had tyres slashed. Leading members of another group, Save the Rovers, received threatening phone calls in the early hours of the morning. In November, several woke up to find their cars covered in cream paint.
Smith had a slight advantage in that he was living in Preston, meaning there was a struggle to locate him. “I was kind of this person who came to games then disappeared, so they couldn’t quite track me down. It was hugely sinister.”
The dots were eventually joined; a family member’s car was damaged one night.
The Manchester connection also began manifest itself on the pitch. In October, Brighton – in the midst of their own period of internal strife – visited Belle Vue in a fixture that was already likely to have significant ramifications on the relegation battle.
Goalkeeper Gary Ingham and top scorer Prince Moncrieffe were dropped from Doncaster’s starting XI that day. In their place came Dave Smith, whose previous appearance in goal came for Bramhall in the Stockport Sunday League, and Rod Thornley, who was signed from North West Counties League Warrington Town.
Doncaster were beaten 3-1 and were reported to the FA for fielding a weakened team. Smith and Thornley have not played professional football before or since, although the latter went on to work as a masseur for Manchester United and England. They were just two of 45 players used by Rovers that season.
Thornley and Smith are never seen at Belle Vue again. And neither is Uncle Ken – advised by the police to leave at half-time for his own safety, he does so and never returns again. pic.twitter.com/sCmz2d8rUK
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 27, 2018
Such a transient group of players were largely ignored by the fans. Attendances dropped below 1,000, and among the masochistic souls who continued to go, there were suspicions of the players’ motives. Supporters instead went to matches to mainly scream abuse at Richardson and Weaver.
But there were still some members of the squad who earned the respect of the Belle Vue faithful.
“I still think today none of us really know about how much the players colluded,” Smith says. “I honestly wonder whether some of them were paid to play badly.
“But there was a group of players that were really trying, and I think those that you could see were trying, no matter how bad they were, got support.
“Lee Warren became a legend. There was also Prince Moncrieffe and Adie Mike. Adie was playing some games at centre-back and some up front, it was preposterous. But at least they were trying.”
• • • •
Adie Mike is trying to tell me something as we walk up the stairs to the meeting room in his private jet firm’s offices. It must be important as he’s whispering, but I can’t quite make out what he’s trying to say.
As we reach the top of the stairs and head through the door, Mike’s whisper breaks into audible chatter. “It’s Mendy, look.”
He points back down the stairs to two plush leather sofas in reception and, there you have it: it is indeed Manchester City left-back Benjamin Mendy, relaxing ahead of a flight to the south of France, wearing exactly the kind of outrageous trainers Benjamin Mendy excels in.
Having a Premier League and World Cup winner sat downstairs in his company’s office is common fare now for Mike. As owner of Falcona Private Jets, his clientele regularly features players from Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool.
— Adie Mike (@AdieMike24) May 15, 2018
The lives of such high-calibre footballers are far different to Mike’s own experiences as a young striker for City in the early 1990s.
Manchester born and bred, Mike actually grew up in the red half of the city, not far from Old Trafford, but was always a blue at heart thanks to the influence of his uncle.
Scouted by City at the age of 11, he played for England’s Under-15s alongside the likes of Nick Barmby and a certain left-winger by the name of Ryan Wilson – who, to me and you, is better known as Ryan Giggs.
By April 1992, an 18-year-old Mike was being told he would be making his first-team debut against Notts County at Maine Road the following day.
“It was the thing I always wanted to do,” he says. “The Kippax was full. It was an amazing experience.”
In the following match, he scored his first goal for his boyhood club at Oldham Athletic and his second and final goal came at Swindon Town in what by then was known as the Premier League.
“It’s a shame I missed a few sitters actually. I always wanted to score at home. I can’t believe I never scored at Maine Road.”
Just as he was hoping to establish himself in City’s side, Mike suffered an injury at Elland Road in an innocuous challenge with Leeds United goalkeeper Mark Beeney, ruling him out for four months. From that moment on “it just never happened”.
He was willing to drop down two divisions to join Stockport County in the hope of working his way back to the top flight, but it was a similar story there. Another injury picked up in a friendly left him facing six months on the sidelines and he struggled to break into the first team.
In the second half of the 1996-97 season, Stockport were surfing the wave of a remarkable run to the semi-finals of the League Cup. Out of favour at the Lancashire outfit, Mike was sent on loan to Doncaster Rovers.
‘It was horrific’
“When I first got there I was like, ‘Really?!’ It’s obviously not the longest journey from Manchester so I thought, ‘Okay, we’ll see how it goes. It’s an opportunity to play.’ But in terms of facilities it was bad, really bad, even for a club in that division.
“The pitch was perfect, but the rest of it was falling down. It was horrific.”
As a striker, Mike was more than willing to learn from Kerry Dixon, one of Chelsea’s greatest ever goalscorers, and once his loan spell ended he joined on a week-by-week contract ahead of the 1997-98 season. When it came to the likes of Ken Richardson and Mark Weaver, he was less enthusiastic.
