Doncaster Rovers went into their centenary year having endured another difficult season. The club had been forced to seek re election into the football league following a disappointing ninety ninth year which was defined by a lack of goals scored. The side had lost the likes of Peter Kitchen and Brendan O’Callaghan in the couple of years before and not surprisingly, had struggled to replace them.
It was not all doom and gloom however as the club made changes off the pitch with a new assistant manager in former England coach Les Cocker and appointed a new club secretary to add to the optimism of the prospect of former Leeds Utd legend Billy Bremner’s first full season in charge, having succeeded Stan Anderson a few months earlier. Bremner brought in players including Alan Warboys, returning to the club where he had started his career, from Hull City. Ian Nimmo and Hugh Dowd from Sheffield Wednesday and Billy Russell and John Dowie from Celtic all gave hope that the one hundredth year might yet be a memorable one on the pitch.
An inconsistent start to the league campaign was tragically put into context on the 4th October 1979 when Les Cocker, having completed a morning training session with the players, collapsed and died aged 55.
On the pitch, the players seemed galvanised by events and immediately won eight of the next nine games climbing to seventh place and only two points behind the promotion chasers going into December, however around Christmas the team began to falter. Even the club record signing of Alan Little from Barnsley for £30,000 couldn’t prevent a reverse in fortunes as the club slumped to eleven games without a win.
The supporters were also feeling the strain and the side went into the game against bitter rivals Scunthorpe United in February 1980 with some supporters a little too keen to make their point. In the build up to the game vandals had daubed the slogan “This club has conned the public for too long – Beware” across a wall outside Belle Vue, leaving Bremner to admit it wasn’t the first sign of public discontent “I’ve had a couple of supporters phone me during the week and I’ve had a long chat to both of them and tried to explain things” he said, leaving the team were under pressure from all quarters to deliver as they prepared for the game against fierce local rivals Scunthorpe United.
Coach David Bentley, who had retired from the playing staff to take a coaching role following the arrival of Alan Little, was sensationally restored to the centre of midfield with Steve Lister dropping to centre half and Alan Warboys moving from defence to partner non contract forward Stuart Mell, who made only his second full appearance as leading scorer Ian Nimmo landed a blow by missing out through illness.
A slightly disappointing crowd of 3,304 had turned out for the local derby at Belle Vue which was clouded in an air of frustration and disillusionment, adding the burden on the manager and the players who were under extreme pressure to deliver a result.
Benefiting from Bentleys added experience combined with Little’s tough tackling Rovers had the better of the early exchanges creating an opening when Glyn Snodin found Warboys overlapping down the left but the big striker could not direct his cross into the onrushing Mell.
Rovers were forcing the visitors back and Mell set off on a great run, slipping past two defenders before the ball was poked into touch by Scunthorpe defender Stuart Pilling and Rovers won a corner. Warboys rose highest to head Billy Russell’s cross back into the danger area only for Steve Lister to see his header slip just over the cross bar.
Scunthorpe had been restricted to only the occasional counter attack in the opening ten minutes of the game and so it was of little surprise when the pressure eventually forced a break through after 13 minutes, with the biggest surprise perhaps being the source of the goal.
Alan little won possession with a typically fierce challenge in the middle of the park before finding Bentley. Rovers youth team coach then dropped his shoulder and rode a tackle, striding to within 20 yards of the visitors goal before letting fly with his right foot, unleashing a terrific drive which flew past Jimmy Gordon in the Iron goal and crashed into the top corner giving Rovers a deserved one nil lead with a touch of real class.
Scunthorpe struggled to get a foot hold in the game as the home side continued to drive forward and 15 minutes after the first, Rovers grabbed a second, and amazingly it was Bentley again.
Warboys got clear momentarily down the right forcing big central defender David Dall to drag him back and concede a free kick. Russell’s kick was again directed at Warboys who won the aerial battle and again found Steve Lister with the knock down whose goal bound shot was blocked in the box, with the ball dropping to Bentley who happily smashed a right footed drive through a host of bodies into the net.
