“So do yous all support big clubs as well, or just Doncaster?” It’s just under a decade since I was asked that question, mid-match, whilst playing for Rovers’ supporters side the Donny R’sonists in the IFA Cup. The questioner was the lad I was marking, centre-forward for Hearts’ supporters side Real Maroon, and I believe I went on to ask him the same question in reply. In hindsight though, it was not as unreasonable a question as it would be now; Rovers were then halfway through their fourth season in the Conference and very much a non-league side. It is for this exile that the spirit of Non-League Day will perhaps resonate more, and certainly less patronisingly, amongst Doncaster supporters than any other side in football’s top two tiers.
Though I applaud and fully support the ethos of Non-League Day and its desire to get football supporters to appreciate the necessity of the game at a community level, there is of course a danger of patronisation from those who have only ever experienced football in all-seater stadia, or televised hyperbole. Haha, look that bloke’s brought his dog in… Hohoho the bloke on the gate is about 90 years old… hehehe half the programme has been printed upside down. Thankfully, amongst Rovers fans, thanks to those five years in the Conference the oddities of the non-league game are more often enjoyed with a nostalgic leaning.
Each year Doncaster Rovers existed in the Conference was spent yearning to get out of it. This was not through a sense that we were better than those around us (as the Steve Wignall years certainly prevent that argument), but due primarily to the circumstances which had led us to be there. Having strived for 75 years, surviving bids for re-election along the way, to keep the honour League football in the town one crooked man had taken away that privilege, and so we were striving not necessarily to leave non-league behind, but more to reclaim what we had once had.
Increasingly as Rovers have edged up the football pyramid the game appears to have become increasingly serious, more hard work, and well, less fun. The days of being able to decide to go to a game on a last-minute whim, and of being welcomed into opponent’s social clubs are increasingly distant, despite being only eight years ago. For the last two years I have lived in Worcester, and have relished being able to relive all of the above on the terraces of St Georges Lane in support of Worcester City. It has served a welcome escape from ‘come and get me’ pleas, and talk of people taking clubs as far as they can, being as it is, just football.
I perhaps have a greater affinity than most with the non-league game given that it was on this that I grew up. I was fifteen before I started going to Rovers games regularly, with my football watching appreticeship prior to that having been served around the local football grounds of Yorkshire, Lincolshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire following my dad and Station, latterly Rossington, FC. I trekked around these grounds watching my old man serve as Player-Manager, and then Manager and have fond memories of all those Saturday afternoons.
The epic hailstorm at Nettleham that saw all the players racing for the cover of the small metal stand and its by then deafening rattle. Half the side leaning up against the changing room wall at Heanor Town with glasses to their ear listening to the opponents half-time team talk. The barmy army (ie. first team) rocking the stand at Staveley during the Reserve Cup Final. My dad coming off the bench reluctantly away at Thorne the age of 47, only to ping through a pass for the winning goal. All fond memories, which have ensured a long affinity and appreciation of football at any level, and have meant I did not really have to think twice about where to spend Non-League Day.
The Northern Counties East League Division One Doncastrian Derby between Askern Villa and Rossington Main was, for me, the only place to conceivably be on Saturday. Now back in Doncaster I have seen Rossington twice already this season, a few weeks back I travelled with them to Silsden for an early taste of the Magic of the FA Cup. Despite dominating the second half of that game, Main ultimately went out the Cup, losing the replay to Silsden on penalties three days later. Since then I had seen Main once more, as they pulled Eccleshill United apart at Oxford Street on Tuesday night, winning 3-0 and having been unlucky not to strike more.
Since that midweek victory Main had lost the scorer of their opening goal; village lad Jamie Green having joined Grimsby Town in the days afterwards. Green had spent last season at Rotherham United, but had happily turned out for his home team whilst looking for a new side, even playing for the reserves whilst I was at Silsden so as not to get FA Cup tied. Green is not the first Rossington Main player to join a professional side, with Rovers themselves benefitting from the local side’s productivity on several occasions. David Moss, Gary Jones, Jack Teasdale, Dennis Leiversley, plus legendary figures such as Ken Hardwick and former captain Brian Makepeace all began their careers at Oxford Street.
Home side Askern Villa, known as the much more credible Askern Welfare before a name change three years ago upon their promotion to the NCEL, are a club in a bit of transition. Last season the side were, off the back of gate receipts from a pre-season friendly with Doncaster Rovers, were able to pay appearance money for players, funds which perhaps could’ve been better spent on bringing the Welfare Ground further up to scratch in comparison to other NCEL sides. With that revenue stream having dried up though they, like Main, were now offering players nothing more than a club to play for.
Jamie Green may have departed, but the visitors still looked strong with another player with experience of a higher level in the Main starting line-up; Ben Hunter, previously of US side Richmond Kickers, wearing number nine. Hunter would be busy in the game’s opening half an hour two as he, along with strike partner Liam Charlton and wingers Liam Holmes and Jason Stokes took the game to the hosts. Rossington, continuing where they had left off against Eccleshill in the week, looked much the better side moving the ball quickly in attack to keep Villa pinned back in their own half.
Main thought they had taken the lead inside the opening ten minutes as Stokes got in behind the defence in the left channel and squared for Charlton to turn the ball into the net, but the goal was to be inexplicably ruled out for offside against Charlton who had run from behind Stokes to turn the ball in. A little justice was to be achieved within five minutes though when Main did go ahead; Hunter carrying the ball in from the left before driving it across goal, where Holmes got the telling touch to turn the ball home.
Rossington continued to dominate the opening half an hour, but despite further efforts from Holmes, Hunter and Charlton were unable to turn the pressure into goals and Askern began to find some forward momentum of their own in the run up to half-time with only a flying last-ditch block from the excellent Main defender Shaun Pendleton preventing an equaliser.
In the second half the hard bumpy surface of the Welfare field would prevent both sides from really getting a grip of the game, with much of the play in midfield, though Rossington remained the side more likely to alter the scoreline; Hunter turning his man inside out on the left but his cross just missed his target, and then Charlton escaped through one on one, only to be denied by an excellent save from the Villa keeper Steve Hernandez.
Of course one of the stand-out features of the non-league game can be the often erratic decisions of match officials and referee Paul Tomes would put himself into that bracket late in the second half as within a couple of minutes he managed to miss a painfully blatant pull-back on Hunter as he attempted to carry a through-ball into the area, but was then eagle-eyed enough to spot the milimetere of white cycling short fabric poking beyond the white trim of Main substitute Adam Wisdom’s shorts and ordered him off the field to change them. It’s not everyday you see an angry player getting bollock-naked from the waist down in the technical area whilst the game carries on beside him.
Late in the game Villa pushed for an equaliser, but the closest they would come was a deep cross to the far post in injury time which just evaded their big industrious number 9 and so Rossington held firm to deservedly win the Doncastrian Derby 1-0. A crowd figure of just 56 was given, and though this was up on Villa’s previous two home games the added bodies were there more in support of the visitors than swayed by the pull of Non-League Day.
With the cost of watching Rovers increasing, there is of course no reason why you should only wait until Non-League Day to visit your loal side, and indeed reports from those Rovers fans who spent their afternoon at Armthorpe and Retford respectively all point to an enjoyable couple of hours of local football. Askern are next at home on Tuesday when they host either Emley or Hemsworth in League Cup action, whilst Rossington host Hallam in the FA Vase 1st Qualifying round on Saturday 10th September. I can only encourage you to get along to either or both of these games and remember and enjoy the importance of football’s local league roots.