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From the Dons to Donny

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Paul Fletcher | 12:00 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

Life has moved on significantly for Doncaster goalkeeper Neil Sullivan since his early days as an apprentice at Wimbledon.

Back in the mid-1980s, Sullivan, still a schoolboy, would train with the now defunct London club one day a week and vividly remembers the mixture of excitement and trepidation he experienced.

"It was the proper Crazy Gang back then," said Sullivan, whose brother nowadays watches AFC Wimbledon occasionally as they push for promotion to League Two. "If I kept my head down, did my work and got out unscathed, then I would regard it as a successful day."

My own memories of that era involve training ground images of an expensive suit smouldering away in a dustbin as the likes of Dennis Wise, John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones delivered a crash course in life at Plough Lane to new signings.

I asked Sullivan if he ever turned up in a suit. "Blimey," he replied. "You'd hardly wear anything because it was either burned or ripped up."

Neil Sullivan in action for Doncaster

Sullivan might be 40 but he has lost none of his enthusiasm. Photo: Getty Images

Fast forward to the current season and it is hard to imagine such behaviour being tolerated by Doncaster manager Sean O'Driscoll, a man whose footballing philosophy seems diametrically opposed in just about every way imaginable to the rough-and-ready, physical and uncompromising style of the Crazy Gang.

I have often heard supporters of opposition teams compliment Doncaster on the quality of their football - and O'Driscoll must take huge credit for this. The 53-year-old former Bournemouth manager has always espoused the virtues of passing and movement, using craft and subtlety to unlock an opposition defence.

"As the goalkeeper I am in a very privileged position because watching some of the stuff that we play is absolutely fantastic," added Sullivan. "I can look up the pitch and see a lot of the runs that players make and their movement."

If Sullivan often started a move at Wimbledon by launching a long kick up-field, he is now more likely to pick out a member of his backline as Rovers build from the back.

"The style at Wimbledon and what we have at Doncaster - they are both right because they both play to the strengths of the respective players," said the veteran keeper.

Sullivan reckons that his career has taken him across two different eras and argues that it is difficult to compare a sport that has changed beyond recognition both on and off the field since the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

Even so, some things remain constant. For one thing, the ghetto blaster that the Dons trailed with them across the country has become pretty standard in all dressing rooms these days. And Sullivan, now 40 and with more than 500 league appearances to his name, has lost none of his desire for the game.

"At Wimbledon everything was built up, whether it was a big derby or a pre-season friendly," he added. "We just wanted to go out and play - and that is exactly the same for me now."

This Saturday Sullivan will play for Donny in their south Yorkshire derby against Sheffield United, a fixture that will be broadcast live on BBC Two, kick-off 1715.

It is the sort of fixture that Sullivan particularly relishes; a match with an extra edge.

"You can tell it is a big game because everyone in the area is talking about it," added the Rovers keeper. "As a player you don't approach the game any differently but you are definitely aware of what it means to the supporters."

Sullivan should know what makes a derby special; after all he has tasted the atmosphere in a north London encounter between Tottenham and Arsenal. The veteran keeper reckons that supporters of each club would start talking about a forthcoming derby weeks in advance. I asked whether any one particularly stood out and there was an undoubted tone of regret in Sullivan's voice as he discussed the 2001 FA Cup semi-final meeting at Old Trafford. Tottenham took the lead through Gary Doherty but lost out after Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires scored for Arsenal.

It that defeat is Sullivan's worst memory of a derby then perhaps his sweetest is the 2008 League One play-off final that saw Donny overcome his former club Leeds at Wembley.

Sullivan had two loan spells at Doncaster before finally signing permanently in June 2007 but it would be fair to conclude that his relationship with then-Leeds boss Wise ended on a sour note. Understandable, perhaps, considering that Wise had publicly described Sullivan as overweight in a post-match press conference.

Neil Sullivan, in action for Wimbledon, makes a save to deny Tottenham's Les Ferdinand.

Sullivan talks fondly about his time at Wimbledon. Photo: Getty Images

Sullivan, who has 28 Scotland caps, had not won any silverware before his move to relatively unfashionable Doncaster but has since enjoyed not only that play-off triumph but also victory in the 2007 Johnstone's Paint Trophy final.

His move to south Yorkshire has coincided with arguably the most successful period in the history of the club. The reason why Sullivan joined in the first place was because he had been sold on the ambitious plans of O'Driscoll and chairman John Ryan, who made his money in cosmetic surgery with a business called Make Yourself Amazing.

The amazing transformation of Rovers since Sullivan joined has not only included promotion to the Championship but a move away from the ageing Belle Vue to the multi-facility Keepmoat Stadium and a substantial overhaul of the club's training ground at Cantley Park.

