As Doncaster’s promotion bid continues to fight for another week so does Viva Rovers diary of the push for the Championship, with a blow-by-blow account of Friday’s play-off semi-final second-leg win over Southend.
“Are you nervous for tonight then?” asks Gav, unknowingly triggering the exact moment at which I do begin to feel nervous. I choose to answer his question with a simple “Aye” as to relay the true extent of the nervousness which has just unfolded its sleeping bag in my gut would require a scene-setting background story so lengthy I would miss my train. As for his follow-up question regarding my confidence that is much easier to answer; I am rarely confident in my club. Had Rovers recent fortune mirrored my inbuilt expectation then we wouldn’t be here. We would still be in the Conference.
On the platform at Lincoln station and having spent the afternoon browsing online match previews my head is lost in footballing clichés. I note the rain that’s started a falling with the expectation of a greasy surface. You have to favour the side coming into tonight with the momentum. It will be cut and thrust, a time for heroes. Someone needs to step up to the plate tonight in an atmosphere of tension you could cut with a knife. There is no doubting what is at stake for both clubs. My inner conscience is so busy throwing league form out the window that before I know it my physical self has polished off a whole packet of Fruit Polos before the 16:56 to Newark is even in sight.
On the train to Doncaster and I’m starting to worry. Not strictly about the game, but about my own contribution to it. Like any football fan, in the run up to a game like this I am beyond logic and reason. So I am literally counting my blessings. I have my ‘lucky’ scarf which I did not take to Cheltenham, but unfortunately I’m wearing the same shirt. I won’t be able to go to my ‘lucky’ pre-match Doncaster coffee house as it will be closed at this hour. And I never fed the ducks! Before the win at Elland Road in January I tossed bread into the canal in front of my house, but today I forgot. Now not only are the ducks of Lincoln hungry, but I may have jeopardised our team’s chances. Hopefully I’ll make amends at the ground with a ‘lucky’ balti pie and a visit to my ‘lucky’ spot in the West Stand urinals.
Right now these are all genuine concerns for me, and each one is, the moment it enters my head, treated with that same brief heightened panic you feel when you think you’ve left your wallet in a shop. In The Guardian on a Saturday they mock these football superstitions and inevitable irrelevancies with their Omens column; “The new Christine Aguilera single is good news for Liverpool, as the reds have won on every weekend they have played following a new Aguilera release.” I usually laugh at theM, but on days like today I realise that I’d be clinging to promises like these.
As the train pulls into Doncaster I’m able to quell all these thoughts with the achievement of one of my other pre match rituals. Beneath the Balby Road rail bridge is the graffiti ‘VIVA ROVERS’ from which this website takes its name. I must see it before the game. Tonight I do.
Doncaster is what it is. And that is everything Cheltenham was not. Down the rain dampened High Street two teenage lads tread between the closed shops as a deep hardcore dance beat thuds out from one of their mobile phones. Where in Cheltenham the continental cafe culture saw crowds on the pavement tables outside wine bars, in Doncaster all that is present is an older couple sharing a cigarette outside Wetherspoons whilst two luminous clad policemen stand opposite gazing in through the bar doors.
Further up the High Street the police are questioning a couple of tracksuit and brown shoes youths whilst hen nights roll past hanging out of the windows of stretched limos and converted fire engines. This is modern England, not the tourist book idyllic of two weeks ago, this is how a football town is. On the terraced Childers Street where once two Doncaster Rovers Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final flags fluttered above the roves now there are just two rogue poles each with a frayed gesture of what once was a flag. This is not somewhere you want to be when your team loses. If Southend were to lose tonight it would truly feel like a defeat in these streets and suddenly I am briefly and strangely confident.
Inside the Keepmoat Stadium and now I’m a silent unmoving collection of nervous thoughts. People, including my own mother, try to talk to me, but I am noncommittal to conversation, bordering on rudeness. I am content to stare out at the scene in front of me, blue and white noise to my left, red and white flag waving to my right. I don’t want to know about the prospect of Wembley until this match is over and it either is or is not a reality.
Ten minutes in and a penalty offers a chance for another superstition. I never watch my team’s spot-kicks, a ritual rooted in Paul Bodin’s miss for Wales in the Arms Park in 1993 that continues to this day. People around me know this and wait for me to turn around. I face the back of the West Stand with my left eye on those who sit to my right and the South Stand beyond. As ever there is that time bending moment of silence as the ball is struck and the ground pauses to react, before those in my view leap upwards and I am able to turn and join the celebrations.
3-0 up at half-time is enough to quash the nerves. Admittedly I’ve seen Rovers throw away more emphatic leads than this, and yes I am haunted by the infamous Telford United match, but I am as close to being able to relax as I could have hoped at this point. That said, I refuse to chant or sing anything about ‘going up’ or Wembley just yet. Mark Stein taught me never to sing until the Fat Lady had already begun in our last play-off excursion. Instead I am able to simple take things in. The stomach pains and nervous silence have left me, a more cagey form of relaxation has taken their place.
Full time, the match won and as the hoards of red and white sweep the pitch from right to left I am able to stand at the top of the West Stand and smile. I kept telling myself that winning tonight would only be half the job done, and in reality has just brought me full circle to where I was on the morning of the Cheltenham game, a victory away from the Championship. However, after a performance and a result like that everything now seems much more buoyant and it is hard to keep a check on reality. So instead I stand up here and dance and sing along to ‘Glad All Over’ on my own, because for now at least, there is no better team than mine and no better place to be than here.