“I didn’t have that much contact with Richardson. He did come in and do a few team talks, but I switched off. After listening to someone like Peter Reid and Brian Horton, and to then have someone like Ken give you a team talk…just no.
“He was basically picking the team once Kerry Dixon had gone. No matter what you did during the week, he would pick the team. It was difficult to take, especially for some of the younger lads and people who had done well in a game or in training.
“To be honest I couldn’t take Weaver seriously. But I know him as a person and he was alright with me. I can’t say anything other than that.
“A lot of the lads didn’t agree with anything he said because they knew it was coming from Richardson. It’s difficult then because you’re trying to do your own thing but also gel as a team. Different players were coming in each week that would upset the balance.
“Every game it was like you were starting off 1-0 down. That was the mentality unfortunately.”
Despite such difficulties, Mike was still able to take some positives from the season. It was the first time as a professional footballer he had been able to string together a run of games without injury.
“Even if I was playing centre-back rather than centre-forward, I really enjoyed it and just thought to myself, ‘I’m playing regularly, there’s a lot of stuff going on off the field, but I just want to play and play well for Doncaster.’ That was my only thought.”
But his patience was finally tested in March, when the club’s two remaining coaches were sacked and training became voluntary.
Come the end of the transfer window, an exodus of players deserted the sinking ship to be replaced by members of the youth team, leaving Mike as one of just seven full-time professionals.
March 1998 – the club’s remaining coaching staff (both of them) are laid off; given £75 each and told to go on their way. Training is now voluntary – players are just turning up for matches. Bergara soldiers on as our only coach. pic.twitter.com/lcHavEwDlI
— popularSTAND fanzine (@vivarovers) February 27, 2018
“We trained at local parks and schools. Then it was hard to get motivated. You think, ‘This isn’t professional, this is supposed to be a League club.’ You drive to the park to train, and you try and train to the best of your ability, but deep down it was demoralising.
“I thought, ‘This is absolute rubbish that we’ve got to this.’ It was really bad.
“Most of the players still turned up though. We always had enough for five-a-side. That was always the main thing for me. Never mind the running, let’s just get into the five-a-side!”
Following the final game of the season – a 1-0 defeat to Colchester in what many suspected would be the final fixture Doncaster would ever fulfil – there was at least a bittersweet moment which Mike and his team-mates could enjoy.
The match had been disrupted by further protests. Despite promising not to attend, Weaver had the gall to show his face, prompting irate fury from the terraces, before eventually leaving at the behest of concerned police officers.
Upon the final whistle, supporters again flocked onto the pitch, and the players fled to the changing rooms. Soon after, a policeman asked the Doncaster players whether they would like to go out to see the fans, who were insistent they wanted to show their appreciation to a squad of players who were the last people to blame for such a mess.
Mike and his team-mates walked up the steps into the stand, where they threw their kit into the crowd and were showered with applause and affection for their efforts. Matt Smith managed to catch Mike’s boots, adorned by the player’s signature, written in biro, and still owns them to this day.
Once the season had finished, Mike was promptly released by the club and was under no illusions that his time as professional footballer was over.
“I started to think there’s more to life than football. In the end I just got a part-time job working at JJB. Football was going to be a ‘normal’ thing for me and not a job.
“I adjusted better and it worked out for me as opposed to players who had a half decent career and get to 35 and have no clue what to do.”
Mike did continue playing, appearing for another 10 clubs in non-league while working as a personal trainer for 10 years. Eventually he found himself working in the private jet industry and set up his own firm in 2012.
With Falcona often used by Manchester United, he has even found himself bumping into Rod Thornley, one of the one-game wonders from that absurd campaign.
He also keeps in touch with Prince Moncrieffe and Harvey Cunningham, while he enjoyed a chance encounter on the tube with fan favourite Lee Warren when he was in London to watch Manchester City beat Manchester United in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
“We do talk about it and it’s all the bad stuff really. People like Prince Moncrieffe had never had the opportunity to play at that level before and he could have been a half decent player if he had the right people and right set up around him.
“You just look back at it and think it was a joke. It was a shambles of a club for the fans.”
Were any of the players aware about fans getting threatened by Richardson’s ‘associates’?
“I didn’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case, to be honest.”
And what about his fellow team-mates, were any of them paid to play badly?
“That’s harsh. Personally I don’t think it’s possible. If you’re rubbish, you’re rubbish!”
• • • •
Come the end of the season, Matt Smith, Neil Tissington and Alan Brown were left unsure whether they were going to have a club to support, but there was still one more chance to represent their beloved Rovers.
Every year since 1996, the WorldNET tournament pits teams made up of different clubs’ fans against each other over the course of two days. Smith and his friends entered under the name Donny R’Sonists, inspired by a certain Mr K Richardson.
The R’Sonists group saw them drawn alongside an Arsenal team whose supporters had just watched their club win the Double with a side featuring the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka in Arsene Wenger’s first full season in charge.
