The 2007-08 season had trundled along in truly inauspicious fashion before the team finally bump started the campaign into life at Christmas. The return to fitness and form of some key players like forwards Jason Price and Paul Heffernan and defender Steve Roberts along with the re introduction of midfielder Paul Green to the side saw Doncaster Rovers burst into life.
Manager Sean O’Driscoll had persisted with a patient passing game which had largely gone unrewarded through the early weeks of the season, but Christmas brought a more positive approach and the side began to turn possession into goals and were soon amongst the group challenging run away leaders Swansea for the second automatic promotion spot, finally leapfrogging Carlisle into second spot with just the final game of the season to be played. A win at strugglingCheltenhamwould see Rovers promoted back into the second tier of English football after an absence of 50 years. The side struggled during a hard fought first half, withCheltenhamneeding all three points to avoid relegation and the home side went in at half time 1-0 up. Knowing their fate was still in their own hands the team pressed hard and putCheltenhamunder immense pressure before Paul Green burst through from midfield to smash home an equaliser. The Rovers pressed forward for the all important winning goal before the home side stole a late winner to save themselves and handNottinghamForestthe second automatic promotion place.
All eyes turned to the play off and if Rovers could lift themselves having let automatic promotion slip away. The first leg of the semi final was a tight tense affair with few chances at either end as Southend held Rovers to a goalless draw at Roots hall.
With the whole town dreaming of a first appearance at Wembley and a place against local rivals Leeds Utd in the final, the side cruised to victory in the second leg, easing past Southend 5-1, playing some of the most attractive and best quality football of the season, making a mockery of their standing in the countries third division. No longer would it be a dream, Doncaster Rovers were going to Wembley.
The build up of the game was all about Leeds and how they would surely begin their climb back to their ‘rightful’ place among English footballs elite and the story it would create following their 15 point deduction for breaching FA rules, with precious few column inches afforded to their less fashionable neighbours the result appeared a forgone conclusion, in the media at least. In reality the sides knew each other well, with each winning 1-0 away from home in the two league meetings already in the season, however Doncaster Rovers had dominated both and should have won the game at the Keepmoat with ease, with wasteful finishing to blame for missing out on the win.
The approach to Wembley, covered in Red and white hoops, was an image which will live long in the memory of all who were privileged enough to have seen it, an honour which had been conspicuous in its absence throughout the clubs history, and for years seemingly just a distant dream. The fresh faced ‘new’ Wembley was still shrouded in the memories and ghosts of occasions such asEngland’s historic win in 1966, epic domestic and European cup finals and now, finally, for the first time in the clubs history, Doncaster Rovers would take up residence in the home of football.
27,000Doncasterfans made up the red and white chunk of the 75,132 in attendance, outnumbered but certainly not out sung and the atmosphere was electric as the players made their way onto the pitch. A historic day was about to unfold and the feeling among the pilgrims from the South of Yorkshire was that it would be a day to be enjoyed and remembered, whatever the outcome.
Both sides were unchanged from their second leg wins and it was Rovers who flew out of the traps fully exploiting Wembley’s much celebrated spacious playing surface with midfield trio of Stock, Wellens and Green taking an early hold of the game as Rovers looked to grab an early advantage. With only six minutes gone, the ball was neatly worked up towards Jason Price in the last third as the side displayed its first glimpse of the fluid neat passing game for which they had acquired such an admirable reputation. The ball was worked out to Wellens on the left, who switched play over to the right with a neat ball to full back James O’Connor. Again, patient passing build up was the mantra as possession was retained inside to the feet of Stock who looked up and saw a great run from Paul Green, bursting down the right behind the out of position full back. Stock found his man with a great ball whipped into the corner and Green beat Jonathan Douglas to the ball, clipped it past the coveringLeedsmidfielder and broke into the box, tight against the bye line. The Rovers man looked up and saw Price taking up a great position on the edge of the six yard box and coolly fed the welsh forward into feet. Price fired first time with his right foot, and must have thought he’d scored, only for Paul Huntington to slide in with a terrific last ditch block and deflect the ball inches over the bar.
The game had exploded into life played at a tempo dictated by the Rovers midfield. Stock swung the resultant corner deep to the back of the Leeds Penalty area where Wellens picked up possession and shuffled passed twoLeedsdefenders before prodding just into the side netting from an extremely tight angle. The signs were looking good for the Rovers who had hit the ground running and looked to be carrying on from where they had left off against Southend in the semi final, leavingLeedsalready struggling to find and answer to the questions posed by Rovers incisive passing.
