Great Football League Teams 8: Doncaster Rovers, 2003-4
For the eighth in our series of great football league teams down the years, we turn to the Doncaster Rovers of 2003-4, courtesy of Glen Wilson, curator of one of the leading club sites on the world wide web, Viva Rovers. Donny are currently enjoying a protracted glory spell in historical terms and Glen looks back to the early days of the revival.
Half a decade. That’s how long it took Doncaster Rovers to rebuild and return having been dumped into non-league by football’s most notorious arsonist. Five long years which featured ‘derbies’ with Leek Town, piped-in crowd noise at Leigh RMI, mid-match segregation at Hayes and a cup exit to local amateurs Frickley Athletic. When Football League status returned, via Franny Tierney’s most golden of goals, it is no wonder Rovers embraced it like a long lost lover.
As winners of the first Conference play-off, Doncaster were duly instilled favourites to return from whence they came. Rovers’ odds on winning Division Three were 66-1; not so much title outsiders as title across-the-roaders. In the town itself though, confidence was growing; a strong non-league squad had been bolstered. Leo Fortune-West joining on a free transfer from Cardiff City took the headlines, but it was the acquisition of Michael McIndoe which raised eyebrows. An integral part of Yeovil’s Conference champions McIndoe moved to Belle Vue for £50,000 after a chance encounter with Chairman John Ryan in the toilets at a Conference awards dinner.
Both players were in the starting line-up as Rovers travelled to Brisbane Road on an opening day of the season when the Orient finally came to Leyton. The heat was incredible, as was the performance. Doncaster supporters had set out to have a party whatever the result, but once Greg Blundell scored Rovers first goal back in the league with a diving header right in front of them, the heaving away terrace bounced as much as it sweated. Fortune-West added two more after the break to secure the perfect Rovers return. A week later the first home game also brought victory, with Southend beaten 2-0, but a run of three draws and three defeats put the club in 17th by mid-September. From that point on the only way was up.
Leaders Oxford United were beaten at Belle Vue, the first match of an incredible Autumn run which brought 25 points from a possible 27 to put Doncaster second. The victories included a McIndoe hat-trick inspired 5-1 demolition of Bristol Rovers and a pulsating 4-2 win over promotion chasing Mansfield. The only draw in the sequence was viewed as a point gained too with Rovers fighting back from 3-0 down at Cambridge, leveling with an absolute screamer from Tim Ryan.
Left-back Ryan was symptomatic of a squad assembled by rookie manager Dave Penney which was, as clichà©d as it may be, the perfect blend of experience and freshness. Ryan had played for Rovers in the league in the late 90s, and alongside him captain Steve Foster had over 200 appearances with Bristol Rovers to his name. Their partners in defence included former plumber and future Joey Barton strangler Mark Albrighton and Simon Marples, a £5,000 signing from Stocksbridge Park Steels who would establish himself as one of the division’s top full-backs in his first season of league football. In midfield there was the juxtaposition of journeyman John Doolan complementing the young home-spun duo of Paul Green and Ricky Ravenhill. Goalkeeper Andy Warrington, cast aside by York City four years earlier, would keep an impressive 18 clean sheets.
An FA Cup exit to non-league Scarborough and a 1-0 loss at York sparked talk of the wheels coming off, but it was to be a minor blip. Four straight wins followed, culminating in victory over Swansea City which ensured the relegation certainties topped the table at Christmas. Boxing Day saw 9,000 cram into Belle Vue for a 1-0 defeat of Scunthorpe, but that was nothing compared to the crowd they would encounter two days later at title-favourites Hull City, or Peter Taylor’s Hull as they were then known. Four thousand travelling Doncastrians helped make-up a staggering fourth tier crowd of over 23,000. Hull won 3-1 as, later in the week did Huddersfield to inflict Donny’s first back to back defeats since September.