Determined to replicate Wenger’s success, their fans had held trials before entering the WorldNET tournament.
Taking a much more laissez-faire approach – perhaps in their own perverse hopes of replicating their club’s fortunes – Smith and co had never previously played together and kicked off their opening match dressed as a pantomime horse named Blockton Brown, again in a not-so-subtle nod to Richardson’s previous antics.
— Donny R'sonists (@DonnyRsonists) July 17, 2015
Aware of their Arsenal equivalents’ talents, the R’Sonists decided to sit deep and hope they could defend well enough to keep the scoreline respectable, using Smith and his strike partner’s pace as an out-ball to relieve the pressure whenever possible.
A crowd began to form as spectators became fascinated by this battle of attrition between supporters of the best team in the country against those of the worst. The Gunners did manage to score but were left increasingly frustrated in their quest to add to their 1-0 lead.
With a few minutes remaining, a clearance found Smith around the halfway line. Too exhausted to attempt to control the ball and try mount something resembling an attack, he chose to simply whack it on the half volley.
“I told the lads I saw the goalkeeper was quite a way out off his line. Really, I was knackered.”
Somehow – to Smith’s disbelief more than anyone else’s – the ball flew into the back of the net.
After a season in which Doncaster were allowed to rot while all the attention was on the glamour and wealth of the burgeoning Premier League, it was a rare moment in which David stunned Goliath.
Thankfully, the R’Sonists did have a club to support the following season. Richardson relinquished control, with local businessman John Ryan becoming chairman following a takeover by the Westferry Consortium.
In 1999, Richardson finally went on trial for the Belle Vue fire and was jailed for four years after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit arson. It was found that he paid Alan Kristiansen £10,000 to start the blaze. Sadly, his plan, and its execution, was less thought through than Smith’s costume-changing protest against Hull City.
Described by the prosecution as a “devious man”, Richardson’s defence was labelled “the worst concoction of waffle, piffle and flannel” they had ever heard.
It still took time before Rovers recovered on the pitch. Five seasons in the Conference followed before promotion was secured courtesy of Francis Tierney’s golden goal in a play-off final against Dagenham and Redbridge.
“That play-off final felt like an exorcism to me,” Smith says. “When they equalised I was down on my knees hyperventilating, like seriously retching. It was so emotional.
“Then Sir Francis Tierny scored the winner in golden goal and I just started bawling. I turned around and Alan Brown is behind me bawling his eyes out as well. It felt like the end of something when that happened.”
The following season, Doncaster’s first back in the Football League since recording its worst ever campaign, they finished top of the fourth tier to secure consecutive promotions.
“And then I kind of waned a bit, I couldn’t go. I went, but I didn’t go every game. I had a period where I was just like, ‘I need to take a break, I’ve done my bit, we’re better than where we started.’ It had been too emotional.”
Under Ryan’s stewardship, Doncaster enjoyed one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, spending five years in the Championship and moving into a brand new, £20million, 15,000-capacity ground, the Keepmoat Stadium.
Belle Vue is no more and is now being redeveloped into a housing estate. Ironically, the demolition of the stadium had to be accelerated after a gas leak caused an explosion which obliterated much of the Main Stand.
Since their heady days in the Championship, Doncaster have returned to bouncing between the third and fourth tiers of English football, but Smith is happy he can now simply go and watch the football.
“I’ve got a very relaxed attitude now, anything over the Conference is a success as far as I’m concerned. I’m proud of what we all did. Loads of people put a lot of time and effort in. Lots of people sacrificed a lot.
“I failed exams in my second year at uni because I spent too much time on this. It had consequences for a lot of people. I was devoting hours every day. My friends in Preston thought I was just a bit of a nutter
“It was a coming together of people. I’m glad we did it because of where we are now, but I wish we hadn’t have had to. In all honesty, it wasn’t enjoyable at all from a football perspective.
“But working together with people, all of us trying our best to try and make something better – there was a camaraderie there that I haven’t had at the Rovers.
“It was the unifying force for a group of us that really wanted to change things. There was a passion, there was something exciting about it. I haven’t really experienced that since. It was a very strange situation to be in.
“I formed friendships for life from that. Three of us, the first three onto the pitch, are still playing in supporters’ tournaments.”
A lot of words have been used to describe our manager @MCSmithDN over the years… Inspirational.
That's not one of them. pic.twitter.com/4HyK5jTJpA
— Donny R'sonists (@DonnyRsonists) July 15, 2017
Indeed, Smith, Brown and Tissington still get together ever year to turn out for Donny R’Sonists. These days they compete in the Veterans’ competition, winning it at the first time of asking. Smith, however, has hung up his boots to manage the side.
When asked whether even they would give Doncaster’s 1997-98 team a decent game, he can’t help but scoff with laughter.
“Not a chance!”
But then he stops to finish his pint.
“Although you never know actually…maybe in our younger days.”
By Rob Conlon
This article was originally published in August 2018.