DRFC What an amazing ten years
Ten years ago today Sir Francis Tierney scored the crucial golden goal in the conference play-off final against Dagenham and Redbridge at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke.
It is hard to believe what has happened at Doncaster Rovers in the past ten years since that emotional day.
Chairman John Ryan promised he would lead Rovers to the second tier of English football when he took over the club five years earlier in 1998. At the time, Rovers had just crashed out of the Football League, they were playing in front of sub 1,000 crowds at the dilapidated Belle Vue ground and the previous chairman had tried to burn the stand down to claim on the insurance.
Ryan brought in two fans favourites to resurrect Rovers in 1998 with Ian and Glynn Snodin in charge and they had to move quickly to field a team for the first game of the non-league season at Dover Athletic. Rovers managed to field a side that day with Ian and Glynn pulling in a number of favours from ex-colleagues and they even needed to borrow a kit for the game.
Fast-forward five years, the Snodin brothers had laid the foundations, even bringing silverware to Belle Vue by winning the Bob Lord Trophy in front of over 7,000 fans in their first season. Steve Wignall had been and gone and Dave Penney was now in charge. Snodin had brought in Penney as a player in the clubs first season in the non-league and now he was to lead the club back into the Football League, ably assisted by his assistant Mickey Walker.
The duo led Rovers to a fourth placed finish after taking over in January 2002 and everything was set for a push for promotion.
At the start of the 2002/03 season, clubs in the conference knew that they were playing for two promotion places for the first time. The champions went up automatically and the next four would be involved in the first-ever play-offs in the conference.
Rovers made a great start to the season, winning six and drawing one of their first seven games and they were in the top four all season, eventually finishing third.
Chester were first up for Rovers in the play-off semi-final and things didn`t start brilliantly. Former player Kevin McIntyre gave Chester the lead at Belle Vue and then, what proved to be a crucial equaliser from Tristram Whitman deep into stoppage time gave Rovers impetus for the second leg four days later.
In the second leg at the Deva Stadium on the May Bank holiday, the two clubs slogged out another 1-1 draw. Chester again took the lead but Rovers leading goalscorer Paul Barnes levelled for Rovers and following thirty extra minutes of extra-time, it was all down to penalties. Rovers keeper Andy Warrington was the hero, saving two of Chester`s penalties as Rover won 4-3 in the shoot-out.
Dagenham awaited Rovers in the final at the Britannia Stadium on May 10th 2003 and over 10,000 Rovers fans made the trip. It all looked to be going to plan as first Paul Green and then David Morley gave Rovers a 2-0 lead. In true Rovers style though, Mark Stein and then Tarkan Mustafa, a player who had been on loan at Belle Vue earlier in the season, brought Dagenham level.
The game went into extra time and the golden goal rule was being used for the final time. Five minutes into the second half and Tierney found himself in space in the Dagenham area to five Rovers ahead and back into the Football League after a five-year absence.
Since that day exactly ten years ago, it has been an incredible journey. If anyone had dared to say we would achieve what we have in the following ten years, I would have been sending for the men in white coats.
In Rovers first season back in the Football League, Rovers were many people`s favourites for a quick return to the non-league.
On the first day of the season at Leyton Orient, temperatures soared to around 100f and Rovers set off in red-hot fashion. Greg Blundell scored Rovers first goal in the league on the stroke of half time and two second half goals from Leo Fortune-West ensured the club would be returning to Yorkshire with all three points. Rovers eventually winning 3-1.
Rovers were unbeaten in their first four games before a mini-slump in September. They then went on a run thirteen wins from their next fifteen games to top the league on Boxing Day.
With many waiting for the Rovers bubble to burst, it never did and they club lost just one of their final eighteen games of the season. Rovers clinched promotion with a 2-0 win over Cambridge United on Easter Monday with four games remaining and the title was clinched on the penultimate weekend of the season when they drew 0-0 at Boston United.
Rovers eventually finished the season with 92 points as they made it back-to-back promotions. Rovers were now just one promotion away from fulfilling the promise made by John Ryan in 1998.
Once again, Rovers were unfancied by many but they consolidated their place in League One with a tenth place finish, their highest finish in the league since the 1957/58 season when they were last in the second tier.
Dave Penney`s side improved the following season with an eighth place finish but the 2005/06 season will forever be remembered for their run in the League Cup.
After scraping past Wrexham in the first round they then disposed of Premier League Manchester City on penalties at Belle Vue.
In the next round, two late Paul Heffernan goals saw off Gillingham to set up a tie with another Premier League side, Aston Villa.
Rovers produced one of their best performances for many years has goals from Michael McIndoe, Paul Heffernan and a long-range strike from Sean Thornton secured an emphatic 3-0 win. Was this really the same club I was watching lose at Margate four years earlier?
