Great Football League Teams 8: Doncaster Rovers, 2003-4

Posted by on Jan 7, 2011 in Great Teams | 11 Comments

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 clichéd 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.

Glen Wilson

10 Comments

  1. Lloyd
    January 7, 2011

    What a great piece. I remember Donny's demise fairly well; they just imploded and I recall the crumbling terraces, and how they were getting stuffed every week. Even the kit was crap if I remember.

    So it's all the more pleasing to have seen them rise again (and continue rising). If Ryan ended up selling to a Trust or a supporter-led group, then they'd just about become the perfect club in my eyes.

    Reply
  2. Lanterne Rouge
    January 7, 2011

    A wonderfully written post that evokes what must have been a fantastic season for Donny fans. Glen adds:

    The 2003-04 was my favourite season as a Rovers fan. It had some fantastic oddities in it that I've had to omit, including 'Flag-gate' when a steward at the Vetch refused to believe that the Welsh flag with Doncaster Rovers on it at the back of the away end belonged to me and tried to have me arrested as I took it down. “Look, its a Welsh flag, so it clearly belongs to the club, now stop untying it as your on camera you know”. This incident led to Rovers designating a match three weeks later a 'Flag-Day'.

    Also a long-winded joke amongst the those who stood in the middle of the Pop Side led to me planning a Leo Fortune-West theme day on my 21st birthday that season. Cometh the day cometh the man. That was the afternoon which he scored a hat-trick inside the first 17 minutes against Orient. The third goal led to a mass pile-on on the Pop Side (and by mass I mean 40-50+ people) with me at it's base. The rest of the day and night is a blur though I have a photo of me sat on a boat in Lincoln's Brayford at about 2:30am pointing at my LFW sweatband.

    Heady days.

    Reply
  3. lazarustrance
    January 7, 2011

    Wonderful piece, captures it perfectly. Kudos :)

    Reply
  4. Bob Gilbert
    January 7, 2011

    It was a damn fine season. It really was. Before it all started I think 99% of Rovers supporters would have thought it a damn fine season if we had scraped 20th place by the end. Winnng didn't really matter then. Far, far more important was the fact that we all really did still have a club to support. The last rites had been read y'know. Our club was dead. And then, and then, and then……

    2003-2004 happened!

    Oh the memories…. McIndoe's 180 degree swivel and volley to rub Bristol Rovers' face right in it. Away at Crystal Palace, two divisions above the Rovers, in the League Cup. Palace won, but only because one of their two penalties was dodgy in the extreme while Rovers scored what is still, for me, the defining goal of that entire season. Look it up on You Tube. A real high quality goal. I remember driving home that night thinking 'This is a good side here'. The night match at the Vetch when two good sides played a simply cracking game of football to draw 1-1. The signs lit up down the M4 saying 'Welcome to Doncaster Rovers supporters. Take exit XX for the Vetch'. Scary place the Vetch. Winning at Yeovil on a Tuesday night – for the first time in what felt like 200 attempts. Staring at the league table, day after day after day, thinking all the while 'This can't be right. Summat wrong here. This is Donny Rovers…' Mansfield away – when the dream began to look like reality. Paul Green, running a thousand miles every single game. Ricky Ravenhill, getting booked again and again and again. John Doolan, a talented footballer, a big man and a sneaky thug when someone riled him. We all loved him to pieces. And Michael McIndoe: one of the three most talented players I have ever seen in Rovers colours. And I do include Aleck Jeffrey in that list too.

    2003-04. A season long dream. A dream which I for one will never, ever forget.

    Bob Gilbert

    Reply
  5. Bob Gilbert
    January 7, 2011

    Sorry. I should have added that as a prize on the last day of the season, the group of supporters who clubbed together to pay for a light aircraft to trail a vast banner, just at kick off, bearing the words 'Doncaster Rovers – Division 3 Champions 2003-04'…. right across the KC Stadium!

    Memories….

    Cheers

    Bob Gilbert

    Reply
  6. glenglenglen
    January 7, 2011

    Cheers for the kind words fellas…

    As BobG mentions there was a hell of a lot happened that season, indeed my initial write-up was 3,000 words. I didn't include the KC Stadium fly-past as I always understood fog on the Humber had meant it hadn't taken off.

    That Friday night 1-1 draw in the mud at the Vetch was one of the most entertaining games I've ever seen. And as for that Yeovil win. I think that was the one win punctuating all the drawn games in March. I was in Lincoln holding a coat hanger out of the attic window of our student house in a desperate bid to tune my old 'portable' tv towards the Calendar region to pick up the score. Woke up half the street when they showed Ravenhill's goal.

    Reply
  7. RobTheRover
    January 8, 2011

    Re: The fly-by….

    Glenn, you are quite correct, the aircraft never took off, but not because of fog. I was the one who organised the aircraft, which was only supposed to fly over Belle Vue – however, the stunt captured the imagination of so many Rovers supporters we actually raised over £1500 in a week, which was over £500 more than we needed. The suggestion was made on the VSC forum to fly it over the KC stadium first, before the matches kicked off, then over BV at half time, so this is what the additional cash went towards.

    Thanks to the gift of the internet, the story grew legs, and soon the Yorkshire Post picked up on it. The Rovers forums were in meltdown with Rovers fans celebrating the title, and Hull fans generally feeling sour about coming second to a pub side and the impending fly-by rubbing their noses in it. On the Thursday before the final match of the season, I had a call from the KC Stadium's safety officer, who tried to get us to call off the fly-by, stating that it could be classed as inciting crowd trouble. I told him to get stuffed, and that we were breaking no laws. He put the phone down on me.

    In order to make the new, longer flying schedule, the aircraft was flown from its home airfield near Worksop to one just outside York on the Friday afternoon. As it was being hangared for the evening somehow the tail came into collision with another aircraft and was damaged. The owners called in an aircraft mechanic immediately, but the repairs just couldnt be completed in time, so the fly-by never happened, despite many Peter Taylor's Hull City supporters claiming to have actually seen it overhead!!!

    However, whether it flew or not was irrelevant – it served it's purpose and for 2 weeks we wound those Tigers fans up right royally!

    Of course, there was then the small matter of £1500 collected from the fans which we had in our possession… which bought the huge “Rovers Til We Die” flag, but thats another story.

    Rob

    Reply
  8. Bob Gilbert
    January 8, 2011

    I know that bloody plane never actually flew chaps. But why spoil a cracking story?!

    I wish it had flown all the same….

    Cheers

    BobG

    Reply
  9. SeadogBlog
    January 8, 2011

    “non league Scarborough”

    that was a bit rich, so were you the season previous!

    Reply
  10. Ben
    January 9, 2011

    Great post. Really enjoying this series.

    Reply

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