December 1998 saw the club bottom of the football conference in English Footballs ‘Non league’ pyramid with everyone involved with the club simply delighted to be there. Months earlier the town had mourned the death of a once proud and dignified football club which had played such a huge part in so many lives. Tears were shed in abundance following the clubs final football league game against Colchester in May, set against the back drop of a criminally wanton and wilful obliteration of over a hundred years of history, the club looked certain to have played its final game and its future appeared as short as it was bleak.
Over the summer however, thousands of prayers were answered. The club was taken over and a new board, headed by chairman and Rovers fan John Ryan was installed, along with a new manager and assistant who were more than familiar with Belle Vues fragile frame. Ian and Glynn Snodin returned toDoncaster, charged with returning a soul to the football club and pride to the town and when having started with no players, kit or footballs, simply to have a competitive team, even if it was rooted to the foot of the table, was an achievement worthy of high spirits.
Despite all this, the Snodins had produced a side with plenty of quality, with their influence drawing players of the quality of Steve Nicol, Dave Penney, Tommy Wright and Shaun Goodwin to the fold but despite the return of dignity and excitement returning to the club, the team had to start winning, and quickly. Another relegation further away from league football would surely mean no way back, which the management were all too aware of setting the players a target to set the ball rolling “We want to start the new year off the bottom then pull away from the relegation zone as quickly as possible” Glynn Snodin confirmed in the run up to the Dover game but would it would not be easy. Rovers had not won in the league for a month and had only notched up three wins all season. The side was also coming off the back of a disappointing 4-2 defeat at Rushden in an FA Cup second round replay, in which despite plenty of spirit and endeavour allied with a measure of ability, Rovers had again come away with nothing, a trend which was threatening to define the season.
Dover were themselves a good, strong and well organized outfit who were very robust at the back and more than capable going forward, already having beaten Rovers 1-0 on the opening day, and arrived at Belle Vue having not conceded more than two goals in any game all season with one of the best defensive records in the conference.
Player manager Ian Snodin was ruled out of the side with a groin strain but Simon Shaw was available to play at right back having returned from suspension. Steve Nicol was also fit for the game having shaken off a knock which had required an injection to allow him to play at Rushden.
It was a clear but crisp December afternoon inDoncasterand 2,119 fans, the lowest in the league all season, settled down for what promised to be a tight and hard fought affair. Doverclearly had a different agenda and set about the home side right from the off. Rovers midfield were not getting close enough to their opposite numbers as Dover enjoyed too much space early on, a mistake which would harm Rovers, badly. As early as the forth minute, the visitors midfield were given the time and space to stroll through the middle of the park, finding forward Mark Hynes who himself had the time to line up a great strike at goal which rebounded off the underside off the cross bar and back into play where, with the Rovers defenders standing watching, big striker Joff Vansittart, who hadn’t scored in the league for four months, headed home from close range.
Rovers had to clear their heads and wake up, and at the very least try to compete physically in the middle third but playing three at the back, wing backs Simon Shaw and Scott Maxfield were struggling to get forward and join Tommy Wright and Shaun Goodwin leaving Dave Penney to try to rally the engine room.
Dover continued to press forward, sensing the advantage could be further driven home and on 13 minutes won an innocuous looking free kick mid way into the Rovers half on the right hand side. Simon Wormull delivered the cross towards Vansittart who lost his marker and held off the challenge of centre back Colin Sutherland to place a simple header firmly past Andy Woods in the Rovers goal and put his side two goals up inside 15 minutes and seemingly without breaking sweat.
Clearly rocked by what happened Rovers threatened to fall apart and struggled to keep hold the ball, relying on young striker Glenn Kirkwood to provide an outlet with his willingness to run with the ball providing some respite for the bewilded rear guard. Slowly Rovers began to wake from their slumber and began to venture forward, with Penney combining well with Simon Shaw down the right to deliver a cross which Mark Hume met powerfully but could only direct over the bar.
Back cameDoverthough and moving the ball directly up to the powerful Vansittart the visitors won a corner on the right hand side with Scott Maxfield only managing to clear the danger behind. Vansittart would clearly be the target again and all eyes were on him again as James Virgo delivered a dangerous ball in to the near post. De-ja-vu was in the December air as the giant striker easily out maneuvered the Rovers back line and bet the corner perfectly at the near post, again giving Woods no chance with a powerful and uncontested headed before running to salute the few visiting fans behind the goal having claimed a hat trick after only 27 minutes.
The terraces were stunned into a silent disbelief before some fans found their voices again in order to convey their discontent as the fans, who had provided the team with some tremendous support since the clubs takeover, were clearly not prepared to tolerate an unacceptable performance from a side who for the first time did not display the commitment or exertion the supporters demanded.