The mighty Arsenal were next up at Belle Vue for Rovers, with a place in the semi-finals at stake. Arsene Wenger was known for resting a number of first team players in the competition but his starting line-up that night included, Manuel Almunia, Philippe Senderos, Pascal Cygan, Emmanuel Eboué, Aliaksandr Hleb, Alexandre Song, World Cup winner Gilberto Silva and the highly talented Robin Van Persie.
Rovers again came out all guns blazing and Michael McIndoe gave Rovers an early lead. Arsenal eventually equalised just past the hour and many thought that would be the end of the Rovers dream but they continued to fight and took the game into extra-time. Paul Green put Rovers ahead for a second time and they had one foot in the semi-final until Arsenal equalised deep into two minutes of added time at the end of extra-time. It was to prove the end of the dream for Rovers, Arsenal winning the penalty shoot-out 3-1 but Rovers had been put firmly back on the map.
The following season, following a slow start, Dave Penney was relieved of his duties after four tremendous years at Belle Vue.
Many were hoping for a big name but when the club announced the new manager as Sean O`Driscoll, many said who??
Not many outside of Bournemouth, where he had spent the last twenty years had heard of him and after a slow start, many were ready to turn on the new manager. After six games without a win, O`Driscoll enjoyed his first league win and their form improved dramatically in the final few months of 2006.
O`Driscoll had a footballing philosophy and the fans were being treated to a new slick style of passing football that eventually earned Rovers the nickname, 'the Arsenal of League One`.
At the end of 2006, John Ryan delivered another one of his promises to the Doncaster public. After many years of trying to move to a new ground, the £32 million Keepmoat Stadium was complete and ready for Rovers to move into. Rovers played their final ever game at Belle Vue on December 23rd 2006 when they went out in style with a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest.
On January 1st 2007, Doncaster Rovers played their first game at the Keepmoat. Over 14,000 fans turned out to see Mark McCammon score the first goal at their new stadium as Rovers ran out 3-0 winners over Yorkshire neighbours Huddersfield Town.
Rovers were again enjoying success in cup competitions. They reached the third round of the FA Cup for the first time in twenty-two years, where they bowed out to Premier League Bolton Wanderers and they had progressed to the Northern Final of the Johnstone`s Paint Trophy.
Crewe Alexandra stood in the way of a place at the Millennium stadium Cardiff and a first domestic cup final.
Rovers let a two-goal lead slip in the first leg at Crewe, eventually drawing 3-3 and that looked to have cost them dearly in the second leg at the Keepmoat when Crewe went 2-0 up on the night inside 36 minutes and 5-3 ahead on aggregate. To make matters worse, a bug had swept through the Rovers squad and manager Sean O`Driscoll was amongst those missing from the game. Somehow, Rovers came back in the second half and three goals in the final 27 minutes ensured Rovers would be going to Cardiff where they would face Bristol Rovers.
In the final at Cardiff, around 20,000 Rovers fans made the trip to South Wales and they were in dreamland inside five minutes following goals from Jonathan Forte and Paul Heffernan.
Once again, as they did at Stoke in 2003, they threw away a two-goal lead as Bristol scored twice in the second half to send the game into extra time. This time Graham Lee was the Rovers hero as he headed home the winner to ensure that Rovers lifted their first domestic trophy in their 128-year history.
In Sean O`Driscoll`s first full season in charge in 2007/08, Rovers again started the season slowly but results started to improve but they were still only in mid table as they headed into the Christmas period. A run of thirteen wins in sixteen games saw them climb into the top two with ten games remaining.
On the final day of the season at Cheltenham it was all in Rovers own hands. A win and they would be promoted to the second tier of English football.
Once again, in true Rovers style, Cheltenham beat Rovers 2-1 and with Nottingham Forest winning their final game, they pipped Rovers for the final automatic promotion place.
Having suffered the disappointment on the final day, many thought Rovers would not be able to get over that defeat as they prepared for a two-legged semi-final against Southend United. After a dour 0-0 draw in the first leg at Roots Hall, Rovers showed their style as an inspired hat-trick from James Coppinger led them to a 5-1 win and a place in the final at Wembley where they would meet Leeds United.
Despite being vastly outnumbered inside Wembley, over 20,000 fans once again cheered Rovers on and they were the ones cheering loudest. A James Hayter goal early in the second half gave Rovers a deserved 1-0 win and a place in the championship. Ten years after taking over at Doncaster, John Ryan had delivered his promise of a return to the second tier, exactly fifty years since they last played in the division.
