Over the last few seasons, Sean O’Driscoll built a Championship team at Doncaster who were able to punch considerably above their weight. They had been promoted from League One via the 2007/8 play-offs (beating Leeds at Wembley – kudos), playing decent football, with the impressive midfielders James Coppinger, Brian Stock, Paul Green and Richie Wellens at the heart of it, while Matt Mills starred in a defence which also featured Gareth Roberts.
Donny certainly had a habit of embarrassing Derby, with Paul Jewell’s expensively-assembled ‘promotion contenders’ humbled at Pride Park by a Lewis Guy goal, which gave Rovers a 1-0 win on the opening day of the 2008/9 season. That was the first indication that things were maybe not going to work out for Jewell. But O’Driscoll had built something impressive.
Rovers went on to complete the double by beating the Rams 2-1 in the return fixture, then did it again in 2009/10, beating us 2-0 at our place (a Derby performance I described at the time as ‘utter crap’) and 2-1 again at theirs (this time I went for ‘pure, unadulterated shit’.) Billy Sharp, on a season-long loan from Sheffield United, scored in both games.
We beat them 3-2 at the Keepmoat last season in a rip-roaring game, but then, inspired by Sharp’s brace, Doncaster embarrassed us 3-1 at home in March 2011, a disaster which pointed to the real possibility of our relegation.
In 2010, Rovers spent £1.15m to sign Sharp permanently, but it should be emphasised that the club’s finances were becoming stretched and that they probably over-extended themselves by taking him. Sharp, a record signing for Donny, struggled with injuries, but still scored enough goals to keep them in the division last season. This term, his goal gave them a surprise home win against Southampton in December, but inevitably given his proven ability, he has now followed Mills, Wellens and Green by moving on – in his case, to Southampton.
When O’Driscoll was sacked early this season, with Sharp injured and Doncaster languishing at the bottom of the league, you wondered how on earth they intended to replace him and what exactly the club expected. Dean Saunders was installed as manager, but the most interesting developments were actually occurring behind the scenes.
Donny had been sold a vision by one Willie McKay, an agent with a measure of controversy in his past. McKay’s idea was fiendishly cunning. Doncaster didn’t have the money or prestige to attract top players. However, there were plenty of Premier League players – and indeed, players across the continent – surplus to requirements and kicking their heels on the sidelines, on good contracts, not playing and with no seeming hope of getting a move.
What if McKay could come to an arrangement whereby Donny loaned the players, paying a fraction of their wages, or took on relatively high-profile free agents on a short-term basis for a low wage, putting them in the metaphorical shop window and giving them the chance to earn themselves a long-term move to another club with a bigger budget in the process?
As an example, when Hérita Ilunga joined on a three-month loan from West Ham, Rovers contributed only £2,000 towards his weekly wage of £26,000.
McKay would theoretically only be paid only a nominal sum of £100 per week to take control of transfer dealings at the Keepmoat for two years. Chicken-feed, even if he hadn’t just secured a £1.4m payment for dealing with Joey Barton’s move to Queens Park Rangers.
He told David Conn of The Guardian, “England, with Sky Sports, the Premier League, is a shop window. We give them the opportunity to play, then if another club comes in for them we split the fee – 40% to us, 60% to the selling club.”
As the BBC put it, “Big English and European clubs will subsidise the wages of players that no longer figure in their plans, while Doncaster can bring a calibre of player to the club they could previously only have dreamed of signing.”
McKay drafted in free agent and bling fanatic El-Hadji Diouf on an initial three-month contract, Carl Ikeme on loan from Wolves, Pascal Chimbonda, who had been released by QPR, Habib Beye from Aston Villa, Ilunga on a short-term deal after West Ham cancelled his contract and Frédéric Piquionne, also from West Ham, on an initial month’s loan. All of these players were on duty for the game against Derby on Saturday.
Other exotic names brought in for short spells have included Mamadou Bagayoko, Habib Bamogo, Lamine Diatta, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, Hérold Goulon, Fabien Robert (brother of Laurent, whom McKay represented) and Damien Plessis. They even tried to add Robert Pirès and the ex-Real Madrid midfielder Mahamadou Diarra to this list.
None of these players are committed to Doncaster long-term and the question is, whether they are genuinely motivated to play for the club. Beye has an 18-month deal and Diouf recently extended his stay to the end of the season with an option for a further year, but none of them are likely to be with Rovers for very long, especially as the majority of them are well past the age of 30.
Of the eleven that started against the Rams, only Coppinger has been with the club long-term and only about 8,000 Donny fans turned up for the match, so clearly, the locals have not been overly energised by the new temporary team. Not that this would come as any surprise to McKay, who told the Daily Mail‘s Neil Ashton, “They have no fanbase and everyone in Doncaster supports Leeds, Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday.”
Why is McKay doing this? Clearly, not for the £100 a week and clearly not out of love for the club.
In 2008, he was handed a suspended ban for his part in irregular activities around the transfers of Benjani. McKay acted for Auxerre when the Zimbabwean moved to Portsmouth for £4.1m in 2006 and then also acted for Pompey when the striker moved on to Manchester City in 2008, in contravention of the FA’s Football Agents Regulations, which state that the same agent cannot act for different clubs in consecutive transfers involving the same player. Presumably, this is to prevent agents from maintaining an interest in moving a player from club to club, as and when they identify an opportunity to earn themselves another commission.
McKay’s plan, according to Neil Ashton, is ‘to make money – serious money – out of Doncaster and in return give them the best group of players [they] have ever seen. They just won’t be there for long.’
To help him do this, he has a two-year ‘watertight’ contract, which means that ‘noone can come in or out of the Keepmoat … unless McKay says so’. McKay explained, “I’m doing this to prove it can be done and I’ve been honest enough to admit I’m only here for the money.”
So in summary, what we have is a bloke doing deals at Doncaster Rovers over the head of the manager, for his own gain, with the club’s fortunes a secondary consideration.
And on the evidence of Saturday, this motley troupe of aging poor man’s galácticos are far, far worse than the Donny team of 2007/8. Never mind the best players they’ve ever seen, I’m sure any Rovers fan could put together a better eleven together out of players they’ve seen in the last five years. The threat of relegation, which was chairman John Ryan’s reason for agreeing to McKay’s ‘experiment’, still haunts the club.
After Premier League loanee Ikeme’s howling misjudgement allowed Theo Robinson to finish with aplomb for the opener, Green was instrumental in the move which led to Roberts striking what would prove to be the winning goal, despite Diouf pulling one back.
Derby have been lucky enough to sign two good pros from Donny and it’s a crying shame for them that, having done so well to build a team capable of competing at this level, they now look destined to plummet back to the lower leagues, with very little realistic hope of a swift return. Surely it didn’t have to be this way.
Of course, once a team over-performs, bigger clubs sniff around and try to take their better players, but if a club is run properly, it should be possible to reinvest the proceeds of such deals in new players to help the team.
It’s sad for the fans that Doncaster is now in the hands of somebody who has no real interest in it and is only looking to exploit their Championship status for his own ends. When that goes, he will doubtless go too. The fact that at the start of the season, McKay was briefing journalists that with his new signings, Doncaster could make the play-offs proves why it’s a good idea for managers and their staff to oversee transfer activity at football clubs, not agents.
The likelihood of Diouf, Ilunga and Piquionne sticking around to play in League One would appear to be minimal. So if, as looks increasingly likely, Rovers are relegated, Saunders, or whoever else is given the manager’s job, will have to build a new team from scratch, without the help of McKay and his international band of mercenaries.