Do Not Go Gentle; On John Ryan Stepping Down
I was on commentary duty at Oakwell on Saturday afternoon. Roughly three minutes before kick-off, as I was running through the usual preamble, I looked to my left to see Chris jabbing at his laptop screen, pointing out a tweet from the local press stating that John Ryan had resigned as chairman. My reactionary feeling, right then and there, which I had to reign in as I tried to fathom a way to convey this news whilst talking on an official club channel, was anger.
Not anger that John Ryan had chosen to step down as Chairman of Doncaster Rovers after so long, and not anger at any of his fellow directors, and not anger at anyone else connected with the club or the supporters groups. No. It was anger at John Ryan, for the timing of his announcement. Just before kick-off in a particularly vital league game. Timed when everyone else’s focus was directed at the pitch. Timed when he knew he was the only director present. Timed to disrupt.
Two hours later, as I hung in the press room to put off venturing out into the rain, John Ryan himself came through the door of the Benny Hill Media Suite. Ryan squeezed through the crowd in the compact room, plonked himself at the desk at the front, and said “Well someone ask me a question.” No one did, but Ryan spoke anyway and as he did he went through a visible range of emotions, sadness, nostalgia, poignancy and anger.
Ryan’s voice cracked as he began by confirming his resignation and you can understand why; he was after all relinquishing control of the team he had been chairman of for fifteen years, and supported for over fifty. Ryan was part of a group of investors who stepped in to save Doncaster Rovers in 1998, when most of us had resigned ourselves to having seen the club play football for the last time.
At that time Ryan was initially treated with suspicion by many – as indeed anyone coming into the club at that point would have been – primarily because as a Director of the club once before in the early 90s he had sold his shares to the notorious Ken Richardson. Some fans I know still hold that against Ryan, but I would never do so. It was a decision he was encouraged to make by others at the club, and none of us could have predicted the attempted slapstick come soap opera asset-stripping which Richardson subsequently orchestrated until Ryan’s return in 1998.
No, credit to Ryan for ensuring he was involved in the group that rescued the Rovers, and of course for sticking with the club through those difficult first few seasons before the rewards began to come. Ryan not only helped resurrect the club, but also, with the support of his board, made moves that stabilised it, such as the investment in training facilities at Cantley Park over chucking all his cash at the playing side. I reviewed his autobiography-come-cosmetic surgery advertorial in 2009, and remember thinking then, he gets it, he actually gets what it’s all about for us, and for that allowed him his occasional past ego-stroke like his turn at centre-forward and his infamous ‘blood on the streets’ outburst.
Although I am both grateful and thankful for all that Ryan has delivered, that does not mean that I will blindly follow and support everything he has done. After all, I am truly thankful to both my parents, but they still read the Daily Mail semi-regularly. No-one is infallible, not even John Ryan, and whilst I have been more than happy to have him as chairman, I have still cringed at his ‘Destination Championship’ proclamations, at his rants and riles against match officials, and as probably goes without saying, every facet of ‘the McKay Experiment’.
The events of 2011-12 made me view Ryan in a very different way. I disagreed with his reasons, his methods and his actions, and as such became labelled as ‘ungrateful’. People involved within the Supporters Trust at the time did all they could to discredit my opinions – that is all they were, opinions of a supporter concerned about the direction his club had chosen to take. For daring to have an opinion that did not tally with John Ryan’s I was subsequently ‘othered’ as some sort of enemy of the state and, I am told, Ryan even had his legal team look over the content of my Viva Rovers site at the time. To what end I have never understood.
Here’s the thing though, because I was grateful and thankful for all John Ryan had done for Doncaster Rovers, and all the enjoyment his tenure had brought me, I was happy to return to the Keepmoat when McKay had moved on. Put the daftness of the previous year behind us and go again. Because of the stance I took during ‘The McKay Experiment’ I am often labelled as being ‘anti John Ryan’. I’ve actually heard it said of me and of popular STAND. It is a ludicrous statement. How could I (or we) be against a man who had delivered our club so much?
If I was given the opportunity to meet with John Ryan the first thing I would do is shake him by the hand, give gushing mumbling thanks and offer to buy him a drink. But that doesn’t mean I agree implicitly with everything he will do. Again, the man is not infallible. And he has made mistakes in the past which we have all seen. He has earned my respect and my thanks, but his errors of judgement – and general suspicion of me and people who think along similar lines as me – means that he has not fully earned my trust.