On the opening day of the following season, all eyes were on Rovers as they travelled to Derby County. Derby had only been relegated from the Premier League three months earlier but it was Rovers, who claimed the points. Lewis Guy was the Rovers hero in a 1-0 win at Pride Park.
Rovers made a reasonable start, losing just one of their first four games but despite playing well, they missed a cutting edge in the final third and going into Christmas, they found themselves bottom of the championship.
On Boxing Day at Nottingham Forest, things finally clicked and a 4-2 win at the City Ground started a run of eight wins in ten games as Rovers climbed the table.
Rovers eventually finished in fourteenth place and they were the form team in the championship in the second half of the season. They also recorded a number of firsts with first ever wins at Southampton, Sheffield United, Charlton Athletic and Ipswich Town.
In their second season in the championship, they improved on their fourteenth place finish by two places, largely thanks to the goals of on loan striker Billy Sharp from Sheffield United. Sharp had spent the season on loan from Bramall Lane and he netted 15 times.
That form saw Rovers smash their transfer record the following summer when they paid Sheffield United £1.15 million for his services.
Sharp and Hayter struck up a great strike partnership in the 2010/11 season and heading into the New Year, there was a realistic chance that Rovers could make a push for the championship play-offs. Unfortunately, a crippling injury list in the second half of the season, which at its worst saw eighteen players out injured. Rovers slipped close to the relegation zone, eventually securing their status in the championship on the penultimate weekend of the season.
Sean O`Driscoll never recovered from the second half of the previous season and after just one point from their opening seven games, O`Driscoll was dismissed and Dean Saunders quickly replaced him as manager.
Rovers then ventured into a trial with football player agent Willie McKay, where he would bring in vastly experienced players on a cheap wage in the hope that their form would put them into the shop window and a big move.
Many Rovers fans were sceptical of the idea but in came the likes of El Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda, Herita Ilunga, Habib Beye and Frederic Piquionne, all international footballers.
Despite the big name signings, Rovers were dealt a massive blow in January when Billy Sharp departed from promotion chasing Southampton. Despite the player experiment, Rovers were always struggling and they were eventually relegated with three games remaining as they went on to finish bottom of the table.
It was the first taste of disappointment for Rovers in fourteen years and with the club cutting the wage bill massively over the summer, not many expected much at the start of the season as they started life back in League One for the first time in four years.
The main stalwarts of their four years in the championship were all moved on as well as the experimental signings and it was a new look squad on the opening day of the season at Walsall. Rovers made the perfect start with a 3-0 win and they followed that up with a win at home over Bury. Their home form was to prove their main weakness in the season and a 1-0 home defeat to Crawley followed. They lost next time out at Yeovil Town at the end of August but that was to be their last away defeat until February, a run of twelve away games without a defeat, a new club record in one season.
By now, Dean Saunders had moved on to Wolverhampton Wanderers and experienced manager Brian Flynn had been given the job until the end of the season. Defender Rob Jones, who was proving to be an inspirational signing from Sheffield Wednesday in the summer, was assisting him.
Saunders left in early January with the club joint top of the division and despite a number of missed opportunities; Rovers eventually took over at the top of the table for the first time on February 26th, with a 2-1 win at Shrewsbury Town. They would remain there until the penultimate weekend of the season when a 1-0 home defeat by Notts County, not only saw them knocked off the top by Bournemouth but also saw them miss out on automatic promotion. What made matters worse, Rovers final day opponents Brentford could leapfrog Rovers into the automatic promotion places with a win at Griffin Park.
A packed out Griffin Park saw a nervous 90 minutes and with the game deep into stoppage time; Rovers were hanging on for the point that would mean automatic promotion. Then came one of the most dramatic finishes to a season in Football League history. Brentford were awarded a penalty in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Rovers were now staring down the barrel of the play-offs. Marcello Trotta stepped up for Brentford but smashed his penalty against the bar. Rovers were now looking at automatic promotion and with Bournemouth only drawing; a goal would see Rovers crowned champions.
18-seconds after Trotta stepped up to fire his penalty against the crossbar, James Coppinger, a player who had spent nine years with club, was tapping in at the other end to send the 1800 travelling Rovers fans wild with delight.
Just one season after the disappointment of relegation, a small squad on a much reduced budget, were back at the first attempt and as champions!
So in ten years, we have seen two promotions via the play-offs, a fourth division championship, a third division championship, a first domestic trophy, a quarter-final appearance in the League Cup, a move to a £32 million purpose built stadium and a club record fee paid and received. It had the one low of relegation but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would have achieved what we have in the past ten years. Much of this must be put down to John Ryan and his fellow directors, who have not only bankrolled the club but have picked the right managers to take the club forward.
I wonder what will happen in the next ten years?
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