Sullivan gives the impression that the ambition at Rovers is far from satisfied but he is too wily to discuss the possibility of returning to the top flight. What he will do is point out that Rovers were recently the highest ranked Yorkshire club and that it is about time the county had a team back in the Premier League.

The success of Burnley in 2009 and, particularly, Blackpool last season showed that promotion from the Championship can be achieved without substantial financial muscle. It is also looking as though this season could be very open in the second tier, with only QPR emerging as a potential stand-out side.

I reckon that plenty of neutrals would be happy to see Doncaster win promotion, but the immediate priority for Sullivan is Saturday's match against the Blades.

Victory will send the Donny fans home happy, but defeat will leave Sullivan facing dark stares down the aisle at the supermarket for the next few weeks.

You can follow me throughout the season at twitter.com/Paul__Fletcher

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Oops - due to a technical issue that has thankfully now been resolved, this blog was 'closed for comments' until now.

    Given that it has been on the site for the best part of a day already, I cannot help but think that the horse has bolted a little bit, but if anyone has any thoughts they want to share about Neil Sullivan, his career, or indeed Doncaster and their match against the Blades on Saturday, I'd be delighted to hear about them.

  • Comment number 2.

    Unfortuatly he will always be remembered for one thing. THAT Beckham goal :(

  • Comment number 3.

    I would pay very good money for the pictured Wimbledon 'keeper top!

  • Comment number 4.

    Good blog Paul! As a Leeds fan its good to see him still going - I have to admit I agreed with Dennis Wise's decision to get rid of him at the time, he seemed like he was past his best but he's managed to extend his career at a good club under a good manager, but as said above the stand out memory of him will unfortunately always be looking over his head helplessly as Beckham scored that infamous goal.

  • Comment number 5.

    I didn't realise he and Dennis Wise had had a fall out weren't they team mates at Wimbledon? Never cared much for Dennis Wise to be honest.

  • Comment number 6.

    Paul, good to see a well-regarded former Wimbledon player, and Sutton boy, still enjoying his football (I speak as a long-time Wimbledon fan and resident of Sutton). There are a couple of problems with the blog, though:

    1) you describe Wimbledon as 'now defunct'. This is something of an insult to the Wimbledon supporters whose time, energy, commitment (and money) kept the club alive in May 2002 and under whose stewardship it has risen from the Combined Counties League to the top of the Conference since then (like most Dons fans of my, er, vintage, I do not regard AFC Wimbledon as a new club but as a continuation of the old club under a new name; if I'm in a conciliatory mood I might concede that the club was reformed in 2002 but this is as far as I'm prepared to go). The club's community scheme and youth teams are thriving and there were three Wimbledon players in the England C team which beat Estonia in Tallinn last week. Hardly defunct, surely?

    2) you (implicitly) compare Wimbledon's 'rough-and-ready, physical and uncompromising style' unfavourably to the 'passing and movement...craft and subtlety' of Sean O'Driscoll's Doncaster Rovers. It's a pity that you've used your blog to perpetuate the clich├ęd view of Wimbledon's style rather that present a more nuanced picture. Bear in mind that during Wimbledon's tenure as a League club between 1977 and 2002, 14 continuous seasons were spent in the top flight. Remember that this was achieved despite a small supporter base (there were established League clubs, Fulham & Chelsea, just a few stops along the District Line from Wimbledon so attracting new fans in our natural catchment area was always going to be difficult) and despite spending 11 seasons as tenants at Selhurst Park (after our owner sold Plough Lane to a supermarket; compare this to Doncaster, who play in a newly-built stadium, financed by their patron). Our gravity-defying top-flight existence was maintained by unearthing discarded or ignored gems in the lower divisions (or, after Terry Burton's overhaul of the academy, by developing its own players) polishing them up and selling them on at a profit. Examples: Dave Beasant, Andy Thorn, Warren Barton & Carl Cort (sold to Newcastle), Nigel Winterburn (Arsenal), John Scales (Liverpool), Dennis Wise (Chelsea), Keith Curle & Terry Phelan (Manchester City) Chris Perry and Neil Sullivan himself (Tottenham). For all Doncaster's supposed technical & aesthetic superiority, they haven't yet reached the top-flight and haven't yet developed players of the quality of those mentioned above.

    I hope I don't come across as chip-shouldered and I'm not criticising Doncaster Rovers (I watched Donny in a Conference game at Sutton United in 2000 so their progress in the last decade is something I hope Wimbledon can emulate in the near future) but your blog gives you the opportunity to dig a little deeper and offer readers insights they can't get elsewhere in the media and I think you slightly wasted the chance here.

  • Comment number 7.

    Good article Paul, however, John Ryan made his money with Transform medical Group before selling it and starting his new MYA company.