Rovers were again playing the football that had lofted them to promotion hopefuls only weeks before and began to outplay the visitors on all areas of the Belle Vue turf, continuing to pile forward with Glyn Snodin almost adding a third when he tried to casually guide an effort into the corner of the goal from 18 yards out, forcing the goalkeeper to scramble along the line and divert his effort around the post.
The tactical change which led to Snodin playing in a more advanced role was certainly paying dividends and Bremner could sit back and watch the fruits of his labour unfold. Snodin again drove forward from midfield, attacking the space out wide on the left before swinging a cross in the box for the onrushing Little to meet and crash his header inches over the bar.
Rovers could sense they could end the game as a contest before half time and continued to press, with Mell making a superbly timed run across the back four onto a ball flicked in behind. He sprinted clear of the back four and got away from defender Steve Deere before cutting inside and flashing his shot narrowly wide of the far post with the keeper well beaten meaning Rovers had to settle for 2-0 at half time.
Rovers came out for the second period in a similar mood to that which they had displayed throughout the first forty five minutes and wasted no time in taking hold of the game again, with Scunthorpe left chasing shadows and becoming increasingly frustrated with Glyn Snodin in particular, pulling the strings in the Rovers engine room and it was Snodin who was clattered by Steve Davy midway in the Irons half. Despite Snodin taking a heavy blow the referee waved for play to continue with Mell alive to the situation, he gathered the loose ball and flicked through the feed the perfectly timed run of Warboys managed to get himself clear of the last man to run through and brilliantly round the keeper to score.
Snodin required some lengthy treatment to allow him to continue following Davy’s challenge, but the midfielder was some back to his feet, and seemingly more determined to drive Rovers on, continually giving the full back Davy a torrid time down Rovers left flank.
Approaching the hour mark and Snodin broke free again he left, combining excellently with Bentley before clipping a superb ball down the inside channel for Warboys to latch onto. Dragging his marker out towards the left with him, Warboys darted back inside and drove to the bye line, working half a yard of space to pull the ball back across the six yard box where Stewart Mell darted in front of goalkeeper Gordon to divert the ball home. It was the 22 year old forwards first goal for the club and the goal ably displayed his instincts and eye for goal in and around the box. The Doncaster fans could scarcely believe what they were seeing as their side produced a terrific display of incisive attacking football and it wasn’t done yet.
Little found time in the middle and switched the play brilliantly on the left to find Snodin, himself in acres of space. Snodin needed no further encouragement, and as the Scunthorpe defence laboured to close him down, he whipped a lovely ball into the box, where Warboys stole a yard Deere to lash at goal from close range, only to be denied from a great instinctive save from Gordon.
Then came two chances in quick succession for Bentley to complete a fairytale comeback. First he rose to direct a header just wide of the far post, before running through on goal unchallenged, only to be denied a hat trick by the linesman’s flag, making way for Jack Lewis in the closing stages receiving tremendous applause from the fans in recognition for a display of real quality and assurance.
There was still time for one last piece of action, and it proved to be a memorable one. The Scunthorpe backline, having endured a terrible afternoon, reacted slowly to a ball dropped in behind them, allowing Warboys to steal a yard, running onto the pass, the tall striker surprised everyone, in particular Keeper Jimmy Gordon, by fizzing a strike goal wards early. Gordon hardly had time to react as the ball whipped over his head and crashed into the back of the net to cap a truly memorable afternoon and seal a fantastic 5-0 win.
Despite such a great victory, Doncaster Rovers were unable to maintain such a level of consistency during the final games of the season, finishing in twelfth place but introducing youngsters who would prove to key figures in the future with the like of Glynn’s younger brother Ian and goalkeeper Willie Boyd turning out for the first team in the latter part of the season, but the result went a way to appeasing the fans, showing a glimpse of what the club were trying to achieve and the standards they could reasonably demand in the future.