• Adam Stubbings

Dramatic Finish Seals League One Title For Rovers

Seven years ago today, James Coppinger put the ball “into the empty net” to cap a remarkable sequence of events that won Doncaster Rovers the League One championship. Following our Retro Rewatch of that fateful game yesterday, here is our review of one of the most memorable days in club history.

Photo Finish

Although it has been a turbulent one for Rovers, the 2012/13 campaign brought the club and its fans back together and threw back to times past with a team ready to run through walls for the cause and relentlessly pursue an immediate return to the second tier. Dean Saunders pulled together an experienced, committed squad on very short notice at the start of the campaign and his successor Brian Flynn, ably assisted by team captain and defensive mountain Rob Jones, carried that impetus forward after Saunders’ departure mid-season.

Rovers found themselves at the top of the table as the final week of the season approached, building their promotion push on the back of record-breaking away form that saw them rack up 14 wins from 22 games on the road in League One. Fortunes at the Keepmoat were not as strong though, and a 1-0 defeat at home to Notts County in the penultimate game poured cold water on hopes Flynn and his charges would secure their place in the Championship with a game to spare.

The fixture list threw up a potential storybook ending, as it often does, in pitting Rovers against promotion rivals Brentford on the final day. Bournemouth had gone top of the table due to Rovers’ slip-up and so the title seemed unlikely now, if not impossible. That meant a scrap for 2nd spot, with Brentford two points back in third and knowing that victory would guarantee glory and consign Rovers to the Play Offs. It helped the mood at Griffin Park that they boasted the best home record in the division, meaning a mammoth clash for supremacy.

Nerves Never Settled

Tension cast itself like a veil of anxiety right over West London that day despite a gloriously sunny and warm disposition to the weather making for a party atmosphere. If so much wasn’t on the line, it would have been a jolly old knees-up for both sets of supporters. As it was, breath had to be held for several hours as the two teams took to the turf to do battle, and that overwhelming tension clearly found its way to the players as well as the fans in attendance.

The game was one devoid of any real quality in general play, but an early spate of chances for both sides threatened to punctuate the nervous atmosphere. First, David Cotterill flashed an effort past the post with the outside of his boot from the edge of the area. Then, Brentford came as close as they perhaps would all afternoon, Bradley Wright-Phillips breaking through defence and shooting across goal. His effort had enough to beat 43-year-old keeper Neil Sullivan but not the upright, and the ball bounced away to safety to keep the score goalless.

An opening 45 minutes that looked to have sprung to life quietened down again, with Rovers breaking up the rhythm of the home side with a series of fouls. This team would go down as one of the most battling in Rovers’ 140 year history, and this game is ample evidence of why. Just as they had in the first few minutes, both sides did come alive again near half time, with Clayton Donaldson denied by the outstretched leg of Rob Jones and both Cotterill and James Coppinger bringing good low saves out of Bees stopper Simon Moore.

Fine Margins

Still deadlocked into the second half, the biggest story so far seemed to be the growing desperation of Brentford’s players and fans to find a breakthrough. A bitty 0-0 would suit Rovers since it would be enough to claim 2nd place and promotion, so the home side were feeling every slowly taken free kick or refereeing decision like it meant life or death. Rovers have never prided themselves on being an underhanded team but this sort of game management was something alien to fans in the O’Driscoll years.

Brentford’s mood was not helped in the first few minutes after the interval, as Donaldson clattered into Neil Sullivan late when challenging for a high ball, before Wright-Phillips was penalised for diving over the leg of McCombe in the area. Wright-Phillips in particular had been displaying petulance to referee Michael Oliver when decisions went against him so perhaps made a rod for his own back on this one, although there didn’t look to be much contact.

The Londoners’ ire soon turned on their own as midfielder Jonathan Douglas, who played for Leeds in Rovers’ Wembley triumph five years earlier, ran onto a botched clearance only to get his effort so wrong that it flew over the roof of the stand behind the goal. The green-clad defence stood firm, with multiple players putting their bodies on the line to keep the home side at bay. Jones led the charge, but he had ample support from the likes of Paul Quinn and Dean Furman as Flynn’s side defended as if their lives depended on it.

