A Look Back at Rovers' Magical FA Cup Run
This weekend sees the return of the FA Cup for another year, and Doncaster Rovers will be dreaming of emulating their terrific run through to the 5th Round last season.
Although it is a rather uninspiring tie on paper, Rovers’ trip to AFC Wimbledon on Saturday will have both sides hoping they can embark on another memorable and lucrative journey through the oldest national cup competition in the world, having matched each other in getting all the way to the last 16 as the lowest ranked sides left in 2018/19.
To warm us up for that encounter, here’s a quick look back at that superb run for Grant McCann’s side.
Kane halts Chorley upset before May silences minnows
On Remembrance Sunday, Rovers headed west to National North side Chorley for what proved to be a classic early-round FA Cup tie. Grant McCann named a full-strength side to show he wasn’t taking the non-league side lightly, but any notion of that was out the window inside two minutes anyway as Josh O’Keefe headed the home side in front from a corner. The lead lasted only minutes before Herbie Kane poked in an equaliser after a shot from John Marquis was saved, but Rovers never had it all their own way on a difficult Victory Park pitch.
Chorley went in at half time back in front after a lovely left-footed volley from the edge of the area by defender Courtney Meppen-Walter, who unfortunately is better known for causing the deaths of two people whilst driving recklessly and was caught drink-driving just a month after this tie. Rovers did have chances, including a Mallik Wilks effort that struck the post after he struggled to get a clean shot off on the muddy pitch, as well as a goal for James Coppinger ruled out for offside.
For much of a game that McCann’s team dominated, it seemed as though Rovers would be the victims of a giant-killing and the mood turned sour just past the hour when goalscorer Kane was the victim of a disgraceful lunging challenge by Matt Challoner. The right-back was sent off for the potential leg-breaker but referee Ross Joyce bizarrely awarded a free kick despite the foul coming clearly inside the penalty area. Kane though had the last word as his brilliant curling effort into the top corner from distance earned Rovers a 2-2 draw and a replay back at the Keepmoat.
That tie was barely a contest at all compared to the first, with Chorley unable to live with a determined Rovers playing back on their own expansive pitch. Kane was imperious again, sending a lofted ball over for Alfie May to open the scoring after a lovely take and finish. Matty Blair then headed in at the back post to double the lead before Kane ended the tie as a contest with a first-time hit from 25 yards.
By half time, it was over and Alfie May had a hat trick, making it 4-0 by finishing off a superb bit of passing interplay on his left before tucking in a rebound from a well saved Andy Butler prod. Some semblance of a wobble came in the second half when Tom Anderson was harshly sent off for slipping and dragging down a Chorley player behind the halfway line, earning a second yellow, before Marquis saw a penalty saved after being felled by the keeper himself.
In truth it was one of the striker’s better dead ball efforts but it mattered not, as May tucked away his fourth of the game and Marquis got on the scoresheet himself with a brilliant curling effort reminiscent of Kane’s equaliser in the first game, rounding off a 7-0 win to send Rovers into the 2nd Round.
Charlton fall in tepid Valley clash
Their reward for seeing off Chorley was a trip to fellow League One Play-Off chasers Charlton Athletic. Lee Bowyer’s side looked almost nothing like the one that went on to send Rovers out of the post-season in agonising fashion, with only four players who featured in this December cup tie playing in the more famous fixture in May. It showed as a strong Rovers team continued what ended up being an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions with a routine 2-0 win.
Made to wait for the breakthrough, the visitors got it in the 66th minute when a floated Danny Andrew corner was met by the head of Andy Butler, who towered over his marker to send the ball goalwards and eventually in off the chest of Addicks’ midfielder Mark Marshall. Butler would score again with his head on this ground to take the Play-Off tie into Extra Time months later, a moment that will likely live forever in the minds of the Rovers fans who were there that night.
On this day however, the defender’s efforts helped ensure progression in the FA Cup and he played his part again for the second which sealed the win. Again it was Andrew, delivering a free kick from the right side this time, who found Butler unmarked at the back corner of the six-yard box. His looping header was practically in the net before John Marquis stuck his forehead on it to make sure it went in, and 2-0 it remained despite the best efforts of the home side.
Headed goals from Butler and Marquis, a victory for McCann’s charges at The Valley and, unlike the repeat of these circumstances in May, Rovers advancing to the next stage.
Wilks tears Preston apart
Round 3 saw Rovers made true underdogs for the first time in the campaign, handed a tough away assignment at Championship outfit Preston. Alex Neil’s side are currently 2nd in the Championship but weren’t quite as formidable here, as Rovers proved in a terrific, disciplined display. John Marquis set the stall out with a headed goal after just five minutes, rising to put home Matty Blair’s cross after an excellent pacey run down the right flank.
Mallik Wilks then turned on the style, pulling Preston’s defence in every direction. He was unlucky not to double the lead with a first-time curling effort that just went past the post, before coming even closer early in the second half. Marquis pounced on a slack backpass from Jordan Storey, with Wilks then rounding the keeper before hitting the side netting from a tight angle.
