The summer of 1974 brought at least a little optimism about the forthcoming division four campaign. A line drawn under last years disappointments in the league and new hope in the form of a group of talented young players who had matured from the junior side, the likes of Brendan O’Callaghan, Steve Reed and Terry Curran were all players whose potential was certainly grounds for confidence in what might be over the coming months. However the summer also brought financial constraints and only free transfers were brought in and the conviction soon drained out of the side. With O’Callaghan missing from the first months of the season manager Maurice Setters brought in loan striker Bob Lee, a youngster from Leicester who was a factor in Rovers’ decent start to the season, nonetheless with the svelte squad already under pressure the club slipped into the wrong half of the table by October and only managed one solitary point from six outings in November 1974 leading to Setters paying the price, officially placed on ‘suspension’ and the axe had fallen.
Confidence gone along with their manager, the side slipped to second from bottom following a 7-4 reverse at Shrewsbury in February 1975 and were seemingly in freefall, odds on favourites to face re election come the summer. Attendances had slipped to under 1,500 and the board were forced to act. Days later former Middlesbrough manager Stan Anderson was installed as new manager and had an immediate effect on events on the pitch. Days later Rovers comfortably beat mid table Torquay 3-0 and made the short trip to Oakwell the week after with optimism, where it was reported Brian Clough was there to meet them, viewing the game from the stands with a watchful eye on youngster Terry Curran. He and the other 6,450 there that night watched Rovers battle hard, coming under immense early pressure with goalkeeper Graham Brown magnificent, however the hard work was to pay dividends as Brendan O’Callaghan nicked his 8th goal of the season and his goal, combined with an all too rare clean sheet, brought another precious win. Scoring goals had not really been the sides’ downfall throughout the start of the season, along with O’Callaghan’s contribution Peter Kitchen had also notched 12 goals but it was defensive frailties which had been the cause for most concern.
These shortcomings were to be sternly put to the test seven days later as league leaders Mansfield were the visitors to Belle Vue, having lost only 2 of the previous 29 league games and there was certainly no room for the faint of heart at Belle Vue on the 22nd February 1975. Anderson’s arrival had brought with it a rediscovered desire and work ethic but the team went into the game knowing more would be required against a team widely acknowledged as the best in the division, meaning the day could prove pivotal in defining the outcome of the season and the short term future of the club.
Any confidence Rovers had gathered took a robust early blow as within seconds Mansfield forced a corner, swung over by Hodgson and Rovers defenders Uzelac and Brookes could only watch as the ball bypassed everyone on its way to Colin Foster, alone on the back post making the most of the huge space afforded to him by ineffective marking, and gleefully slammed the ball home with exactly 50 seconds of the contest gone.
Rovers refused to lie down preferring to scrap and fight as they had at Barnsley and Curran bustled his way past two defenders only to be stopped by a fierce tackle which won his side a corner as Rovers looked for a foothold. Reed dropped the restart into the box and keeper Arnold could only palm the ball over the bar under immense physical pressure from O’Callaghan which left the Mansfield stopper in the back of the net. The game was beginning to open up with Mansfield having the better of the play and looking dangerous time and time again and McCaffrey got clear of Brookes briefly, but under pressure from Uzelac, Brown in the Rovers goal, was able to make a fine save under pressure.
Mansfield midfielder Hodgson was seeing a lot of the ball in the middle of the park and began to dictate play, cutting the Rovers back four into pieces with a terrific display of astute incisive passing, with only some poor finishing and last ditch interventions preventing the league leaders getting out of sight.
Doncaster Rovers battled on and gradually got back into proceedings, with Kitchen scrapping for a ball in the penalty area, the stags keeper Arnold was left stranded on the floor, but sheer weight of Mansfield defenders prevented Rovers from forcing an equaliser and again, following a superb run down the flank from Curran, O’Callaghan’s header towards goal was scrambled to safety.
The game was still finely poised with Rovers relying on Brown to make two saves in quick succession, the first clawing away Lathans header before making a tremendous save from McCaffrey who must have thought he’d scored after crashing the ball goal wards only for Brown to make a point blank save.
The signs were looking ominous and the pressure told six minutes before the break, with Rovers penned in, defending almost exclusive from the penalty area, two shots were blocked in quick succession before the ball broke to forward Terry Eccles who crashed the ball into the net, via the upright to finally beat Brown and put Town two up.
