The 1976-76 season began with a stutter from a Doncaster Rovers side who expected a great deal during Stan Andersons first full year in charge at the club. Key players had been added to with goalkeeper Denis Peacock and midfielder Ian Miller joining from Forest as part of the deal which took Terry Curran to the City ground and Chris Balderstone arrived from Carlisle to further enhance the midfield. Balderstone however was unavailable for the first three games of the season due to commitments as a player to Leicestershire County Cricket Club, indeed Balderstone famously spent 6 hours in the field for Leicestershire in a game at chesterfield before dashing down the motorway to Belle Vue for one of the first games of the new season and an evening kick off against Brentford, arriving still in his whites with just enough time for a cup of tea and change of kit. Balderstone showed no signs of fatigue but his team mates weren’t as fresh as the team had to come from behind to earn a point, this was followed by defeat at Watford, despite an enterprising and much improved display which contained some excellent football in particular from Ian Miller who had a shot cleared off the line and struck the upright as Rovers lost 2-1 as the topsy-turvy start continued.
Miller picked up a knock to the knee which kept him out of the mid week trip to Barnsley which yielded a welcome if unexpected win with Brendon O’Callaghan notching his sixth goal already in the season and Rovers went into the game with Southport desperate to build on the result and finally get the season up and running.
Rovers were boosted by news that Miller had shaken off his knee problem and was immediately re installed to the starting line up, but Anderson knew Southport, themselves having a difficult start, would be a tough test as manager Jimmy Melia quit days before the game, “I expect then to put up a real fight, losing a manager always has an effect on a team” Anderson said during the build up to the clash as Rovers braced themselves for the backlash.
An encouraging 5,219 fans braved a strong swirling wind which on the face of it might have spoilt the occasion but few inside Belle Vue went home disappointed.
Rovers began on the front foot as Miller, showing no ill effects from his time in the treatment room ran at the visitors down the right, combine with Chappell and Alesinoye winning a first minute corner. The winger took the kick himself with the ball eventually falling to the feet of centre back Steve Uzelac who could only push his effort just wide of the post.
Miller then set off on another raid down the right, his pace allowing the chance to whip a great ball into the box which O’Callaghan only just failed to connect with having made up a lot of ground to get into the penalty area.
Rovers had started well and Balderstone picked up possession in the middle of the park before playing a lovely astute pass through to Robinson, overlapping down the left who, caught in two minds, delayed an early pass through to an unmarked Kitchen and ultimately the opening had gone enabling Southport to regain possession but the signs were good for the Yorkshire men with the game still less then 10 minutes old.
Minutes later the ball was neatly swept forward from the back four to Alesinoye in the Southport half with the central midfielder advancing slightly before swinging a high curling cross into the box perfect for Brendan O’Callaghan to attack, which he did to great effect. Rising above marker Duncan Welbourne the big striker looped the ball on; over keeper Kevin Thomas leaving strike partner Peter Kitchen to head home and put Rovers ahead with just 8 minutes on the clock.
The goal should have allowed Rovers to settle on the ball and further push home their advantage, however three minutes later Southport pushed forward and won a corner down the right. Ex Aston Villa midfielder Johnny Martin clipped the ball into the six yard box which keeper Dennis Peacock came to claim, but under pressure from the sandgrounders forward Paul Taylor the ball looped on to Bobby Gough who calmly threaded the ball between Uzelac and Brookes on the goal line to draw Southport level. The home side continued with the lion’s share of possession but shell-shocked by the equaliser never posed a real threat and it was still very much against the run of play that the unthinkable happened after 23 minutes.
The ball in the ball possession of the back four led to a series of errors and led to total disarray as panic set in and somehow the players conspired to leave Gough clear on goal in acres of space. With only a dreadfully exposed Peacock left to beat, and with plenty of time Gough cleverly and effortlessly lofted the ball over the helpless keeper and into the net to put his side 2-1 up from nowhere.
The home side were now clearly rocked, behind in a game they had largely been in control of, they had once again paid the price for some startling defensive inadequacies and the frustrating up and down start to the season looked like continuing.
Slowly they dragged themselves back into the game and with Miller and Balderstone providing progress from midfield Rovers looked to find their feet once more.
