DECEMBER is an exciting time of year; full of hope, expectation and anticipation, writes Paul Goodwin.
And that is certainly the case at Doncaster Rovers too, for whom this month could be the advent of something very special.
Doncaster can look forward to their very own ‘Super Six’ schedule over the next four weeks, a period of games which will provide the biggest clue yet as to whether this team of grafters is cut out for a genuine promotion challenge.
Once this winter virus has been shrugged off, we’re about to discover whether this robust Rovers side really are made of stern stuff.
Evolution not revolution, that was supposed to be the plan for this season. Stability was the watchword.
But Rovers, level on points with leaders Tranmere Rovers, have emerged as genuine contenders for an instant return to the Championship. Or have they? Well the next month could be pivotal.
Promotion favourites Sheffield United and MK Dons will arrive in town and provide a genuine promotion barometer.
Saturday’s opponents Swindon Town and Preston will test Rovers’ brilliant away form to the limit, while improving Coventry and Oldham sides round off Rovers’ festive programme.
Hope and expectation? After that lot, fans will be giddy with optimism if Doncaster are still in the top two come the new year.
Even the most optimistic of supporters would have been hard pushed to predict any sort of promotion push following last season’s spectacular fall from grace.
Relegation left Rovers nursing their pride and effectively starting from scratch.
But Saunders’ careful, clever, and patient recruitment, and his ability to quickly foster the kind of team spirit that evaporated during the ‘experiment’, laid the foundations for a fine first four months of the season.
At the heart of Saunders’ Rovers revolution have been the three S’s: stability, spirit and solidity.
Stability: the ability to pick a fairly a consistent side, thanks in no small measure to the work of fitness guru Mal Purchase.
Spirit: the enthusiasm and desire that this tight-knit squad have in abundance.
Solidity: A resoluteness and pride in defending that has paved the way for Doncaster to boast the best away record in England.
The ‘Dean Machine’ has clicked into gear much quicker than even Rovers’ rookie manager expected.
Perhaps we ought not to be too surprised. Saunders himself is not lacking in self-belief.
And he has surrounded himself with players who have been there and done it, players who believe they should be operating at a higher level.
The squad is full of players with a point to prove: David Cotterill, a man intent on returning to the Premier League; Paul Quinn, Jamie McCombe, Billy Paynter, Rob Jones, James Harper, all players discarded by Championship clubs.
This week’s virus-gate has highlighted once more the brittle nature of this small squad.
Rovers are just a serious injury away from a potential crisis. They struggle without both Cotterill and Kyle Bennett. They would struggle without Jones for a long period.
But this is a time for hope and expectation, and Rovers at the very least can look forward to a fascinating 2013.