A story of four promises

Keepmoat

I thought I’d start the ball rolling with my first blog to introduce my home town football club and my passion in life: Doncaster Rovers. You may have heard of us, you may have been to our stadium and watched us play in the Championship, but can you honestly say how we got here?

1995; Doncaster were wandering in the lower leagues of English football, in the beginning of catastrophic events the main stand of our old ground; Belle Vue was set on fire in what would turn out to be an insurance scam mastered by our own chairman; Ken Richardson. It went from bad to worse for the Yorkshire football club and in 1997/98 season we recorded the worst season possible for a football team, we set the record for the country of the most losses in a season (although in the 1930’s we also set the record for the most wins in a season) and we were relegated to the Conference.

It didn’t just mean relegation – our chairman didn’t care for the club and was only ever interested in selling the lease. He left as chairman and not many believed we would ever play football again, the conference association were tempted to reject our request to play in the conference, and we were left in tatters, a handful of footballs, no net and less than ten players. It was dark times and felt like the end.

One man did believe in our football club, and this man was willing to start the revival. His name was Ian McMahon, he led a consortium that bought the club and Doncaster Rovers were to be reborn. He contacted John Ryan; a local business man, who was also on the board during the Richardson regime, Ryan agreed with McMahon that it was in the best interest of everyone to allow Ryan to become Chairman and eventually our owner. The fans that did remain were treated to a blast from the past when Rovers legends Ian and Glyn Snodin returned to the club to be manager and assistant. That season we survived relegation but managed to win the Conference league trophy, a great feat as far as anyone with the club were concerned. John Ryan made four promises to the fans that season. He would:

1. Get us out of the Conference.

2. Move us to a new ground.

3. Make Doncaster Rovers reach a Cup final.

4. Get us into the second tier of English football.

As mad as they all sound no one really took the fourth one seriously, it had been 40 years previously since we played in the second tier.

We settled as a Conference club and in the years that passed the task of getting out of the conference seemed impossible, only one was promoted each season and the competition was fierce. In 2002 however it was announced that two teams would be promoted – the team that won the league and a Conference play-off would be introduced. That allowed teams from second position to fifth battle it out to win a place in the Football League. And in remarkable fashion with Dave Penney as manager Doncaster reached the play-offs, securing it with a 4-2 win on the last game of the season against Hereford United; despite being 2-1 down. On that day John Ryan made his Doncaster debut and made the Guinness Book of Records to become the oldest man to play football.

After defeating Chester over two legs (winning in the penalty shootout), we booked ourselves into the first Conference play-off final against Dagenham and Redbridge. On the 10th May 2003, Francis Tierney scored the golden goal for Doncaster Rovers at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium to win a place in the Football League; finishing the game at 3-2 to Doncaster. Finally we were back and John Ryan’s first promise was achieved.

The following season we were heavily tipped to finish bottom and descend into the Conference again. Hull City were widely tipped to be promoted. Hull City were promoted in second place, while relegation favourites Doncaster Rovers rocked the footballing world to finish first and win back-to-back promotions.

The next season was a quiet one compared to the seasons before and Doncaster achieved a very respectable mid table position in League One. The next season however was a typical Doncaster Rovers season, although we weren’t ever going to effectively challenge for the play-offs we went on an amazing run in the League Cup. Drawing 1-1 with Man City and knocking them out on penalties. Aston Villa beckoned next and Belle Vue were treated to a real show as McIndoe, Heffernan and Thornton scored the goals to thump Villa 3-0 and we proceeded to the Quarter Finals; a home tie against Arsenal. Twice Doncaster lead the gunners and twice Arsenal came back, scoring a dramatic equaliser in the 122nd minute with an extra time goal to take the tie to penalties. Doncaster tried but lost eventually 4-1 on penalties. We kept our heads high and there was no shame in losing to arguably one of the best sides in the country.

After four seasons of managing Doncaster Rovers after making the step up as a player for the club in the conference, the manager Dave Penney had become a legend among the fans. He had masterminded the successes the club was having. It then came as a big surprise when the club announced that they had parted company with Dave Penney. Considering our success if anything was clear it was that we were in the hunt for a better manager to take Doncaster on to big and better things. Doncaster born Kevin Keegan was rumoured in the media to have been contacted about coming to Doncaster to manage his hometown football club.