Turning Points

Into the last quarter of an hour, both sides made a change that would impact the finale. Bees boss Uwe Rosler rolled the dice by withdrawing Douglas to bring on an extra attacker, Italian loanee Marcello Trotta, whilst Flynn brought Billy Paynter on up front to hold the ball up, in place of the terrier-like Iain Hume. The changes initially benefitted Brentford as they attacked again, with Harlee Dean on the end of a set piece that Sullivan got behind and Adam Forshaw skewing an effort high and wide from the edge of the box.

Rovers had made sure they focused on defence-first for most of the second half but found their second wind in attack as the seconds ticked by. Brentford’s commitment to attack left them exposed down the flanks, and Cotts and Copps took advantage. First, the Welsh wizard robbed the ball of Jake Bidwell and made a beeline for goal, sending a teasing low ball across the six yard box which nobody got on the end of, before Coppinger twisted and turned his way into the danger area in trademark fashion before squaring for Paynter, but the substitute could only fire into the side netting when well placed.

Five minutes of injury time were added, and for much of them Rovers were in control, keeping the ball over halfway and frustrating the exasperated home side. But then the ball broke for Brentford and Donaldson popped it up into the centre of the box. McCombe tried to get to it but either a high foot or a handball was adjudged by the referee and he pointed to the penalty spot. One minute left of a 46 game season and suddenly it was all on the line.

The Highest of High Drama

Rovers looked doomed. The fans stood in disbelief at the other end of the stadium, players sank to their knees and Billy Paynter even sat by the dugout, convinced their efforts were for nothing. Brentford’s designated penalty taker was club legend Kevin O’Connor, who had been with the club for nearly 20 years and was an expert from 12 yards…but no one had banked on Trotta. The young Italian, who had notched six goals on loan from Fulham that season, snatched the ball out of O’Connor’s hands and put the ball down himself, with glory in his eyes.

He was made to wait to take the penalty, as Neil Sullivan protested to the referee and got a yellow card for his trouble, then 12 and a half thousand people held their breath. Trotta took a long run up and smashed the ball as hard as he could, straight off the crossbar. Sullivan was beaten, Brentford looked for all the world like they were going up, but the ball cannoned back off the woodwork and after a hellacious scramble in the area, Paul Quinn stabbed the ball away to safety.

In fact, he had cleared it straight to Billy Paynter by the dugout, and the big striker sprang into action. He raced forward with the ball uncontested, and as he approached the Brentford area and keeper Simon Moore, saw the run of one James Coppinger to his left. He squared it perfectly, beating the keeper, and Coppinger turned the ball home in front of a delirious away end to seal one of the most remarkable wins in football history.

18 Seconds to Immortality

From certain defeat to glorious victory, Rovers had pulled off the ultimate Houdini act on the football field. Trotta hit the ball exactly eighteen seconds before the ball was in the back of his own team’s net, something that if written in a book would be denounced as far-fetched. The beautiful game had thrown up an incredible moment in time, one that will live forever as the most dramatic ever seen at Doncaster Rovers.

As fans went mental behind the goal and the Rovers players and staff celebrated wildly on the pitch, news filtered through that Bournemouth had only drawn with Tranmere, adding a cherry on top of the promotion by confirming the League One title was coming to Doncaster. Eddie Howe’s side had kicked up a fuss about not being allowed a trophy presentation at Tranmere, so it was oh so sweet to deny them even winning it in such dramatic fashion.

Coppinger found himself on the national news that evening, as the country marvelled at the incredible finale. In a season almost defined by Rovers’ ability to eek out victories at the death, success had hinged on one of extreme emotion right at the very last moment of a long campaign. Although these two sides would pass each other the following season, Rovers will always be able to say they won out in arguably the best finish to a game in English football history.