The ball was being moved quickly to the front men O’Callaghan and Kitchen, and it was from a foul on the latter which Rovers won a free kick from. Balderstone clipped it into the danger area and Southport could only clear at the expense of a corner. Once again Balderstone took control of the dead ball, playing a short one before clipping the ball into Kitchen at the near post whose cute flick on was deflected out of the goal mouth by the arm of defender Alan Jones and Referee Mr Farley pointed immediately to the penalty spot.
The Southport players were furious with the decision, and against a backdrop of arguments and protestations, up stepped Peter Kitchen who seemingly oblivious to all around him coolly placed the ball to Thomas’ left and level the scores.
The strong winds were beginning to have there say on proceedings, at time making controlling the high ball difficult and Rovers buoyed by the equaliser finished the half strongly with Kitchen twice running hard and the Southport defence proving a stern test for the Southport rearguard.
Despite this, Doncaster Rovers backline again were caught napping and an almighty scramble ensued inside the Rovers six yard box. With boots and bodies flying Rovers somehow edged the ball to safety but it came at a price.
Defender Steve Uzelac sustained a nasty facial injury throwing his head into the mix and needed treatment from trainer John Quigley before an extremely eventful and entertaining half drew to a close with the scores level.
Uzelac couldn’t continue for the second half with led to some tactical changes which would ultimately have a significant bearing on the outcome of the game.
Robinson moved across to central defence and Balderstone was forced to fill in at left back, with substitute Alan Murray, who had played the previously against Barnsley filling in for Ian Miller, re instated to the midfield.
The visitors were the first to settle in the wind and they dictated the early exchanges with first Balderstone and then Reed forced into defensive duties to halt Southport raids. The home side came back though as the game began to open up with a great lob from the distinguished Miller sending Chappell racing through only for the bounce to favour the onrushing keeper and prevent him from finishing.
The game was in the balance and delicately poised before two goals in as many minutes tipped the balance. Firstly, Balderstone, enjoying a little more time on the ball in the deeper lying position, knocked a good ball inside to Robinson who fed Murray in an advanced position out wide. Murray had some work to do before gaining a yard on his marker and flashing a pin point cross into the centre where who else, but Brendan O’Callaghan rose brilliantly to powerfully plant his header into the back of the net.
The celebrations were still echoing round Belle Vue as straight from the re start
Rovers regained possession and Alesinoye drove forward before letting fly from distance. The ball ricocheted of a host of legs in the penalty area before running loose to the feet of O’Callaghan once more who coolly hammered home his eight goal of the season to put his side two in front with an hour gone.
Rovers could sense the game was there for the taking now and continued to attack the now beleaguered looking Southport defence. It took just three minutes to deliver the killer blow and it came from a familiar source. Ian Miller collected a pass on the right and set off down the flank, the tricky winger using great pace and sublime technique to beat his man and hit the by-line, from where he centre with great accuracy for someone at full pace, digging the ball out on onto the head of Kitchen, who directed a splendid header home to complete a memorable hat trick.
Southport brought on their substitute Les Wain in an attempt to get beck into things, but with a three goal cushion behind them Doncaster Rovers settled and began to knock the ball about with great confidence, playing some really exquisite football at times.
The visitors could find no respite as Reed crashed a shot wide of the outstretched Thomas, only to see his drive beat the far post too, before Kitchen again fooled Jones with a drop of the shoulder only for a last ditch intervention preventing him from helping himself to fourth goal of the afternoon. Even into the last minute Rovers were pressing forward with a corner hanging tantalisingly in the air, was again scrambled away as O’Callaghan stretched in an attempt to convert his brace to a hat trick of his own, before the final whistle blew to signal a terrific 5-2 win. The defence had been at sixes and sevens at times during the afternoon, regularly going absent without leave but as was so often the case with the forwards, inspired by Miller, having a field day with O’Callaghan scoring twice and partner Kitchen grabbing the headlines with a hat trick
The result proved to be the catalyst many had hoped, sending the side of a run of one defeat in the next seven games which propelled the club into the top five at the top of the table, but a bad run around Christmas saw then slip away from the leaders before a flurry of Kitchen and O’Callaghan goals saw them again raise hopes of what might be, but a disappointing finish saw the side finish tenth, nine points away from forth spot and the final promotion place, with surprisingly the sides record at Belle Vue (seven defeats at home) where the defence seemed most frail, was the week link and ultimately the talented side had gone another year without fulfilling its potential in the league, with the amazing run in the league cup, ended in the quarter final at Spurs, providing an agonising glimpse at what might have been.