The game itself set off against a crisp chilly February evening with Wigan keeping the ball extremely well in the middle of the park, and Graeme Jones every touch of the ball greeted will a chorus of boos from the Rovers fans. Rovers appeared resolute though, with Paul Birch immediately providing a calming influence in the middle of the park. The neat, compact midfielder moved the ball around very well and consistently retained possession as both side jostled for early territory.
Three minutes gone and Rovers mount the first real attack. Darren Moore superbly broke up a Wigan attack inside his own box and the ball was played up to Adie Mike in the centre circle who evaded a lunging challenge to lay off to Harvey Cunningham who drove into the visitors half. Cunningham let Cramb take over who in turn fed Martin McDonald out on the left. The midfielder looked up and clipped the ball in towards the penalty spot where Mike had continued his run, but under pressure from defenders could only head tamely at Lee Butler in the Wigan goal.
Wigan began to enjoy the lions shre of possession playing some nice slick football, however the Rovers back four were well protected by McDonald and John Schofield who broke up a number of Wigan attacks before they were able to penetrate into dangerous areas.
Rovers by contrast looked dangerous on the counter attack with Cramb and Mike holading the ball up well and looking for the pace of Ireland down the right flank as the game opened up inside the first ten minutes as the game bagan to flow form end to end.
Rovers win a free kick midway inside Wigan half. Birch cleverlyrolls the ball sideways to Schofield when n all the defenders are expecting the ball knocking into the box. Schofield ran onto the ball and struck right footed from 25 yards out but the ball flashed wide past Butlers left hand post.
13 mins Kilford long throw in from the right, into the edge of the box into Daviv Lowe who under pressire from Ian Gore slipped into feet of Jones who laid into the feet of Martinez. Ball broke back to jones just on the edge of the six yard box who smashed goalwards only for Esdaille to block from close range as Wigan looked dangerous.
Rovers continued to scrap hard in middle with Birch picking up a lot of second balls and dictating play in the Rovers engine room.
Things were getting congested in the middle third and Wigan were looking to go long up towards target man Andy Saville, however he was well marshalled by Darren Moore who won header after haeder against the experienced striker.
The game continued at break neck pace with neither side prepared to give an inch in the middle of the park.
22 mins Rovers able to put together gret move following first real spell of possession. Again came from Wigan attack broken up by Ian Goe on the edge of the Rovers box. The ball dropped to Birch who always seemed to find time and space in possession of the football.He carried up towards the halfway line before laying off to Schofield who looked up and clipped the ball 30 yards into Cramb. Under pressure from centre half Colin Greenall Cramb neatly laid off Mike who in turn found McDonald as Rovers began to pass and move nicely. The ball was rolled into Birch who provided a lovely chipped ball over to Mike who had again continued his run into the penalty area driving goal wards but Mrtinez, tracking back, from midfield, was able to prod the ball out for a corner.
Birch sent the ball in nearpost which was flicked on by Schofield right onto the goal line, under the cross barCramb challenged Butler who was just able to punch the ball half clear, but Rovers again regained possession and Birch’s effort was blocked in the area.
Rovers were clearly growing in confidence, and bhouyed by some ever vocal support from the stands, began to add guile to the endeavour and after 25 minutes were rewarded with a spectacular breakthrough.
Wigan were unable to clear properly, again under pressure from an industrious Rovers midfield and the ball dropped to Ian Gore on the half way line who lobbed the ball downfield to Adie Mike . The striker was able to hold off the challenge ofGreenall and nod perfectly into the path of the onrushing Cramb who, without breaking stride smashed hoe from 20 yards, firining right footed across the angle of the box into the top corner giving Butller absolutely no chance and the scot wheeled away in delight to be met by a barrage of noise from around Belle Vue as Rovers took a richly deserved lead.
The game continued at 100 miles an hour with Moore forced into two big tackles inside his own box to save goalscoring chances before Rovers immediately swept up the other end as Birch found Mike who beat two defenders on the edge of the box superbly before flashong a smart drive just wide of the upright.
Possession was even but it was the home side who were carving out the chances, working the ball out well to the left to Darren Esdaille who found Cramb on the edge of the box. The striker took a touch, drawing the challenge from his marker before coolly rolling it through the defenders legs and firing a great drive inches past the upright.
Back came Wigan again and Schofield was forced to make a good clearance in his lown six yard box under pressure from Saville as the referee called time on a pulsating first 45 minutes of football.
Given the events of the first half, it is reasonable to assume Kerry Dixon’s team talk included the instructions to keep things tight for the next ten minutes and try to slow the game down, but as it happened things didn’t quite work out that way.