Then in what would be one of the most story-changing moments for Doncaster Rovers, Sean O’Driscoll was the man chosen to replace Dave Penney. This did not meet the fans with great overjoy. He never made a very encouraging start either, and the year 2007 was fast approaching and the days of Belle Vue were numbered. The brand spanking Keepmoat Stadium awaited and the Rovers would have to say goodbye to their 74-year home. In a very emotional day, Doncaster played their final game at Belle Vue against Nottingham Forest on the 23rd December. Thankfully however the Rovers did win that game 1-0. Tears were shed and the lights went out at old Belle Vue for the final time.

From tears of sadness to tears of joy the Rovers started a new era in the Keepmoat Stadium on New Year’s Day by thrashing local rivals Huddersfield in a 3-0 win. Although it was never going to be Belle Vue, the future looked bright. We finally had a new home and John Ryan’s second promise was achieved.

Sean O’Driscoll was doing a decent job, but that didn’t stop the fans from questioning whether he was the right appointment. To answer his critics O’Driscoll guided his new team to the semi-final of the Johnstone’s Paint trophy against Crewe Alexandra. The first leg ended 3-3 when Doncaster played away and the return leg was to be a thrilling encounter. Half time at the Keepmoat and Crewe lead the hosts 2-0, 5-3 on aggregate and they were pretty much already in the final. In the second half Paul Heffernan scored a goal after a brilliant spin on the spot to pull one back. After his first penalty was disallowed he stepped up to score the retake. 5-5 on aggregate and in the closing stages of the match Jason Price had the ball three-yards from the net, after scuffing his first shot, he did finally pushed the ball over the line to give Doncaster the win.

A final against Bristol Rovers awaited, due to delays in the build of the new Wembley, the game was to take part at the Millennium Stadium, and would also be the final English cup final to take place in the stadium. It wasn’t the FA Cup of League Cup, but it was considered a major English trophy amongst the lower leagues and it was definitely a cup final as far as anyone was concerned. We were going to the Millennium and John Ryan’s third promise was achieved.

The Rovers of the north took on the Rovers of the South on 1st April 2007. Doncaster lead by two after just five minutes of play, Bristol however came back in the second half, despite being in a league below to draw level. It was tense all around the stadium and the 20000 Doncaster fans in attendance blew the roof off the stadium when Captain Graeme Lee headed home a Sean Thornton corner to win the game for the Yorkshire club and win us our first trophy final in our first appearance.

The next season Sean O’Driscoll signed James Hayter, one of his players from ex-club Bournemouth, along with highly-rated duo Richie Wellens and Martin Woods. Defender Matt Mills was brought in on loan from Manchester City and it was clear that the club were to push on for promotion. Things were looking promising after Christmas and the club recorded wins against promotion rivals Nottingham Forest, Carlisle United and Leeds United and would sit for most of the second half of the season in second and third place. The final game of the season and Doncaster sat in second place – a win and we were promoted. Doncaster lost 2-1 to Cheltenham and Nottingham Forest won their match against Yeovil 3-2 to beat Doncaster to promotion. For the Rovers, the play offs beckoned.

Joint top scorer Paul Heffernan was sent off in the first play-off leg against Southend United and things were looking bad for the home leg with the game tied at 0-0. However it would become the James Coppinger show and the Rovers midfielder bagged a hat-trick and the game finished 5-1 to Doncaster. The final; to be played at Wembley, would be against Leeds United who were looking to bounce back to the Championship at the first attempt. However they would have been promoted automatically had they not received a 15-point deduction.

Five years ago from then and Doncaster were in the Conference playing the likes of Dagenham & Redbridge, Stevenage Borough and Hereford United. Leeds United were in the Premiership challenging the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. On the 25th May 2008 they shared the same division. One would be promoted; no statistics, no fifteen point handicaps, no advantages, no replay, just 90 minutes of football in a one-off event where the winner gets promoted. The players took to the field, the referee put the whistle in his mouth, and the game began. Forty five minutes of play and no breakthrough for either side. The second half began and Doncaster attacked, after Coppinger’s free kick was deflected out for a corner, captain Brian stock stepped up and whipped in the cross that joint top scorer James Hayter jumped up to head home what would be the winner after a very tense second half.

The small club from the town near Sheffield had done it. They had won promotion to the Championship. They defeated all the odds to feel like Kings of English football for just a day, beating Leeds United in the world’s home of football at Wembley. Doncaster were in the second tier of English Football after fifty years and John Ryan’s fourth promise was achieved.

Written by Lee Croft, We Are Going Up’s Doncaster Rovers Blogger

Lee tweets at @mr1croft

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