The fans reaction threatened to spark some life in the home team as moments later Rovers found a life line from a set piece. The ball was launched high into the box where Mark Hume and Colin Sutherland made life difficult for Dover keeper Charlie Mitten who couldn’t collect cleanly and the ball dropped for Kirkwood to poke home a scruffy life line for Rovers who scraped into the interval out of the game at 3-1 down, that being far more than their performance deserved. Doverhad looked likely to score every time they came forward and Rovers just could not get into the game.
The Rovers management must have had their say at half time as the team emerged for the second half looked totally different to that which had simply not delivered for the previous 45 minutes. Clearly with a point prove the side looked galvanized by the challenge in front of them and they were superbly led by skipper Dave Penney who showed all his experience and led by example throughout. The midfield began to grab the game by the scruff of the neck with Penney and Maxfield making some big challenges in midfield and affording others the room to play. Penney, who had acquired a reputation for scoring spectacular goals, had already gone close from distance before on 52 minutes he picked up a loose ball in the centre of the park around 25 yards out. The crowd screamed, pleading with him to ‘hit it’ and the 34 year old midfielder needed no further encouragement. The Rovers skipper beat Mitten with a sweetly struck drive which flashed into the corner of the net. The atmosphere of frustration and disappointment around Belle Vue evaporated and was quickly replacement with a sense of real anticipation and excitement, the come back was well and truly on and the crowd were determined to play their part.
Dover continued to come forward with Vansittart still causing problems, particularly in the air, with his knock down finding Hynes whose shot was well save by Woods as the visitors front two continued to create chances in what was becoming an incredibly open end to end game which played at a terrifically fast pace.
Back again came Doncaster Rovers, looking more and more dangerous coming forward with substitutes Dino Maamria and Ian Duerden providing a real cutting edge and a much needed injection of pace in the final third.
Visibly driven on by Penney in midfield the home side again swept forward in search of an equalizer as Penney looked to play Duerden in on the edge of the box. Back to goal, Duerden tried to slip Kirkwood through but the ball was blocked and ran loose on the edge of the penalty area, straight into the path of the onrushing Maamria who swept a great shot, crisply hit with the inside of his right boot, bending into the bottom right hand corner from 18 yards out. It was an outstanding finish from the Tunisian and sent the home fans wild, with 15 minutes still to play the teams were amazingly back to 3-3. Surely now Rovers would press home the advantage and find a winner? There was almost a feeling of inevitability around the ground that the momentum was with the home side who again surged forward looking for what would surely be a winner. Once again however Dover had other ideas and again piled forward and following some neat interplay on the edge of the box, the ball was fed through to Hynes who beat Woods with a neatly placed shot to put Dover back in front at 4-3 with only 11 minutes left and it was no less than the busy striker had deserved.
Again Belle Vue fell temporarily silent as all the home sides’ hard work and determination looked to be in vain before the players again began to dig in and find something else to throw at the Dover defence. Again it was Penney who dragged the team as Rovers looked to throw everything at the visitors, the ball was tossed high into the box and Ian Duerden rose highest and headed goal wards and into the path of Maamria who challenged Buddon only a couple of yards out and under intense pressure the defender could only divert the ball past Mitten and into his own net. Belle Vue erupted once more, 9 minutes left and the game really was anyone’s with the sides’ level at 4-4. The sides played out a breathless end to the game with neither side content to settle for a draw and both pushed forward in search of a winner. Doncaster Rovers continued to play some neat football and managed to carve out one final throw of the dice late on. Again the ball was played through the mid field on the floor into the feet of the impressive Duerden. With his back to goal, the striker dropped his shoulder and spun off his marker before completely wrong footing the defence with a neat back heal which was perfectly into the path of onrushing Glenn Kirkwood who hammered home a glorious winner to round off a fantastic move and provide a goal worthy of deciding such an epic blockbuster of a game. The crowd exploded as Rovers went ahead for the first time in the closing minutes 5-4 when they had been seemingly out of the game having been 3-0 down inside half an hour. The final whistle was greeted with huge celebration on the terrace as some fans spilled onto the pitch to mob the players in delight. The 2,119 present that day witnessed one of the most incredible and remarkable ninety minutes of football in the history of the club with both sides having played a full part in a quite astonishing game of football.
That season owed a great deal to the exuberance and energy of youth allied with the craft and guile of some experienced heads, none more so than Steve Nicol. The scot was a real class act, even at the age of 38 his reading of the game was on a different plane to those around him. Excellent in the air despite not being the tallest of players his distribution, with either foot, was fantastic and his contribution to the side, albeit for only 31 games that season before he left to take a coaching role in the states was massive. Having won every domestic honour with a dominant Liverpool which also conqueredEuropein the mid 80’s his pedigree was clearly undoubted. It truly was a pleasure and a privilege as a Doncaster Rovers fan to be able to witness such a superb player and a great professional ply his trade during that season in the late 90’s.