From the Dons to Donny
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."
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.
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.