This article is written by Adam Stubbings, self-appointed Editor-in-Chief at ITEN and a lifelong supporter of the Rovers. You can find him on Twitter here, or by contacting the site directly via the comments section.
It’s fair to say that this year has not been the greatest. Doncaster Rovers suffered relegation from League One following a shambolic winless run shortly after the turn of the year, Donald Trump became the most powerful man in the world and beloved celebrity figures dropped like flies. On a personal level, illness has derailed my entire life for the past couple of months (resulting in sparse updates from ITEN) but one thing is keeping me going, and it isn’t just the mountains of Christmas food still waiting to be devoured in my kitchen. After a turbulent year, things are finally looking up again at DRFC. So, as we get ready to wave goodbye to 2016, here are five things that we really can savour from the past 12 months at our beloved football club.
1. The Stoke Game
It may feel a very long time ago now, but this year actually got off to a bright start, and hope was growing around DN4 that we could push for a place in the League One Play Offs. It all went wrong shortly after we entertained Premier League side Stoke City in the 3rd Round of the F.A. Cup, welcoming the BBC Match of the Day cameras for probably the biggest cup tie of the last ten years. Although it ended in a narrow 2-1 defeat courtesy of a brilliant Jon Walters strike, Rovers matched our much higher ranked opponents for large spells and could have caused an upset. Nathan Tyson’s goal will live long in the memory, as will the superb atmosphere generated by the Rovers faithful. Who can forget that awesomely executed ‘DRFC’ tifo display in the South Stand? Despite all that followed, this was a day to be very proud of our little football club.
2. Fortress Keepmoat
Almost exactly a decade ago now, we moved across from humble Belle Vue to the shiny new Keepmoat Stadium, and the jokes that came with that name are all well ingrained in our brains now. Opposition fans jibe that it is the ‘Keepquiet’ due to the often lacking atmosphere, but the construction company’s name also conjures up visions of an inpenetrable fortress from which visiting teams fear coming to play at. As I have remarked with my dad on numerous occasions since 2007 however, this has really never been the case since the move and our home form has been lacking for a long time. Even in our last title-winning season of 2012-13, it was a club record unbeaten away run that spurred us on to that achievement set against some frankly dismal home form.
Now though, we finally can call our homestead a fortress. The 1-0 win over Grimsby Town a week last Saturday ensured we enter the new year boasting an unbeaten home record in the league this season, and you have to go back to late March to find the last time we were beaten at the Keepmoat (bar an EFL Cup loss to Nottingham Forest at the start of this campaign). This run stretches the length of 14 league outings, including 10 wins, and is a big reason why we sit top of the pile at time of writing. This change in home fortunes is a breath of fresh air and we can all enjoy this achievement for as long as it lasts, already our best ever run in our new home.
3. The Fergie Revolution
I will admit that the jury was still out for me on Darren Ferguson at the end of the season. The attitude, effort and quality (or lack thereof) in the winless run that ultimately led to our relegation last season was alarming and I was one of many who doubted whether Fergie was really the right man to take the club forward, but a strong summer of recruitment demonstrates that the manager just needed the time and tools to implement his own methods and few would now disagree with the decision from the ownership to both appoint and retain him in spite of our drop into League Two.
The early signs were not good, but Fergie had been left with an incomplete and uneven squad by previous boss Paul Dickov, a nice man who just got it wrong both on and off the pitch. Andy Williams aside, summer signings ahead of last season were just not good enough and Fergie could only really work with what he had upon taking up the reins early in the season, and whilst his first transfer window yielded only a couple of fairly benign loanees, it was the arrival of Tommy Rowe and Gary McSheffrey in the spring that really sparked the upturn in our playing style and overall quality. It came too late to save us from the drop, but Fergie and his staff jumped into action as soon as the summer began to repair the damage and has since implemented his trademark brand of attacking football, spear-headed by impressive acquisitions like Rowe, Matty Blair and the incomparable John Marquis.
4. The Emergence of Liam Mandeville
Complementing the excellent recruitment strategy is our renewed push to promote youth talent into the first team ranks, and there is no greater example of this paying off than with the recent rise to prominence of striker Liam Mandeville. 2016 will be a year to remember for the teenager from Lincoln, beginning it by scoring a classy strike in a game with Walsall back in January. It took some time for him to develop after that, but an injury to talisman Andy Williams earlier this season gave Mandeville his chance and he duly took it, notching six goals in as many games and winning the EFL Young Player of the Month Award. Fans are now gushing with praise for this exciting talent, and the future looks very bright indeed. Not since Paul Green have we had this level of player come through the academy, it is another welcome change to things at DRFC.
Let us also not forget that the squad now has several players in it to graduate from the academy. Harry Middleton has gone from strength to strength and been a key part of our early season form, whilst full back Mitchell Lund was making great strides before suffering a horrible injury against Yeovil a few months back. Will Longbottom and Reece Fielding both look like good prospects too, and Fergie has also looked towards youth in his transfer strategy by bringing in Alfie Beestin and Tyler Garratt, plus coming close to tying up a deal for non-league sensation Alfie May in the coming days.
5(00). Copps’ Big Year
The legend grows. If anything from 2016 is likely to stand out in Rovers history years from now, it is the achievement of James Coppinger breaking the all-time Doncaster Rovers appearance record and hitting 500 games for the club. The former Newcastle and Exeter midfielder has become an icon in his 13 years here but even with all his abilities few thought we would be witnessing such a display of talent still now. Aged 35, Coppinger has been arguably our best player this season, firmly justifying his decision to continue playing. He has hit six goals already in 2016/17, among them some truly special strikes, and won the League Two Player of the Month Award for August after an excellent start to the season.
One day on from being handed that award, Copps captained Rovers on his 500th appearance, becoming the first man to reach that milestone in our history, and duly shone in an emphatic 5-1 win away at Morecambe that will stand forever as one of his and Rovers’ greatest performances. Coppinger netted a fine strike to cap the win after having a hand in two of the earlier goals, celebrating his achievement by being hoisted onto the shoulders of his team mates in salute with the fans. That result sent out a marker to the rest of the league, particularly as Morecambe were flying high at the time, and we haven’t looked back since. He is now the man who can do no wrong, a grace he has more than earned, and even in being sent off at Plymouth a few weeks ago he endeared himself to the Rovers faithful, being dismissed for defending Liam Mandeville against the goading of the opposition goalkeeper.
So, 2016 may not have been the best year in our history, or indeed been much of a good year for the wider world, but there are still some things we can smile about and look back on fondly, and there are plenty of reasons to eagerly anticipate what lies ahead in 2017.