If John Ryan thought that when the Sequentia Capital offer of a £20million push for the Premier League was rumoured and tabled earlier this season it would be universally and unquestioningly accepted by supporters then I feel he was more than a little naïve. As supporters of a club like ours – given the nadir of Richardson – it should be understood that for many the gut reaction to new investors is one more of suspicion, rather than open arms. Many supporters gave Ryan the benefit of the doubt when ‘the McKay Experiment’ took effect, the out-and-out failure of that scheme means they have not done so this time, and have edged back across the line to wary. That Ryan could have thought otherwise surprised me greatly.
Yet, he continued to get increasingly frustrated when the board, like many supporters, took the sensible approach, and rather than snapping Sequentia’s hands off, pressed for further information. The other directors were unconvinced by the responses they received, as too were the Supporters Trust, and when fans did try and discuss Sequentia’s standing and aims on the Viking Supporters’ Co-operative Trust messageboard, rather than have their concerns allied they received a threat of legal action. Sue first, answer questions later is hardly a policy likely to warm people to your involvement.
With Ryan so in favour of Sequentia’s involvement and the other two directors unconvinced the chairman’s frustrations grew and grew. Rather than keep his grievances in the board room, Ryan has increasingly aired them in public, leading to the statement on Friday, put out via the DRFC Exiles unofficial supporters group –with whom he has close ties – which sadly and calculatedly sought to degenerate the debate over whether Sequentia’s involvement was right for Doncaster Rovers into a popularity contest between John Ryan and the man he felt was stalling the most; Terry Brammall.
I questioned via twitter why the Exiles had chosen to make such a statement, one which would inevitably divide supporters, and make it public on the eve of such an important fixture. Their response was “…because we don’t believe that John Ryan, Dick Watson and Terry Brammall can now co-exist so something has to give.” But the more that Ryan continued to make derisory comments to the local press and others about the movements of the board, whilst the other two parties kept themselves to themselves, it seemed even on Friday that if anyone was to give way then unfortunately it had to be Ryan.
The problem we have as Rovers fans is that John Ryan’s achievements and successes will always blur discussion and reasoned debate over the overall direction of the club. It happened during ‘the McKay Experiment’ as mentioned above, and it was happening again with the Sequentia deal. Never mind our thoughts on the deal on the table and our concerns over the people and the hedge fund at its heart, we were being increasingly encouraged to bring a very grey debate to a black and white contest of John Ryan or Terry Brammall. Perhaps, because in such a simplified debate Ryan knew he would have the support of the majority, as he did when implementing ‘the McKay Experiment’. “How can you disagree with John Ryan after all he’s done?” “#InJRWeTrust” and all that. Some of us feel that the future of our club deserves more considered debate than the hammering out of a hashtag. It’s a shame Ryan had ultimately connected himself with too many sycophants in our support to recognise that.
Though the debates rage on, there are ultimately three questions to be asked in the wake of Ryan’s resignation. Firstly, should we be disappointed that he has chosen to step down? The answer is of course yes. Though I don’t agree with all his ideas or his methods, many of which have been highlighted in recent weeks, whilst he is here we have a local man and a fan at the heart of the club. Most clubs cannot lay claim to having one of those aspects let along both on their board, and it is something that has always reassured me. And of course, the good times have always outweighed the bad in the last fourteen years.
Secondly, was this the right time for him to go? Quite possibly yes. Ryan was never going to be around forever, and there have been times of stress in the last couple of years when he has looked far from his sprightly positive self. The increasing rants against those disagreeing with him, or seen to be holding up his perceived way forwards suggest that if the club’s achievements and successes are to have the positive associations with Ryan he rightly deserves he would need to step down sooner rather than later. If Ryan’s dream is of Premier League football, the increasingly murky, desperate and unfounded ways in which clubs pursue such a future suggest he would be best disassociating himself with such endeavours, and instead preserve the very positive legacy he already has.
Lastly, was this the way for him to go? No, not at all. It was a crass, petty and somewhat self-centred way in which to make his announcement, and one which will only disrupt everything at the club in the coming weeks. Doing all he can to discredit his fellow directors and paint Terry Brammall as the villain of the piece as he steps out the door is not going to help Doncaster Rovers immediate future in any way. It has divided fans in what was already going to be a tough season, and suits no-one other than Ryan himself.
As Ryan was fielding questions and laying down the gauntlet to Brammall in the confines of Barnsley’s snug press-room on Saturday evening the man standing next to me glanced around the room, put down his coffee on the side and began scrolling through the day’s other Championship results on a spare computer. That man was Paul Dickov. Doncaster Rovers and John Ryan may have become synonymous with one another, but football moves on and the club will move on too.