Orient bore the brunt of the frustration, dispatched 5-0 at Belle Vue thanks to a Fortune-West hat-trick completed in the 17th minute. A fortnight later eternal play-off contenders Lincoln City won 2-0 at Belle Vue ending a run of nine successive home victories, but Rovers would not lose again until April. Festering Miners’ Strike tension ensures matches against Mansfield are always boisterous occasions; with both sides chasing promotion the game at Field Mill in mid February should have come with an 18 rating. Gregg Blundell scored two goals in ten bombastic second-half minutes to turn a 1-0 defeat to a 2-1 win which saw leaving Rovers supporters’ coaches attacked with bricks. The pleasure outweighed the pain though; the victory put Doncaster top and despite a stuttering March when they drew five of six matches they would remain in pole position for the rest of the season.
Blundell was another player gaining his first taste of League football, having enjoyed an eventful debut in the club’s final Conference league game at Hereford (Blundell came off the bench to score and ended the match with the chairman as his strike partner). A quick and nimble forward he was the perfect foil for the lumbering Fortune-West and went on to score 20 goals in this his first full season for the club. Making a different kind of impact was Adebayo Akinfenwa, who arrived in the Spring via FK Atlantas, and Barry Town and proclaimed himself here to play “Ghetto Football”. A man so vast opposing defenders trying to get round him would find themselves standing bemused in St Ursula’s Road, Akinfenwa weighed in with key goals including the first in a 2-1 win at the Memorial Ground which ensured Doncaster could wrap up promotion with victory on Easter Monday.
Long before 3pm Belle Vue was full to it’s 9,600 capacity with the official website suggesting as many as 2,000 were locked outside. Some of these supporters could be seen in the trees behind the Rossington End and on ladders, hastily borrowed from the houses around Belle Vue, propped up against the fence behind the Pop Side. Their commitment was rewarded as Cambridge were beaten with a bundled goal from Akinfenwa and a diving header from Paul Green to secure a glorious and unexpected promotion.
The success owed a lot to the willingness of Penney to be unsentimental. Paul Barnes, scorer of twenty-five goals the previous season, was let go in November after just one goal in a dozen games. His Conference strike partners from the previous season Tristram Whitman and Robert Gill followed soon after whilst popular midfielder Jamie Patterson was also used phased out. And when players moved on, or became unavailable, Penney discovered a knack of finding just the right replacement. When Barnes departed a teenage Chris Brown arrived on loan from Sunderland and would go on to score ten goals before the season’s end. The loss of influential right midfielder Franny Tierney to injury in November could have been a major blow, but the signing of JJ Melligan on loan from Wolves meant the team barely broke stride. Melligan secured his place in supporters’ folklore in that promotion clinching game by standing on the ball Kanchelskis-like in front of the Pop Side.
Three weeks later 2,000 Rovers fans made the trip to Boston for the penultimate game of the season and the 0-0 draw which secured the title. As York Street literally rocked the county’s news cameras filmed the buoyant away crowd… in Yeovil, where Hull City had secured promotion. The unfancied and unexpected title for the no-hopers had been shifted down the pecking order as Look North and Calendar elected to show the bigger club down the road celebrating second place. Rovers fans had felt season long that their club’s sizable achievement hadn’t been given suitable attention by the local media and the lack of coverage of the celebrations at Boston did little to contradict that suggestion.
Penney established a great footballing side, having often talked the chairman out of attempts to make marquee signings to do so. It may not have been the pass and pass and pass and move football on which Sean O’Driscoll would later guide the club to the Championship, but it was pleasant and effective. It wasn’t rough and ready, nor kick and rush, but fluid, exciting football that brought an incredible title against the odds. When Rovers received the trophy at Belle Vue on the final day of the season a chant of “Are You Watching Richardson?” echoed across the pitch. Thanks to ‘Uncle Ken’ Rovers had almost ceased to exist in 1998. Six years on they showed, in more ways than one, just what can be achieved when you’re written off.