    Still happy to see Sullivan playing and has another year or two left yet.

  • Comment number 8.

    Now then,

    Many thanks for your comments so far.

    DT00271 - appreciate your reply - and I'm sorry you feel that way, particularly with regard to the word defunct. I guess the old Dons are definct aren't they? Which, of course, is not to say that AFC Wimbledon are not a young club making big strides very quickly. But if you see them as one and the same, then please do not take offence with the dinstinction I made as not everyone will know the full story.

    Sullivan talked with great warmth about his time at the Dons, noting that although they had a long ball reputation they also had some very good players who have gone on to enjoy good careers - a point you also correctly make.

    He also mentioned that his brother sometimes goes down to watch AFC Wimbledon and, reading between the lines, I got the feeling that he keeps an eye out for their results.

    Stockholmrover - thanks for that, although I'm sure he still makes a decent living from MYA. How far do you think Rovers can go?

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks for the quick reply, Paul. Should have prefaced my comments by saying I enjoy your blogs (as I - mostly - enjoyed this one). If I seem a bit thin-skinned, try supporting a team that has its hard-won League place appropriated and awarded to a franchise from a post-war New Town, then being told by the people making that decision that it is 'not in the wider interests of football' for supporters to keep their club alive. Any chance of you making it down to Kingsmeadow and publishing a blog on our progress (not just focussing on the first team but also the youth set-up and community schemes)? Or getting in touch with Raj Parker & Steve Stride and asking whether they still think AFC Wimbledon is 'not in the wider interests of football'?

  • Comment number 10.

    It wasn't just the Beckham goal, I remember Tony Yeboah scoring a cracker against him. I also thought Paolo Di Canio's scissor kick volley was against him too.

    Clearly it took something special to beat him!

    I always rated Sullivan, a solid keeper and as a Scotland fan I felt safer with him in goal over Jim Leighton or Rab Useless Douglas.

    Good luck to him. This blog helps him come over as the consumate professional I always felt he came across as.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hughton...

    Agreed always came across as a pro - and was a popular figure at Leeds - no question he'd win out in a popularity contest over Dennis Wise!!! Yeboah's was another fantastic strike.

    Wednesdayfan1, Wise critisized Sullivan's performances for Leeds and said he was no longer fit enough, which as I mentioned before anybody that saw him at that stage would have to say it did look that way but hes kept going and looked as good as ever when we played Donny recently.

    DT00271 - I've a massive amount of respect for what AFC Wimbledon have done, it wasn't so long ago that it looked like Leeds were going to be faced with a similar task (albeit under different circumstances us having created our own mess)

  • Comment number 12.

    I think people forget that for quite a few seasons, Neil was the best goalkeeper in the Premiership (back by opta stats) and after the typical Wimbledon players getting rejected by England had to look elsewhere to Scotland. I'd like to think if only he was 6, 7 years younger, he would have well represented England a number of times.

  • Comment number 13.

    Thanks for giving our club a bit of recognition. I know that we are perennial favourites for relegation and are still seen as lower league upstarts by many at this level. As we've said for years, underestimate us at your peril. Neil Sullivan is a credit to his profession and living proof that Dennis Wise wouldn't know a decent player if he kicked him up in the air. Leeds loss, our gain. It can be difficult following Donny sometimes from half way round the world, so many thanks for your article which made great reading and reminds all us long suffering fans that we really are a Championship side and the nightmares of games against Leek Town and Stalybridge are distant memories. Premier League? Who knows. I think there's a few more surprises to come from our pub side yet.
    Keep up the great blogs, Rovers till I die.

  • Comment number 14.

    Just because there haven't been nearly enough of the chippy, pedantic responses that BBC blogs usually elicit, I'd like to point out that Justin Fashanu never played for Wimbledon and Vinny Jones spells his first name with 'ie' rather than 'y'. This country, etc..

  • Comment number 15.

    As a bournemouth fan I can't complain right now with our current league position and Eddie Howe, but all of us remember the O'Driscoll years with fondness, the passing and movement was beautiful at times. I'm glad to see he's carried on and I expect he'll get a top job in the future if bbc blogs keep on enough. Of course in league 1 it often came up against some big defensive lumps and long meaningless periods of passing often drove fans to madness. Still brought us back down to earth when we started long balls under Kevin Bond! (w**ker)

  • Comment number 16.

    I think I once played in the opposite goal to Sullivan in 1987. Swindon Town Youths versus Wimbledon Youths. Dave Kemp was his manager. I too turned 40 this year and I still wish I'd had a career as a pro. Well played Sully.

  • Comment number 17.

