I hadn't taken up the offer too many times by the time February rolled around in 2010 (one game against Coventry City in mid-October with a Coventry fan, which finished 2-0 to Wednesday) but the fact that the February 16th match between The Owls and Doncaster Rovers was a South Yorkshire derby game encouraged me to go for a second time that season. Wednesday were, ahem, playing this game on Tuesday night but optimism was in the air; the win over Coventry was followed by a horrible run of form which eventually cost then-manager Brian Laws his job, but replacement Alan Irvine appeared to have turned the tide, lifting The Owls out of the bottom three and bagging a Manager of the Month accolade for January. In truth, I knew little of substance about Doncaster; I had been surprised to see them, newly promoted, in the Championship in 2008/09 and, since then, I was aware that they were ostensibly punching above their weight by occupying positions in mid-table of the division. By this point they were still above Wednesday in the table, and had won the corresponding match in Doncaster 1-0 in December. However, their form had fluctuated in recent weeks and this only heightened the pre-match tilting of the balance in the home side's favour.
The start of the game initially did little to dispel this notion. Wednesday came out of the traps strongly and Marcus Tudgay and Luke Varney both forced veteran Donny goalkeeper Neil Sullivan to make fine saves to keep the score at 0-0 in the opening 10-15 minutes. However, unbeknown to me at this stage, Doncaster's manager Sean O'Driscoll had been keen since his arrival in autumn 2006 to cultivate a passing style of football at the club. Whilst they may have started the game slowly, Sullivan's early saves allowed them to get their collective eye in and, once that happened, the complexion of the game changed completely. I personally tend to find it difficult to remember specific chances in a match, particularly several months or years after the event. Rather, my memories tend to be of the general narrative within the game, and my own feelings in response to that. As the first half wore on, it became apparent that Doncaster's ball-to-feet passing was not only neat but also effective, causing numerous problems for the Wednesday defence. I may not remember specific chances, but I do remember how initial mild bemusement turned rapidly towards intrigue followed by appreciation; a light going off in my head that "I'm watching something a bit special here!" The shifting sands were acknowledged collectively in the stands, though the responses from Wednesdayites were more fidgety and filled with nervous unrest. More vocal supporters advocated remedies beyond the modern-day footballing rulebook - "kick him!" being a call uttered more than once, albeit only from a handful of fans it must be said.
|Doncaster Rovers manager Sean O'Driscoll was the architect|
of his side's elegant passing game during his spell in
charge. Photo: David Davies/PA
FROM 2010 TO PRESENT IN SUMMARY: WEDNESDAY, DONNY & O'DRISCOLL
From my time in Sheffield I generally followed Wednesday more than United and it is Alan Irvine's spell in charge that I followed, and remember, the most. Although I liked Irvine, and could never fault him for effort, it was a period that I suspect most Wednesdayites would rather forget! After his fine start, the derby day defeat to Doncaster led to a slow but inexorable slide back towards the relegation places and, ultimately, they were relegated in dramatic fashion on the final day of the season after failing to beat Crystal Palace, with whom they were battling for survival. Despite huge financial strife Irvine started the following season well, with the team initially in the play-off positions. However, a poor run of form around the turn of the year killed any hopes of immediate promotion and this, combined with new ownership, eventually saw him sacked at the start of February 2011. Former Wednesday defender Gary Megson picked up the gauntlet and, after a mid-table finish in 2010/11, eventually set about putting the club on an upward curve. He did this in 2011/12 but was sacked before finishing the job of promotion off. Dave Jones (formerly of Southampton, Wolves and Cardiff City) came in and he did finish the job with an immaculate end to the season; Wednesday promoted in the second automatic position. Truth be told, I have followed the club a lot less since leaving the city in 2011. However, the impression one got was that despite the best efforts of Jones, Wednesday could never really shake off relegation battles in the Championship. He was eventually sacked in December 2013 and since then his replacement Stuart Gray has sought to move them further up the table; initially he has been a success, though The Owls are not out of the woods yet.
Doncaster had a bounce back in form after that win and, despite a late wobble, finished the season bang in mid-table, 12th out of 24. They started the next season in similar vein but a dramatic injury crisis saw them drawn into a late relegation battle, from which they staggered over the line - point by point - in 21st position! The injuries continued into 2011/12 and a poor start to the season saw the end of O'Driscoll. Doncaster then embarked upon an experiment with agent Willie McKay, with many of McKay's clients (read players) being signed by Donny (e.g. El-Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda). It wasn't enough and the club were also relegated at the end of that same (2011/12) season. Like Wednesday, they are now back in the Championship; unlike Wednesday, they did at the first attempt - in dramatic fashion after beating promotion rivals Brentford on the final day of the season. Although Donny weathered the storm of relegation pretty well, time has not been so kind to O'Driscoll. What should have been a great opportunity at Nottingham Forest saw him somewhat harshly sacked in December 2012. He quickly found work with Bristol City, but was unable to replicate the success he managed both at Doncaster and, previously, at Bournemouth. Bristol City were relegated from the Championship in 2012/13 and, despite a squad overhaul in the summer, fell quickly into the League One relegation places in 2013/14. Despite initial persistence by the club board, O'Driscoll eventually paid with his job. On this occasion, one had to conclude it was the right decision. It leaves him on the managerial scrapheap for now, and facing an uncertain future. It's undoubtedly not an easy position, but I hope he finds his way out of the woods, and I hope we see that style and philosophy grace the Football League again in forthcoming seasons. It would be a loss to English football, in my view, were that not to happen.