Rovers were seemingly made of sterner stuff under the tutelage of Anderson and again refused to lie down the players seemingly aware of the significance the game could have, again came back at the visitors and looked to go direct towards the height and strength of Brendon O’Callaghan. The big front man won a great deal of the ball in the air, accurately and consistently winning knock downs for Curran and in particular Kitchen, to feed off and as the ball was tossed into the penalty area O’Callaghan challenged Arnold in the area to prevent him from clearing effectively and his punch fell to the feet of Steve Uzelac, who had pushed forward to join the attack, and he stabbed the ball home to get Rovers back into the game at half time.
Rovers game out for the second half clearly galvanised by Uzelac’s late goal and a further injection of Anderson inspired spirit and were immediately on the front foot and Curran continued to cause problems out wide, however this guile going forward was once again offset by the same defensive concerns at the other end with Reed forced into a late tackle and Brown also called upon to save low down to overt the danger as Mansfield looked to counter. Lathan got clear as the defence were opened up and left another huge opening that the Mansfield midfielder gleefully ran through into the box with Uzelac again at full stretch chasing back to divert the ball for a corner, which again called Brown into action to save well.
Again, back came Rovers in what was developing into a real end to end, furiously paced encounter, with Murray working the ball up to O’Callaghan, the big target man again getting the better of the central defenders and knocking balls down well but the determined Town back line denied the runners space and held firm but Rovers were clearly getting back into things. On 59 minutes Ternant clipped a free kick from inside the Rovers half in towards O’Callaghan who won another aerial battle to flick to ball forward to Peter Kitchen to latch onto, turn in flash and blast the ball past the outstretched Arnold.
Doncaster’s prize pairing had the side level and now with the bit between the teeth began to serge forward. Twice in quick succession O’Callaghan won headers causing panic in the visitors back four before Kitchen returned to favour with a great flick that got O’Callaghan away out wide with Kevin Bird, the former Rovers centre half resigned to pulling down O’Callaghan before he could test Arnold. Referee Ken Walmsey was forced to intervene and step between Bird and the Rovers forward with O’Callaghan making his feelings about the tackle known, resulting in a yellow card for Bird.
The resulting free kick was whipped into the box, and with all eyes on the battle between O’Callaghan and Bird, Terry Curran made a great run undetected to the back post to hammer Rovers in front for the first time having fought back from two-nil down.
Mansfield certainly weren’t done yet and piled forward with Ternent keeping Rovers in front by heading clear from right under his own cross bar, however the pressure grew and a long throw into the box caused confusion and Rovers failed to clear. The ball broke to Eccles, who drilled powerfully at goal, and despite Brown getting a hand on his drive, the ball found the back of the net and the league leaders were level late on looking to have earned a share of the points.
Rovers dug deep and the players were visibly encouraging each other to provide one last effort with Murray and in particular Curran continually driving Rovers forward with the latter displaying great speed over the ground and sparkling ball control down the flanks, continually hitting O’Callaghan and bursting forward to join Kitchen looking for a final breakthrough. Into the eighty-eighth minute, and with time running out, O’Callaghan again won a battle with Bird and diverted the ball into the path of strike partner Peter Kitchen inside the box who typically in one slick movement flashed home a difficult chance right footed past the onrushing keeper to complete a remarkable never say die fight back to an astonishing and breathless game win 4-3. Curran had run himself into the ground, Kitchen had grabbed two characteristically clinical goals and O’Callaghan had been simply brilliant in the air.
Doncaster Rovers had shown themselves to be a different team under Anderson with a great display of desire and endeavour, as in the two previous games but today proved to team and fans alike that the players had the ability to compete with the best in the league and the result would prove a catalyst to turn the season round with the side winning the first five games of Andersons spell in charge and nine of the last 16 games of the season to finish comfortably clear of the re election zone.
The bumper crowd of 7,278 had left having witnessed the game of the season and inspired by the performance many of them returned over the coming months as the sides fortunes grew during Andersons time at the helm, with attendances growing significantly over the coming seasons to watch Rovers play an attacking style of play which for all its defensive misgivings was exciting and entertaining to watch, yielding plenty of goals, thanks in no small part to the partnership of Peter Kitchen and Brendan O’Callaghan. The two perfectly complemented each other with Kitchen alive to the inevitable flicks bestowed to him by the powerful big front man.