Still they came forward with some more neat football resulting in Johnson making a last ditch interception as Price again looked to latch onto Wellens through ball. The full back could only find Brian Stock in the middle of the park with his clearance, who brought the ball down and nonchalantly clipped a fantastic ball back into the space vacated by Johnson, perfectly picking out a great run from James Coppinger. Coppinger controlled the ball instantly with his first touch but was met by the onrushing keeper Casper Ankergren, who was just able to gather off the formerNewcastleforwards boot as he had looked certain to smash his side in front.
The Rovers certainly had their tails up and seconds later some neat interplay between Price and Coppinger enabled Price to play James Hayter in behind the last Leeds defender down the left. Hayter made a bee line for goal and again Ankergren came rushing out to deny the Rovers striker, diving at his feet as he tried to dribble round the keeper to keep his side level for the second time in a minute.
Rovers were dominating and had been the side quickest to settle and grab control of the game in emphatic style, however the only thing missing had been the breakthrough as concerns began to creep in, maybe Rovers would pay for missing three gilt edged chances inside ten minutes.
The game had to settle down a little after such a blistering start and slowly shell shocked Leeds, who were lucky to still be in the game, began to come round and managed to retain possession, if without really creating anything. Indeed they were forced to wait until the 18th minute before managing a shot on goal, which was in itself somewhat fortuitous. Sam Hird attempted to spread the ball wide inside his own half and his mishit pass fell straight to Jermaine Beckford. TheLeeds danger man headed straight for goal, but well marshalled by Matt Mills, could only side foot a shot tamely at Sullivan.
As the half went on however, so the Leeds player’s confidence grew with theWest Yorkshiremen enjoying the majority of possession but struggling to penetrate the Rovers back line with Rovers looking dangerous coming forward, continuing to produce chances. O’Connor and Green had linked up fantastically well down the right hand side, causing Leeds problems throughout and again the pair combined, with Green picking up a loose ball and urging the full back O’Connor ahead on the overlap. O’Connor willingly obliged before feeding the ball into the feet of Hayter who had engineered a yard of space on the edge of the box. With his back to goal the former Bournemouth man turned brilliantly before firing a snap shot over Ankergrens cross bar.
Leeds were now scrapping for their share of possession but it was undoubtedly the Rovers who were using it to greater effect, with the neat passing and movement off the ball leaving the Leeds defence looking almost leaden footed and chasing shadows at times. On 43 minutesLeedswere again let of the hook as Rovers spurned another great chance. Gareth Roberts had the time and space to move forward down the flank and the left back clipped a superb ball into James Hayter. The ball was perfectly crafted and dropped over centre half Lubomir Michalik to put Hayter clear in the middle of the box, but the strikers touch was a fraction too heavy and again a relieved Ankergren was able to clear the danger.
As the first half drew to a close, nerves jangled asLeedsproduced their best moment of the match.
Rovers looked to attack down the left but the move was broken up by David Prutton who advanced asLeedslooked to counter, switching the play out to the right. Beckford fed Johnson before continuing his run down the wing to receive the ball again just inside the Rovers box. Beckford rolled the ball into Midfielder Kilkenny on the edge of the box, who, under pressure from Roberts, was forced to offload first time into Jonathan Howson on the edge of the Rovers box. The advancing midfielder curled a first time right footed effort a foot over the crossbar. It served as a warning to the Rovers that they could not go on missing chances. Howson again picked up more and more of the ball and drove forward only to have the door slammed shut by Mills and Hird who had been extremely effective in nullifying the craft and guile of striker Dougie Freedman and the pace of Beckford throughout a first half which ended, somehow, goalless.
The game was still finely poised as Rovers got the second half underway, attacking towards the hoards of Rovers fans, who all were desperate for the side to continue in the same vein but to find that clinical final touch.
The team responded again, direct from the restart Stock rolled the ball wide to Green who surged forward down the right before checking and beating two defenders with a neat pass to find Stock, who had himself driven forward in support, in a central position. Stock beat the lunge of Michalik and flicked the ball into the box before being felled by the big defenders challenge to win a free kick in a good position some 25 yards out from goal.
Coppinger’s shot was blocked by the wall, who were clearly encroaching, with the rebound deflected wide via the shot of Wellens.
