The newspapers claimed it was to be the biggest game in the history of Doncaster Rovers, and arguably the Conference Play-off final in May 2003 still remains so.
The Rovers, considered by many to be the biggest club in the Conference, had battled for five years to try to regain their Football League status, now found the prize only one game away following a season which had seen manager Dave Penney guide the club to a third place finish and qualify for the first ever play offs from the Conference. Having beaten Chester on penalties in the semi-final, thousands of Rovers fans travelled to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium to witness the drama.
Doncaster Rovers started the game favourites and included the Conference’s golden boot winner in top scorer Paul Barnes up front with key midfielder Paul Green included in midfield, with these two seen as central figures if the Rovers were to live up to their billing.
Rovers started the first half superbly with Paul Green and Ricky Ravenhill taking control of the midfield, Rovers went close early on when Fran Tierney’s drive was dipped round the post. Midfielder Jamie Paterson also had a shot saved before Paul Barnes was denied by Dagenham keeper Tony Roberts when the Rovers top scorer really should have put his side ahead.
Doncaster Rovers seemed in control of the proceedings but couldn’t find a breakthrough as Steve Foster had a great header scrambled off the line just past the half hour mark. The Rovers pressure was constant though and six minutes later they finally got what they deserved, Tim Ryan dug a great ball out from the left and Paul Green, who was outstanding all afternoon, arrived to meet the ball in the box and direct his header home.
Nerves were still present among the Doncaster Rovers fans during half time as 1 goal is seldom enough despite Rovers dominance, but the team emerged for the second half in similar mood. Ten minutes after the re start, Tristram Whitman worked the ball to Paterson, whose snap shot was diverted for a corner. Central defender Dave Morley nipped in at the near post to head home the resulting cross and Rovers were 2-0 up.
It looked all over at that point, but nerves began to creep into the Rovers side, and Dagenham, now with nothing to lose began to push forward. Almost out of the blue, Dagenham’s much travelled striker Mark Stein fired home after 63 minutes and then with 15 minutes to go, full back Tarkan Mustafa made a superb run into the box and finished well past Andy Warrington to stunned silence among the Doncaster Rovers fans.
The game could now go either way and if no ‘golden goal’ were forthcoming in extra time the tie would be settled on penalties. Penney had made a couple of changes to provide fresh legs but extra time was understandably tense, as nerves jangled with neither team wanting to give anything away before, with only 10 minutes remaining, Paul Barnes found some room on the left hand side of the penalty area and clipped to ball across to Tierney who nipped in to roll the ball past Roberts for the most golden of goals and win the tie for the Rovers. That image of Tierney turning away with his right arm aloft seemed to be frozen in time before a wall a noise greeted the Rovers winger. Suddenly it was all over. The outpouring of relief on the pitch was matched only by the Rovers fans on the terraces as the significance of the moment became clear, all the hard work before had finally paid off and Doncaster Rovers were back where they belonged, and the biggest game in the clubs history had become one of its finest moments.
Doncaster Rovers greatest games – just a pub team