When John Ryan took charge of Doncaster Rovers in 1998, the club had just slipped out of the Football League after 75 years into the wilderness of non-league football.
His arrival marked the end of the despised Ken Richardson era when Rovers had become the laughing stock of the English game, making the headlines for all the wrong reasons off the pitch with failed arson attempts on Belle Vue, a string of managerial appointments and regular protests by supporters overshadowing events on the field.
Supporters were just happy to have a club to support as the 1998-99 season got underway, having held a funeral march to mark its “death” just a few months earlier.
It was a quiet start. Rovers struggled to adjust and narrowly staved off relegation, but slowly, the building blocks were put in place and in 2003 the club regained its place in the Football League by winning the Conference Play-Off Final against Dagenham and Redbridge at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium.
That would just be the tip of the iceberg for what was to follow, however as Rovers’ enjoyed a meteoric rise from the brink of oblivion to within touching distance of the Premiership.
A second straight promotion followed as Rovers breezed through Division Three to claim more silverware and by this time, plans had been advanced for the club to move from the crumbling Belle Vue stadium to the sleek all-seater Keepmoat, which finally welcomed fans for its first game on New Year’s Day 2007.
And Rovers marked their move with the first major trophy in the club’s history - a thrilling 3-2 win over Bristol Rovers at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in front of 60,000 fans securing the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Rovers fans would have been forgiven for thinking they were in dreamland, but the greatest day in the club’s history was still to come just over a year later, when Doncaster stepped out at Wembley Stadium for the League One play-off final against Yorkshire rivals Leeds United.
In front of an attendance of 75,000 - nearly 25,000 of them from Doncaster - a single goal from James Hayter shortly after half-time was enough to take Rovers into the second level of English football for the first time in more than 50 years. Several seasons of consolidation followed before perhaps what will always be remembered as the one blot on Ryan’s copybook - the disastrous “Willie McKay Experiment” which saw a string of disenfranchised top level players brought in to try and stave off relegation. The move proved to be a bad one and drew criticism from across the football world.
But, Ryan being Ryan, it wasn’t long before success was back on the agenda. At the conclusion of their only season back in League One, the men in red and white were involved in one of the most dramatic finales to a soccer season ever.
Rovers travelled to London to meet promotion rivals Brentford in an all-or nothing clash. The winner would go up, the loser would be consigned to the play-offs while a draw would be enough to elevate Rovers back to the Championship. The rest, as they say, is history, James Coppinger’s injury time tap-in just seconds after the Bees’ Michael Trotta had smashed a penalty against a cross bar at the other end will be the stuff of legend for years to come as Rovers went up as champions.
Ryan’s contribution to Doncaster over the past 15 years has been immense. He’s put the pride back into the town, made Doncaster be talked about for all the right reasons and turned the club he supported as a boy into one in touching distance of playing the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. But it seems now that he may never achieve his final dream of seeing Rovers take that final step. Former mayor Peter Davies was among those to pay tribute to Ryan’s achievements.
He said: “I heard the news that John Ryan had resigned with a mixture of shock and sadness. This is nothing less than a disaster and every effort must be made to solve the problems that led to the debacle, whatever they may be.
“He has always been ambitious for both the club and his hometown and I would back his judgment on what is best for Rovers above anyone else’s. He would do nothing to harm them; his loyalty is beyond question.”
Ryan turned inept bunch into a force to be reckoned with
John Ryan cut a desolate figure as he trudged through the rain on a grey, overcast day in Barnsley - which only he knew would be his last at the Rovers helm.
The famous gleaming smile was nowhere to be seen as Ryan exited the gloom of directors’ box at Oakwell and made his way towards the 2,000 or so Rovers fans calling out his name, the normally joyous face anguished and world weary.
Chants of “there’s only one John Ryan,” rang through the chill November air as he walked, Messiah-like, among his red and white clad disciples, shaking hands and taking encouragement from those who have hung on his every word for the past 15 years.
Slowly, that frown lifted and the smile returned as Ryan realised he was back where he needed to be, away from the back-biting and boardroom bust-ups.
But he must have been suffering an inner turmoil as the curtain came down on a glorious decade and a half - the sourest of ends to an incredible journey.
And what a momentous period. As a lad growing up supporting Rovers in the mid 80s and early 90s, success meant staving off relegation from the Football League or attracting a 2,000 strong crowd .
On those days cheering on Rovers on the crumbling terraces of Belle Vue, the likes of Wembley, the Millennium Stadium, silverware, promotions and a brand new stadium were just a dream.
But Ryan was a man who dared to dream. And he delivered all of the above and more.
Its hard to describe just how far Rovers have come under Ryan.
From Leek Town to Leeds United, Forest Green to Nottingham Forest, Rovers have risen from the ashes of the hated Ken Richardson era to dizzying heights .
From a rag-tag bunch of players with barely a ball or kit, Rovers are plying their trade at the second highest level of English football inside the 15,000 all-seater Keepmoat Stadium which Ryan also delivered.
He promised promotions and trophies - and all were duly handed down.
John Ryan was and always will be, Mr Doncaster Rovers - a boyhood fan who became the most influential person in the club’s history and his will be a massive pair of shoes to fill.
No Rovers fan will ever forget the amazing rollercoaster journey, so thanks John - we’ll always remember the good times and not that miserable and dark day at Oakwell.
By Darren Burke
Chief Reporter and Doncaster Rovers season ticket holder
Twitter was buzzing with the news of John Ryan’s departure. Here’s what was being said ...
Former Rovers goal hero Billy Sharp: @billysharp10: “Gutted and shocked to hear that John Ryan has stepped down as chairman of @drfc_official, a very honest and passionate man. Can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me and my family, somebody has big boots to fill. #JR #drfc.”
One Direction star Louis Tomlinson: @Louis_Tomlinson: “Sad to hear about John Ryan resigning!”
Former Rovers striker Iain Hume: @Humey_7: “Gutted to hear bout John Ryan stepping down @drfc_official!! One of the most passionate and honest people I’ve met in the game! #TopMan.”
Current Rovers’ ace Theo Robinson: @theorobinson09: “Big shout out to john ryan been great chairman, best wishes to you in the future and hope everything plans out.”
Rovers midfielder Harry Forrester: @harry_forrester Sad to see John Ryan leave, want to thank him for signing me and showing faith in me. Been a great chairman to drfc, true football man!”
Winger David Cotterill: @cotterill_david: “Sad to see John Ryan resign great guy and such a great chairman. Been amazing for #drfc.”
Comments on the Free Press Facebook page included:
Deborah Gore: “I hope this hasn’t knocked the heart out of Doncaster Rovers. I for one feel so so sad that John Ryan is no longer Chairman. I feel adrift at the moment & am not sure how we move forward from here RTID.”
Jordan Smith: “Brammall out. sequanta in, theres only one john ryan.”
Dave Emson: “thankyou john for the last 15 years but i think resigning like this was a mistake and doesnt do him any credit he needs to have sorted it out in the boardroom not on the terrace.”
Brian Wilby: “john’s done brilliant for drfc but i think they will struggle now unless they get that buy out.”
Laura Lou Cox: “doncaster r going to go down hill now. john ryan was amazing chairman. just think how much John spent on players and tht. going to miss him.”
Andrew Huxley: “John has gone but will never be forgotten.
The sentiment to leave by standing on the terrace with the fans cannot be questioned. The timing of resignation could have been a bit better. It is now time for the board to break silence”