• Adam Stubbings

Lee, By Example: Rovers Triumph in Trophy Final

This past Sunday we ran a Retro Rewatch of the 2007 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final between Doncaster Rovers and Bristol Rovers. Read on for our review of that game and stay tuned to ITEN in the coming weeks for more ventures into the vault of classic Rovers memories.

A Picturesque Showpiece

Football is at its purist when things are simplified. Two teams facing off to win a trophy is enough of a pull for many, without any overriding financial implications or added incentives around promotion. The Football League Trophy, or Associate Members' Cup, better known by whatever sponsor has put its brand to it each year, is quite a simple competition (or was, before the addition of U23 sides a few years ago) existing primarily to give clubs in the lower two tiers of the EFL a chance to compete for a cup honour each season.

In 2006-07, it was Rovers who came through the Northern half of the competition, now named the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, besting Crewe Alexandra in a pulsating, back-and-forth two-legged tie. Out of the Southern section, Bristol Rovers advanced with a memorable victory in the Area Final over bitter rivals Bristol City to set up a clash of sides in separate divisions. Clubs who were opposites in many ways at the time but who were both on an upward trajectory.

The match-up was a strong one, but the occasion would add another layer of grandeur to this otherwise humble tournament finale. The venue, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, is one of the most impressive arenas in the country and can foster an atmosphere like few others in sport. Its relatively close proximity to Bristol meant the Gas brought 40,000 fans to the game, with 20,000 Rovers faithful flocking south from Yorkshire. Lastly, the weather held up its end of the bargain with a gloriously sunny spring day making for a picturesque afternoon in all respects.

A Flying Start

If Rovers fans had enjoyed their day up to kick off, they must’ve been in rapture a few minutes into the game. A high ball forward was knocked down by Jonathan Forte to Jason Price, who punted the ball into the penalty area – possibly trying a speculative shot – which Paul Heffernan made sure he got to first. His brave touch ahead of goalkeeper Steve Phillips and Chris Carruthers put the ball into the path of Forte, who had sprinted into the box clear of the Bristol backline to fire in and open the scoring after only 49 seconds.

Sean O’Driscoll’s side had made the perfect start, but they weren’t done yet. Four minutes on the clock, there didn’t appear to be much danger as Neil Sullivan claimed a cross and went down to the turf to regroup. As the players set themselves, the veteran keeper looked downfield and launched a missile of a kick which sailed over the entire outfield of both sides. Heffernan was onto it though, breaking through the back four to latch onto the ball in one ruthless motion. The ball bounced once outside the box and as gravity brought it back down again, the forward struck true with his left foot past Phillips to double the lead.

Less than five minutes in and Donny were in dreamland. Things could not have gone any better, and much was owed to the endeavour and clinical touch of Heffernan. Paul Trollope’s side had to respond and did, bossing much of the play for the next half an hour. A couple of half-hearted penalty shouts went by, as did two chances for Lewis Haldane and a pair of fierce shots off the boot of future England striker Rickie Lambert, but Sullivan was equal to them and at half time, the 2-0 lead remained intact.

A Deserved Comeback

Bristol had shown their capabilities in flashes in that opening 45 minutes without finding a way through, and would need too step up another gear if they were to salvage the game. However, it was Rovers who nearly put the game out of sight just after the restart as midfielder Brian Stock put a peach of a cross in at a short corner routine, only for Jason Price to skew his header well wide.

Instead it was Bristol who came back into it courtesy of a penalty moments later. A left-wing run saw the ball centred with Sammy Igoe racing in to finish it off. Igoe was dragged down by left back Sean McDaid, helped by a tug of the shirt, and referee Graham Laws pointed to the spot. Striker Richard Walker despatched the penalty although Sullivan got a hand to it, and suddenly the momentum was with the boys in blue and white.

