The Big Interview: Darren Ferguson reflects on an eventful year in charge of Doncaster Rovers
As years go, Darren Ferguson has not had the most simple one as manager of Doncaster Rovers.
On Sunday, Ferguson will celebrate his first anniversary as Rovers boss.
And the last 12 months have delivered a rollercoaster ride for the 44-year-old to say the least.
His arrival sparked a dramatic upturn in form, transforming Rovers from a side languishing in the relegation zone to an outside tip for promotion for plenty.
But just when the climb up the table seemed to be accelerating, the season collapsed. A 17-game winless run sent Rovers spiralling down the table and ultimately back into League Two for the first time since 2004.
And in the space of a summer, Rovers have transformed again, sitting second in League Two, the division’s top scorers and playing a high energy, attacking brand of football that delivers results much more often than it does not.
It has been far from the year anyone expected - Ferguson in particular.
“It’s gone quick and it’s been a mixed bag,” he says with a grin, sitting behind his desk in his office at Cantley Park. “It’s been enjoyable, even through the bad times.”
For anyone who likes a challenge, it is easy so see how the task Ferguson has faced could be judged as enjoyable.
He speaks with passion, and at length, about how he has dealt with the issues the job has thrown at him and the plans he has for the future.
The initial challenge of altering fortunes quickly became a battle to arrest a slide, and a losing battle at that.
Ferguson says Rovers’ horrendous three month spell taught him plenty and left him with a few regrets.
“Out of the 12 months I’ve been here, the three months is the period that got us relegated and the three months is the only period that has been really bad,” he said. “It was a disaster.
“I don’t think anyone could see it coming and when we got into it, we found it very difficult to get out of.
“I’ve definitely learned from things like that. During that period I found out a lot about people and it was in that period where I made all my decisions in terms of what I wanted to do going forward.
“The aim was to stay in the league and unfortunately we didn’t.
“The mistake I made was I should have changed it earlier. I concentrated on how I wanted to play rather than thinking it could wait for another day.
“I was a bit stubborn because I still felt we could still play the way I wanted to and get results.
“I didn’t realise how quickly the confidence had gone.
“Games like the one at Scunthorpe, we tried to play a certain way and just couldn’t. We didn’t have the confidence.
“I should have said let’s forget it and just concentrate on winning the game.”
He knew early in his tenure at the Keepmoat that there was plenty of work to be done at the club, regardless of performances on the pitch.
It has taken numerous staff changes and a major shift in focus, but Ferguson feels his work to transform Rovers is progressing well. And it began with an attitude adjustment.
“When I came in, I just felt there was a real apathy about the place, that it was stuck in a rut,” he said. “Not just at the first team but all the way down.
“It was small little things that might not seem like they matter, but they do in the long run.
“Bad habits, like youth team players walking about the place, with their boots in the kitchen.
“Standards were poor, for whatever reason.
“I’m not having a go at anyone and certainly not Dicky [predecessor Paul Dickov] because I know him well.
“Sometimes places need a change and a freshness. It definitely needed that, there’s no question.
“It needed a freshness and definitely a certain discipline about how we wanted to train, how many times a week, the tempo of training.
“I think you can see now that within a year, the change in tempo that we play at and how we press.
“There’s a stat that we win the ball higher up the pitch than any other team in the league.
“That’s not through luck, it’s through the work we do. And it’s a mentality as well.
“You have to get a culture within a club. There has to be a structure, a certain standard and if a player comes in they have to follow that.
“What I came into was no where near where it needed to be.
“The ones that have stayed have bought into it. Some had to move on anyway, but the ones that have come into it have bought in straight away.
“There is a good atmosphere now, the players enjoy training and it’s so important to create that culture of people enjoying going to work.
“Whereas I think it was ‘this is hard work’ before. I think we’ve done well trying to create that enjoyment.”
It cannot be denied that the Rovers board have put a great amount of faith in Ferguson - much more than other clubs would have.
Few managers would have survived the winless run and relegation with their job intact. And even fewer would have been handed the power to restructure the entire playing arm of the club.
Ferguson is well aware of this, and is grateful to his employers.
He said: “If you manage to get the opportunity to get through two or three transfer windows and having your own team, it does give you a better platform to work from.
“Not every manager can get that because there are trigger-happy chairmen that want instant success.
“Fortunately I’ve got people in charge who can see the bigger picture.
“When I first spoke to them, I could see they were ready to go with what I wanted to do with the football club.
“They’ve understood where I want to go with the job and the philosophy I’ve got with it.”
Ferguson believes last season’s relegation could be seen as a good thing for the long run - provided the stay in League Two is restricted to a single season.
He said: “I think certain things happen for a reason.
“I’m a big believer of that and I think if we manage to get to where we need to at the end of this season, it might be the best thing to have happened to the club.
“It meant we all actually started again.
“Everyone from the top to the bottom realised this just can’t go on this way, we need to start again.
“I think that’s what happened.
“But obviously, to make it worthwhile we need to get out of the league - without putting too much pressure on.”
There has been plenty of change already under Ferguson’s command and he is far from finished.
His style of play as a manager has always been easily identifiable: attacking, plenty of goals, entertaining.
And he wants Rovers to be similarly recognisable.
But first things first, promotion is vital.
He said: “This season it is paramount to get out of the league, not just for me but the club and everyone, the fans.
“I think throughout the year, I hope to think people can see exactly what I’m after in terms of how I want to play and all the other stuff beneath the first team, what I want to do with the youth, the academy.
“I want to get a real thing of Doncaster and a Doncaster player being easy to identify.
“But the be all and end all at first team level is results.
“Right now they’re going fine, we’ve just got to make sure we stay consistent.
“It’s even more important because if we get out of this league, I do think we can really kick on.
“The people in charge, the facilities, the stadium, the training facilities, the training of the kids at the Keepmoat, it’s a fantastic club.
“It could really take off this place.”
Here is to Year Two of the Ferguson project and the hope of getting off the rollercoaster and onto a rocket ship.