• Adam Stubbings

Rovers Live Wembley Dream As Hayter Downs Leeds

This past Sunday we ran a Retro Rewatch of the 2008 Play Off Final between Doncaster Rovers and Leeds United at Wembley. 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.

The Final Promise

John Ryan laid out a clutch of ambitions he held for Doncaster Rovers during his initial years at the helm. Having saved the club from certain extinction in 1998, Ryan was first tasked with restoring them to the Football League. He followed through with that promise in 2003. He promised a long-awaited new stadium would finally be built to replace the dilapidated Belle Vue, and a shiny all-seater venue at Lakeside was opened in 2007, named the Keepmoat Stadium.

A few months after that, Rovers won the Football League Trophy Final under new manager Sean O’Driscoll, fulfilling Ryan’s aim to see the club lift a major cup trophy. That left only one promise to see into reality and it was a big one. At a glamorous – for Doncaster – event held at the Dome in the summer of 2007, John Ryan termed this last lofty goal “Destination Championship” and remarkably, considering the starting point he found himself in with the club almost a decade earlier, it looked an achievable goal in the years to come.

Under the guidance of O’Driscoll, Rovers were turning into quite a team. Garnering a reputation for pretty, flowing football, the red and white hoops were lighting up League One and came oh so close to automatic promotion in 2007-08, only to see their hopes dashed with a last-day defeat at Cheltenham. That meant the Play Offs, and as we saw in last week’s Retro Rewatch, Rovers blitzed past Southend thanks in part to a magical hat trick from James Coppinger.

Another Fast Start

The 5-1 semi-final win set up a tantalising showdown with Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, the once mighty Kings of England who had fallen on extremely hard times. Leeds, managed by former midfielder Gary McAllister, had fought back from a 15 point deduction at the start of the season to reach the top six and booked their place at Wembley courtesy of a last-gasp goal from hometown boy Jonny Howson against unfancied Carlisle.

This was the first trip to Wembley – old or new – for Rovers in their near 130 year existence, contrasting Leeds and their many trips to the National Stadium in their illustrious history. However, it was Rovers who started the brighter, mimicking the relentless pursuit of victory seen in the Southend game and a year prior against Bristol Rovers in the FL Trophy showpiece, a hallmark of Sean O’Driscoll’s philosophy to hit early and control the game.

The perceived underdogs fashioned good opportunities twice in the early going, one the product of a fine passing move and the other a mark of individual skill. First, Jason Price fired just over the crossbar at the near post after being set up by Paul Green, who ran on to a lovely ball by captain Brian Stock to the byline. Richie Wellens, completing the midfield trio but playing despite needing a double hernia operation, then weaved his way into the area and shot into the side-netting from a tight angle, although he did have team mates square.

Ankergren Rescues Leeds

Rovers continued to enjoy plenty of space in the attacking third, and began to break the defensive line. The first to do so was Coppinger, ghosting through Leeds’s rear-guard and looking to shoot before Danish keeper Casper Ankergren lunged at his feet to claw it away to safety. Next, Rovers’ frontmen combined as Price popped up a ball over the top for James Hayter to run onto, and he was almost round the goalie with the net at his mercy before Ankergren stretched a long arm out to deny him.

Ankergren rushed out to deny Hayter a second time with his feet moments later, after the wily forward had tricked his way past two defenders, and barely ten minutes in it was all Rovers. They had done everything but score, but the game would have to settle down into a more even rhythm from there and Leeds began to find their feet. Their talisman up top was Jermaine Beckford, and he would be the first to test Neil Sullivan in the Rovers goal, getting a low effort on target after a misplaced pass out of defence by Sam Hird.

Beckford continued to be the main threat for Leeds, denied by Sullivan again and robbed of the ball at the last second by James O’Connor at the end of one attacking sequence. Close to half time, Hayter proved the dangerman for Rovers once more, with a turn-and-shot just over having found a bit of space outside the box and another run at Ankergren seeing the big Dane coming out on top. That battle was about to take centre stage in the second half.

Lift Off For Rovers

Both sides had ended the opening 45 strongly, and Leeds arguably came closest to an opener with a curling effort from Howson whistling inches over the bar on half time. The moment proved enough of a warning for Rovers, who came forward immediately from the kick off for the second half, winning a free kick 20 yards out for a foul on Brian Stock. Although the set piece came back off the wall, a follow-up from Wellens deflected behind for a corner.

Time seemed to stand still as Stock lined up his delivery. Hayter, yet to factor at a set piece but a constant menace to the Leeds defence, edged back into space away from his marker and as Stock’s out-swinging corner reached the box, launched himself at the ball from bang on the penalty spot. The header powered between Ankergren and the defender on the post, into the back of the net to break the deadlock emphatically.

In a now iconic image, Hayter wheeled away to the corner where Stock had taken the set piece and the Rovers fans were stood enraptured, leaping into the air with pure joy on his face. Sean O’Driscoll was perhaps the only person on the Rovers side of things not allowing himself to get carried away in the moment, knowing full well that there was still a long way to go with almost the entire second half still to play.

Holding Firm

As was to become a familiar site for Rovers fans in the years to follow, grabbing a precious lead meant a tactical switch to try and protect that lead and contain a dangerous opponent. Leeds were certainly dangerous, continuing to threaten through their chief attacking instigators, Beckford and Howson. The young midfielder does well to get a shot off through a crowd of players, deflected behind by Mills, whilst Beckford again tests Sullivan with a first-time effort on the run.

Rovers seemed content to put trust in their back line, and with good reason. Mills and Hird marshalled the box consistently whilst Roberts and O’Connor patrolled the flanks, with Sullivan tying it all together at the heart with a career performance against his former team. Bradley Johnson put a fierce effort high and wide before Jonathan Douglas got back to pull off a make-or-break tackle on Coppinger streaking clear on goal at the other end.

Sullivan showed his mettle again as time ticked down, snatching the ball out of the air ahead a group of at least seven players before narrowing a shooting angle on Beckford enough for O’Connor to make another great block. Douglas came as close as anyone to an equaliser with a shot whistling just past the post when well placed with the ball sitting up for him in space, but the attacks from Leeds were feeling more and more desperate and they were not able to find a way past Sullivan.

Living The Dream

Sullivan’s calm presence, getting to everything and staying composed whilst doing so, was an invaluable asset in those final minutes. Rovers didn’t fashion another clear-cut opportunity on goal but they didn’t need to, managing to do enough to frustrate Leeds and complete John Ryan’s final ambition. The man himself was a picture of relief and happiness on the pitch at full time, with the players in true party mode having achieved the seemingly impossible.

Five years on from climbing back into the league, Rovers were heading for the comparative riches of the Championship. Increasingly filled with big ex-Premier League teams, fans could now look forward to high profile visits to Birmingham, Derby and Crystal Palace, as well as big local derbies against Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Barnsley. Written off at every turn, Ryan and his Rovers had made good on every promise made and they had done it in style.

This was Sean O’Driscoll’s vision at its peak. A team completely in tune with one another from back to front, full of technical skill and a total belief in their ability to get the better of anyone put in front of them. Good times were to follow for a while in the Championship, but for now there was no more satisfying an achievement than to beat the once famous Leeds on the grand stage.