Things soon went from bad to worse for Rovers as Price fell innocuously and aggravated an existing Achilles injury, requiring a stretcher. Sean Thornton came on in his place but O’Driscoll’s attempts to shore things up didn’t work well enough, and soon the game was level. Lambert got his head on a long free kick, Walker beat Sullivan to a deflection to loft it into the middle and Igoe confidently slammed the ball in to make it all square. Rovers had thrown a comfortable lead in the bin through lack of concentration, not for the first time in a final.

A Resurgent Rovers

Now the Reds were hanging on. Haldane nearly topped off an excellent display with a high quality goal, flicking the ball over Thornton and around Stock before firing wide, Sullivan was then called upon again, needing quick reflexes to keep out efforts from Lambert and Igoe. Walker headed over from a great Aaron Lescott cross, but Bristol looked the more likely scorers until the last ten minutes of normal time.

As legs tired and tension rose, Rovers started to show their League One superiority and could have won it a couple of times. Heffernan put a chance wide in front of goal and Paul Green, having a surprisingly quiet game, could only plant a header into the ground at the keeper’s feet when well placed at a corner. Heffernan, easily the best goal threat on the pitch, had the headlines in his sights deep into stoppage time when clean through on goal, but his left-footed strike whistled agonisingly past the post and Extra Time beckoned instead.

No Golden Goal in effect here like there was at Stoke in 2003, but the nervousness amongst the players was just as evident. Both sides created chances into the additional 30 minutes, but nobody managed a clear cut opportunity. Green had the best of Rovers’ shots, forcing a fingertip save out of Phillips after going through from James Coppinger’s cutting ball into the box, whilst substitute Andy Sandell slipped looking to convert a Steve Elliott knockdown. With time ticking away, it was going to take a moment of individual decisiveness to settle this one.

A Captain Leads The Way

Bristol’s players appeared to be slowing visibly by the second half of Extra Time, and Rovers looked to use this to their advantage by pressing their position into the attacking third more often. Lagging a bit themselves, finding an opening was proving hard to come by, that was until a cross from Coppinger went behind for a corner. Set pieces are always a bit more about desire than unpredictability once you take away the tactical elements of a routine, and desire is something one man in particular amongst the Rovers team this day has never been short of.

Graeme Lee was the classic example of a centre half, calm and composed but strong on the ball and as a leader. In the mould of the likes of Tony Adams and Gareth Southgate, Lee was always someone to rely upon when fit, and had had a strong game in the Welsh sunshine competing against the imposing Lambert and busy Walker. Now looking to find a way through in attack at Sean Thornton’s corner, Lee was up against opposing centre half Craig Hinton.

Thornton’s delivery was right into the danger area, and Lee made sure to create half a yard of separation to Hinton in front of him as the ball came towards him. Pushing off, he got the space to put his full power behind a bullet header and send the ball flying into the goal, Steve Phillips helpless, and seal a famous win for Doncaster Rovers. It was a moment that typified Lee and marked another important step on the journey from ashes to glory that the club enjoyed throughout the 2000s.

A Destiny In Motion

Lee was appropriately the man who lifted the sizeable trophy on the podium at the end of the game, as the 20,000 strong Rovers following enjoyed another achievement thought unthinkable just a few years prior. John Ryan beamed on camera again having witnessed the next stage of his ambitious plan to restore his boyhood club to prominence realised. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy may not be the most prestigious in the English game, but winning it signalled another step in the evolution of the club and set this O’Driscoll-led incarnation of Doncaster Rovers on the platform to even greater success.

It was a bitter day for Trollope and his Bristol Rovers side, but the season would not be remembered for this disappointment. They ended the campaign at the brand new Wembley Stadium, defeating Shrewsbury to win promotion to League One after several years toiling at the back end of the fourth tier. Now it was time for Rovers to look to their success and plan for their own trip to the capital…

Join us next weekend as we begin a two-part Retro Rewatch of that very success by going back to May 2008 and arguably the finest night in the history of the Keepmoat Stadium.