Brian Stock it was who jogged over and took the 47th Minute corner, swinging the ball in from the right. Jason Price looked to be the obvious choice and made a near post run which took two defenders with him, but the flight of the ball beat them all and arrowed into the middle of the box, where James Hayter, all alone on the penalty spot, produced a superb diving header to power the ball past the helpless Ankergren and into the net from 12 yards out. The sight of the ball bouncing up into the net was greeted by deafening wall of sound from the Doncaster Rovers end of a packed Wembley stadium which erupted in sheer delight as the clubs record signing wheeled away in front of a sea of red and white to be mobbed by teammates having finally handed his team a much deserved lead. The noise from the Rovers end was now cranked up in response to a terrific start to the second half which epitomized the attitude and spirit of their team and had finally provided an end product to go with some terrific and controlled build up play whichLeeds just could not live with.
The next twenty minutes flew by in a blur as the contest evened out, withLeedslooking to find a way back into the game whilst keeping things tight at the back, and Rovers happy to keep the ball and continue playing football. Indeed it was the Rovers who almost found another breakthrough as Coppinger nipped in to win back possession on half way, prodding the ball to O’Connor before continuing a powerful run down the right into the space behind the highLeedsback line. O’Connor simply lifted the ball over and into his path, and Coppinger, having timed his run perfectly to stay onside, ran beyond the last man and straight at goal, driving into the area only to be denied by a fantastic last ditch challenge by Douglas, who knew he had to get his tackle right and produced a match saving intervention.
Into the last ten minutes and Leeds had to press forward but could not find any way through a resolute Doncaster Rovers defence who simply did not allow Leeds to play in the areas that could hurt them with Mills and Hird protected superbly by skipper Brian Stock who had dropped deep and was winning some important headers in front of his back four. Leeds were limited to a brief glimpse in behind the back four with substitute Andy Hughes running in to fizz a cross across the face of goal which was superbly collected by keeper Neil Sullivan. Leeds continued to throw men forward but seemed to run out of ideas when faced with Rovers back line which was bolstered further by the strong aerial presence of substitute Adam Lockwood, and Rovers repelled their opponents attacks and sniffed out every inch of space time and time again before, with 5 minutes of normal time remaining, Matt Mills could only half clear a long throw to the edge of the box and the clearance dropped for Douglas to flash a drive inches beyond the frame of Neil Sullivan’s goal and the Rovers fans dared to start celebrating.
James Hayter worked tirelessly up front, running himself into the ground, trying to provide an outlet and working hard to unsettle theLeedsback line who had been bolstered by the news of 4 additional minutes of injury time.
Still the Rovers defence held firm, deep into stoppage time, with the fans pleading with referee Andy D’urso to blow up withLeedscharging forward throwing all they had into the Rovers box.
The clock agonizingly ticked into the 96th minute and still the referee glanced at his watch without blowing, despite the screams of encouragement from the thousands of bewildered Rovers fans before finally relenting and sparking incredible scenes of celebration. It was a result and an occasion which had been 129 years in the making and one which was made all the more sweeter for it, as thousands of dreams made in South Yorkshire came gloriously true under Wembley’s arch, in a blur of euphoria.
Doncaster Rovers had been immense to a man, winning the game but doing it in such a manner and having played the type of good quality, passing football, which the club were fast becoming known for, largely outplayed a talented Leeds team throughout ninety pulsating and nail biting minutes, seemingly totally at ease at Wembley as if it were their rightful home.
“I’ve been dreaming about it all week” goal scorer James Hayter said after the game, “To score the winner here at Wembley to send us up to the Championship, it’s unbelievable”.
Chairman John Ryan, soaked in champagne said “It’s been a great occasion and the culmination of ten years hard work.” It was the chairman who had declared an ambitious plan a few years earlier and the win at Wembley was the last goal to be ticked off the list along with the promise of a new ground, promotion to the championship, and winning a major final in the shape of the Johnstones Paint Trophy inCardiffa year ago.
The architect of the victory, manager Sean O’Driscoll, said tongue in cheek “I could murder a cup of tea” clearly delighted with his sides achievements, “I thought we were organized and disciplined, everybody knows we can play football and everyone comes out to stop us playing. We were always going to score, we’ve got goals from all over the park all season”.
Brian Stock led the victorious side up the famous steps and, alongside Adam Lockwood, became the first Doncaster Rovers captain ever to lift a trophy at Wembley, and in doing so etched an indelible image on the clubs history, and all those who were there to see it. The crowning glory on an incredible and wholly unforgettable day which was probably the finest in the history of the club.