Rovers paid for that miss soon after though when Andy Hughes, who had hit the post in the first half, rose to head in the equaliser from Paul Gallagher’s whipped corner although he may have fouled Butler in doing so. It took great fortitude to bounce back from that set-back but bounce back we did, Tom Anderson stretching to turn in Butler’s header after a great reflex save initially from keeper Michael Crowe.
Ian Lawlor then kept Rovers ahead with a superb save from Alan Browne’s close-range header, following up on a similar diving stop in the previous round, before Wilks sealed a 3-1 win late on by getting on the end of James Coppinger’s punt forward, beating two defenders and the goalkeeper to bring it down and slide into an empty net. Although it isn’t the most talked-about tie of the run, this was probably Rovers’ best 90 minute performance.
Whiteman downs eternal FA Cup foes Oldham
A first run to the 4th Round since 2010 had Rovers fans dreaming of the big guns. Would it be Liverpool? Everton? Manchesters City or United? No, of course not. We had to this point avoided eternal cup rivals Oldham Athletic so of course the draw contrived to pair us with the Latics again, meaning a fourth meeting in only seven seasons in the FA Cup. Don’t rule it out again this year as well, how else will we have our annual meeting with a side that are now struggling in League Two?
The obvious upside was that this was a winnable tie at home, meaning Rovers went in as clear favourites. As is the norm though, nothing is ever easy and Rovers failed to break the deadlock in a first half that they largely had control of, although it wasn’t for the want of trying. James Coppinger was denied a beautiful goal on the volley by a great save from Daniel Iversen, who was superb throughout in the Oldham goal and is now at Rotherham.
Then, Alfie May played John Marquis in expertly but the striker’s scuffed effort was brilliantly cleared off the line by Peter Clarke. Clarke would play a huge role in the game later on, but first it was Iversen to the rescue again, diving full length to deny Kieran Sadlier a debut goal after a truly great run and shot from off the left flank. It took until the 68th minute for Rovers to break the Oldham resistance, but when they did the game came to life.
May stormed down the left wing before turning back and laying off to Herbie Kane. He found Whiteman on the edge of the box and his trademark side-footed shot flew into the goal with a slice of luck, deflecting off Clarke to beat Iversen as the rain came down over Lakeside. Oldham came again though, first hitting the post through Chris Missilou before levelling six minutes from time. Luck fell at the feet of Clarke this time as he found himself unmarked in front of goal after a free kick had deflected into his path and he slotted home.
The drama however was far from over, and Clarke was to play a huge part once again. At an injury-time corner for Rovers, defender George Edmundson hit his own crossbar before Clarke rose like Superman to punch clear the rebound, conceding a penalty only awarded on the intervention of the assistant referee. Whiteman sent Iversen the wrong way from the spot to win the game for Rovers and spark wild scenes at the Keepmoat.
That moment of madness from Clarke manifested into anger as the seconds ticked away, and Clarke was sent off for elbowing goalkeeper Marko Marosi in the back as he made a routine catch at the death. In the end it was Donny’s day as Whiteman’s double sealed a place in the 5th Round of the FA Cup for the first time in 63 tears.
Rovers below par as Palace end the run
The hope for the last 16 draw was a tie against a Premier League side, preferably at home and live on TV to give the club a well-deserved day in the sun, and that’s what we got as Alex Scott pulled out Rovers and Ian Wright picked his former side, Crystal Palace. BBC selected the game to be shown live and so a great day was in store, whatever the result.
Unfortunately, Rovers struggled to get out of the blocks against Roy Hodgson’s charges and although star player Wilfried Zaha was left out, the Eagles still brought a strong side to the Keepmoat and it showed. Jeff Schlupp took the wind out of the sails after only eight minutes, shaking off the challenge of May to drill into the far corner and open the scoring, with a hint of a deflection off the foot of Paul Downing stood right in front of him.
It was a poor first half from McCann’s men and Downing was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a trailing arm at a cutback from Patrick van Aanholt, but it was 2-0 before the break anyway when the defence suffered a concentration lapse and Max Meyer stooped to head in from close range from Andros Townsend’s nod across the face of goal.
A much better second half followed for Rovers, kicking towards the packed-out home end, but it was to no avail. Ben Whiteman forced a save out of Wayne Hennessey with a swerving effort before May headed over from close range at a difficult angle, Herbie Kane also forced Hennessey into a smart stop from outside the area as did Kieran Sadlier, but as much as the endeavour was admirable, the creativity was lacking on this day and so Rovers bowed out after a historic and enjoyable FA Cup run.
Same again this year?
Rovers faced five teams from five different divisions last season and would surely love to get the chance to do it all over again. This weekend’s game at Wimbledon is a winnable tie against a struggling League One side, but Kingsmeadow is a ground that Rovers have not fared well at in recent years and it will surely be a tough afternoon. The Dons are also hoping for a repeat of success having thrashed West Ham on their way to a 5th Round defeat to Millwall a day before that fateful Palace tie.
Grant McCann’s Doncaster Rovers feel like a fleeting moment in time now. One solitary season in which McCann led a fearless group of players to the brink of glory, but ultimately came up short before the club had to build again in a new image. In years to come, games like the ones detailed here are the ones that Rovers fans will surely remember most fondly from this brief period in our long and storied history.