    Happnstance.
    If you read Paul Fletcher's Blog properly at no point does he mention Justin Fashanu or spell Vinnie with a 'Y'.
    I remember Neil's time with the Scotland Squad quite fondly.He never really let the Scotland Team down when called upon.

  • Comment number 18.

    @Spiker:

    It definatley did mention Vinny and Justin, but while the comments were closed. It's since been edited.

  • Comment number 19.

    Good article about a great guy. I met Neil Sullivan after he'd played for Spurs at Old Trafford around 10 years ago & he'd spent the afternoon getting politely asked by the Stretford End 'do you know where Scotland is?'. He admitted that only a few weeks before he'd actually got lost on his way to Hampden, and couldn't understand any Glaswegian accents when asking for directions!

  • Comment number 20.

    From what I hear (from his family :D) Sully would love to return back South at some time. Would be great to see him don a Wimbledon shirt again!

  • Comment number 21.

    Legend through and through. Wimbledon always had decent Keepers, Guy, Beasant, Segers and Sully. Great to see him still plying his trade.

    (Learnt to kick straight yet Sully? ;) )

  • Comment number 22.

    I was at Selhurst Park when Yeboah scored 'wondergoal #2' (wondergoal #1 being the one against Liverpool at Elland Rd), also amazing for Carlton Palmer curling one in from 30 yards too, in a memorable 4-2 victory for Leeds.

    Thanks for that memory. Never had anything but respect for Sullivan, both as a former player and an opponent.

  • Comment number 23.

    Some people are so touchy it's quite funny reading these comments.

    Will be interesting to see if Rovers get to play Liverpool next season...

    Says the Liverpool fan from Donny.

  • Comment number 24.

    Nice to see Sully's still playing and at a club doing well, it looks like I'm not the only Don checking in on a blog about one of our former heroes...

    I won't bang the drum about the style of football etc, very amused by Womble-of-Arabia's comment about kicking straight, maybe our alleged "route-one" football would've been more effective if he had ;-)

    Good blog. Good luck to Doncaster, hope you make it up and Sully has a chance to bow out at the top of the game where he deinitely belongs as a keeper...

  • Comment number 25.

    Spiker
    I think the likely reason you can't see the errors I cited is because they had been changed by the time you responded to my initial post. Alert moderators tend to pick up editorial oversights when flagged up by readers.

    I meant to say on my previous post that I enjoyed reading the blog, Paul - and it's remarkable how Neil Sullivan doesn't appear to age.

  • Comment number 26.

    I thought that another disappointment for him would've been the Leeds play-off defeat to my club, Watford, especially as our second goal is credited as an own goal by him, although that was a bit unfair as it came off the post and hit him on the back. A decent pro, and unlike a certain keeper of a similar age (DJ), keeps out of the limelight and gets on with his job.

  • Comment number 27.

    happenstance/spiker/TheMerrick - thanks for your comments.

    happenstance was quite correct to point out the brain meltdown error of Justin and not John. It was spotted and duly changed. I guess that is one of the benefits of the web against print journalism - not that it is in any way acceptable for these sort of errors to happen in the first place.

    I'm glad to see that Sullivan is a popular figure with most posters because he really did come across as being a decent bloke. Seems to be held in high regard by plenty of Dons fans too.

  • Comment number 28.

    Sullivan was a top keeper and always had time for the fans - always used to give us a wave and clap on away trips. Nothing he could do about the Beckham goal or the Yeboah and Carlton Palmer rockets - I was sitting right in line.

    Should have been picked for England but I don't think Glenn Hoddle liked Wimbledon too much.

    Nice to see him getting plaudits from all sides.

  • Comment number 29.

    I'm in agreement with DT00271 here. Paul please do an article on a lower or non-league club there's quite a few interesting stories out there; AFC Wimbledon, Stevenage (formerly Stevenage Borough) and what ever happened to the newly reformed Chester FC?

  • Comment number 30.

    Sully was a team mate of Denis Wise, Wise never made it as a manager, as you can see by his judgement on players, he was was poor, the simple fact that he let Sully go and is still playing proves my point, whats Wise doing now ?

  • Comment number 31.

    Sully is probably our most valuable asset apart from Sean O'Driscoll - by my reckoning every season he's been with us he's been worth at very least about 15 points. For our first two seasons in the Championship, that's been the difference between relegation and the mid-table obscurity we've come to enjoy.

    Only this weekend he again managed to be the difference between victory and defeat, helped partly by some lacklustre Millwall finishing, but his reactions are as keen as ever and his handling is still top notch.

    Every season now seems to start with a worry about what will happen if he starts losing it, or gets injured, but every season he allays all the fears and comes back better than ever. I don't want to tempt fate by predicting how much longer he can go on for but at the Keepmoat we'll all be enjoying it for however long it turns out to be!

 

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