Rovers came straight out the tunnel and immediately back on the front foot taking the game once more into the Wigan half, with Birch again gathering possession on half way and slipping the ball to the right for Schofield to knock first time into the feet of Cramb on the edge of the box. The striker, with back to goal held the ball up well despite strong physical pressure from Butler was able to work the ball out to McDonald on the far side as Rovers looked comfortable but purposeful in possession. McDonald displayed some neat footwork to evade the challenge of the full back before rolling square into Birch, who had again found space in the heart of the Wigan half. With the space opening up in front of him, the diminutive midfield stepped forward before unleashing a great strike from 25 yards which flashed through the air and dipped over the keeper, who was beaten at full stretch, and seemed destined for the top corner before cannoning of the cross bar and bouncing down into the path of the onrushing Adie Mike who gleefully nodded the rebound past the helpless goalkeeper as the crowds gasps turned to cheers of ecstasy and Rovers were two goals to the good.
Cries of “Jonesie, what’s the score” rang out round Belle Vue as the home crowd once again turned up the volume and willed their side on. Two minutes after they extended their lead and the Rovers were looking for more, regaing possession following a clearance from the Wigan goalkeeper following good work from McDonald and Cramb, Cunningham played a neat one two with Birch and then worked the ball right to Simon Ireland. He combined with Schofield who clipped a neat ball round the corner and inside the full back where Paul Birch made a great run from midfield into the box, slipping past Martinez, only to be denied as Butler raced off his line to beat him to the ball only by a matter of inches.
Wigan had not got going at all in the second half before eventually showing signs of stirring from their slumber after 53 minutes when they won a corner on the right following a neat flick in the box from Jones.
Kevin Sharp whipped in a wicked low flat cross left footed, which evaded everyone on its path alon the goal line including Rovers keeper Dean Williams and Jones and David Lowe converged on the ball in the middle of the goal hunting an easy tap in only for Simon Ireland to somehow deflect the ball away to safety off his knee and Rovers managed to scramble away for another corner.
Again Sharp delivered a telling cross which needed first Schofiled and then Mike to make important headers to clear the danger but only for a third Wigan corner in quick succession as the visitors looked to turn the screw and find a way back into the game, but Martinez’s subsequent cross was cleared to safety by Mike and Rovers had weathered the strom.
Wigan were no out of it yet and won a free kick mid way inside the Rovers half following a foul on Martinez after some good by Jones with his back to goal. Martinez himself dusted himself down and delivered a great ball into David Lowe who had made a terrific run from deep and totally lost his marker Adie Mike in the box. Lowe made contact with a great header from around the spot which seemed to be arrowing into the top corner before Dean Williams dived across and flung a strong hand up to tip the ball over from almost underneath the cross bar. It was the first time Williams had really been called to action and he responded with a fantastic stop to keep the score at 2-0.
Rovers continued to battle and work hard with McDonald typically industrious in midfield. He was almost rewarded for his efforts after he combined well with Esdaille down the left and flashed a shot just wide of the near post from fully 20 yards out.
The game continued to flow back and forth with Wigan sub Isidro Diaz collecting a long ball up field and knocking down first time for Jones to turn and feed a lovely ball into the path of Ian Kilford who burst through into the box and appeared to touch the ball on before being upended by the challenge of Ian Gore. All eyes were on referee Uriah Rennie but he waved the Wigan appeals away and signalled play on.
Wigan still felt they could take something from the game and continued to press, Sharp again delivering a corner into the near post which was flicked on by Kilford straight to the feet of David Lowe who was unmarked a yard out. He stuck out a boot and turned to ball goal wards but almost straight at Williams who somehow deflected the ball up onto the cross bar with the ball spilling back out to Lowe who lashed at the ball for a second time only to be denied again by Williams who bravely threw himself at the midfielders boot to smother the shot and gather the ball on the goal line. It was a remarkable few seconds which began to suggest that just maybe it would be the Rovers night.
Paul Birch was forced out of the action and was replaced by Lee Warren, having been unable to shake off a knock received moments earlier and he received a rapturous round of applause from the Doncaster Rovers fans, acknowledging his terrific contribution to the evenings entertainment and also as a vote of support surrounding the off field rumours which had led to his omission from the side, it was clear the fans were glad to have the midfielder back in the team.
The home side nearly added a third into the final ten minutes as Mike flicked on for Cramb to pull the ball down, draw the defender before rolloing a pass through for Cunningham to run onto, but the midfielder could only shoot tamely at the keeper will the goal at his mercy.
The threat of the leagues top scorer Graeme Jones had been brilliantly nullified by Doncaster Rovers defensive pair Ian Gore and in particular Darren Moore who never gave Jones a second in possession and denied him the sniff of chance to add to the six goals he notched up in his two previous outings and Rovers, inspired by the quality of Birch in midfield, grabbed a crucial and unlikely 3 points which eventually helped stave off relegation for another season.