In October 2004 Doncaster Rovers celebrated their 125th birthday. That they were able to do so as a Football League club would not have seemed possible just six years earlier. Doncaster’s relegation to the Conference in 1997-98 a season in which they didn’t win any of their first 20 matches, used 45 players and finished bottom by 15 points was the final chapter in a traumatic saga.
It began in 1993 when Ken Richardson, a businessman whose first venture into sport had led to a ban from the Jockey Club for running a racehorse under a false name, became the club’s major shareholder and later its sole owner. Richardson was never a director of Doncaster Rovers but installed various associates as chairman and ran the team, organizing transfers and hiring managers – the club went through five, plus 12 coaches in his time in charge – and allegedly issuing instructions on just who should play in the starting XI.
Shortly after Richardson’s takeover supporters were surprised to see Belle Vue, the club’s ground since 1920, being offered for sale in the national press, even though it was owned by Doncaster Council on a 99-year lease. Two years later two men were arrested for trying to burn down Belle Vue, and a mobile phone left on the scene by one (an ex-SAS man no-less) would not only identify the men but also link them to the club’s erstwhile owner.
Richardson, who had responded to fans’ criticism by threatening to pull the club out of the league, was arrested in March 1996 and charged with conspiracy to commit arson. He was found guilty three years later, by which time Rovers were still struggling in his legacy at the foot of the Conference. At the club’s next match following Richardson’s sentencing, away at Kettering, the tannoy announcer read out ‘a message from the fans for a Mr Richardson who cannot be here today’ then played ‘Firestarter’ by the Prodigy.
Doncaster Rovers were formed in 1879 when an 18-year-old railway fitter, Albert Jenkins, assembled a team to play a match against the Yorkshire Institute for the Deaf & Dumb. Having ditched their original blue shirts with a yellow St Andrews cross for the traditional red and white, the club entered the FA Cup for the first time in 1888, and joined the Football League in 1901-1902 finishing seventh in Division 2, a feat the club has failed to emulate ever since. Despite this encouraging start league life did not last long and the club lost a re-election vote just a year later. Rovers remained in regional football until 1920, but for one disastrous league season in 1904-05 when they finished at the foot of the table with a record low of just eight points.
The closest Rovers have come to recapturing those heady days of 1902 was during the 1950s. Belle Vue regularly hosted crowds in excess of 20,000 as Rovers completed eight seasons in the second flight under the leadership of Peter Doherty. Even Matt Busby took notice and was set to sign teenage striker Alick Jeffrey, only for the forward to break his leg playing for England under 23s. Not wanting to leave empty handed Busby instead took Northern Ireland international Harry Gregg for £23,000, then a world record for a goalkeeper.
By 1959 successive relegations had dropped Rovers back to the league’s basement, a place to which they would swiftly return again after promotions in 1966 and 1969. In the 1980s Billy Bremner’s side also went up twice, in 1981 and 1984 with the local Snodin brothers Glynn and Ian at its heart. Four years later, with the first team set for another relegation, Doncaster’s youth side made it all the way to the FA Youth Cup final – the lowest place club ever to do so – beating Tottenham and Manchester City before losing to Arsenal. Several players from that team went on to play at a higher level, including defenders Paul Raven (West Brom) and Rufus Brevett (QPR) but Rovers were unable to build on the foundations ahead of the ill-fated Richardson era.
Far from signalling the death of Doncaster Rovers, five years in the non-league Conference helped the club to come back stronger. Investment from chairman John Ryan helped to resurrect what was left of the Rovers and in 2003 Doncaster won the first ever Conference Play-off Final, thanks to a Franny Tierney golden goal in a 3-2 win over Dagenham & Redbridge, to return to the Football League. Return to the professional game was done so emphatically as Rovers, despite being relegation favourites, took the Division Three title to move straight up to the league’s third tier.
The good times continued in 2005 when Dave Penney, manager of the two promotions, took Rovers on an unlikely League Cup run, defeating Manchester City and Aston Villa at Belle Vue to set up a home tie with Arsenal in the quarter-finals. Rovers 2-1 in the final minute of extra-time, only for World Cup winner Gilberto to score a late equaliser and the Gunners triumphed in the subsequent penalty shoot-out.
A year on from that match against Arsenal, Belle Vue hosted its final Rovers game. The worn out and decrepit home of the Rovers for 86 years had undergone a facelift in recent years, but was no longer fit for the purpose of modern football and was laid to rest with a 1-0 victory over former European Cup winners Nottingham Forest, the goal coming from the on loan Theo Streete. Just over a week later, on New Years’ Day 2007, Rovers began life in the new 15,000 community Keepmoat Stadium with a 3-0 win over Huddersfield; Mark McCammon becoming the first player to score in the club’s new home.
After five seasons in League One, which had included silverware in the form of the Johnstones Paint Trophy lifted at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Rovers needed just victory on the final day of the 2007-2008 season to ensure promotion to the league’s second tier.Their opponents Cheltenham also needed victory to avoid relegation, and in an epic match at Whaddon Road it was the home side who triumphed forcing Rovers into the play-offs. An emphatic 5-1 victory over Southend set up an all Yorkshire final with the more illustrious Leeds United Rovers opponents at Wembley. Although written off by many Rovers recorded a deserved victory as James Hayter’s diving header proved enough to earn promotion.
And so 2008-09 represented Rovers’ first season inside the league’s top two divisions for more than half a century. After a poor start Rovers were rock bottom at Christmas, however a fantastic 4-2 Boxing Day win away at Nottingham Forest galvanised the side and by the time they next lost in February they had risen to 14th in the table where they would eventually finish. In the following season Rovers would fair even better, wtill in with a chance of the play-offs in April Doncaster ended the season 12th, their second highest league finish of all time, to ensure a third successive Championship season in 2010-11.