• Adam Stubbings

Rovers Return: Sir Francis Rises in 2003 Promotion Final

This past Saturday we ran a Retro Rewatch of the 2003 Conference Play-Off Final between Doncaster Rovers and Dagenham & Redbridge. Read on for our review of that historic game, and stay tuned to ITEN in the coming weeks for more ventures into the vault of classic Rovers memories.

The Road To Stoke

It has been called the most significant day in the club’s history, and undoubtedly the catalyst for an unprecedented period of sustained success thereafter. Many around Doncaster Rovers in 2003 felt that it was written in the stars that the decision to open up a second promotion place into the Football League would lead to the “rebirth” of a proud club that had fallen on the hardest of times.

The Nationwide Conference, as the highest level of non-league football in England was then known, was a notoriously competitive league with only the Champions earning a place in the professional Football League. From 2002-03 however, a Play Off system was introduced to allow an additional berth up from the division, and with Rovers developing into one of the stronger sides at the level – they had finished 4th under Dave Penney the previous year, behind runaway top two Boston and Dagenham, and the 2003 Champions Yeovil – the timing felt perfect.

The inaugural post-season tournament had proven a tense one for both Rovers and their fated opponents Dagenham, with a penalty shoot-out required in the two semi-final contests. The Daggers had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat away to Morecambe, who had finished 2nd and boasted the strongest home record in the division, with a late goal earning a draw and leading to a tense spot kick triumph.

Rovers similarly pulled one out of the hat as Tris Whitman’s last-gasp equaliser in the 1st leg at Belle Vue kept an even footing for the return game at Chester’s Deva Stadium, a game which ebbed and flowed before also ending in a 1-1 draw, setting up a shoot-out packed full of drama as Andy Warrington’s goalkeeping heroics sealed a place in the showpiece final at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium.

Barnes Leads From The Front

13,000 fans attended the game at a venue far better suiting the Play Off Final at this level compared to the cavernous Wembley Stadium that is used today, with the majority of those fans backing the Rovers. In a first half notable for the high quality of the general play from both sides – further underlining the difficulty in escaping the Conference during this time period – it was the two oldest players in Dave Penney’s side that led the way.

Jamie Paterson was notorious for his bulldog spirit and propensity for taking a game by the scruff of its neck, buzzing around midfield with trademark confidence reminiscent of a non-league Gazza, and he was in fine form here. Cutting in routinely off the wing, “Patto” crafted several openings and saw a dipping effort of his own well stopped by Daggers keeper Tony Roberts.

Striker Paul Barnes meanwhile was a relentless presence in attack. The 35-year-old had won the Golden Boot this year and showed in this game why he had enjoyed such a stellar Football League career with the likes of York and Burnley. Barnes broke the Daggers’ defensive line time and again, coming closest to scoring with a low shot on the turn after being put through by Ricky Ravenhill, only to be denied by the boot of Roberts – who hurt himself in the process of making the save.

Barnes also worked well as a provider, peeling off into the left channel to beckon runners from deep into the box. Paul Green, at 20 years of age the youngest member of the Rovers side, came close to the opening goal from one of these Barnes runs, the veteran chipping up a delightful ball into the heart of the box but Green could not get behind it.

Rovers Race Ahead

A few minutes later however he was there again, and made no mistake. Tim Ryan did superbly well to control a pass on the left-hand touchline before curling a terrific cross into the box. Green rose higher than everyone to meet it and, although it went goalward off his shoulder rather than his head, it had enough on it to loop over Roberts and into the net to break the deadlock. The youngster was enjoying his first full season as a senior pro and had now capped it off with a goal of some magnitude.

That opener came a few minutes before half time, and was no less than the team in red and white deserved. Dagenham had struggled to cope with the attacking threat of the Rovers and had not been at their best, but had created a few good opportunities. Mark Stein, the veteran former Chelsea striker, had a string of chances including a lob that was held by Warrington and a sniff at goal from a Dave Morley error, but it was John McGrath – who would sign for Rovers soon after this game – who squandered the best shot moments before Green’s goal.

McGrath ran into the box to meet a Tarkan Mustafa cross, but swiped the shot just over the crossbar. He had also factored at the other end earlier in the half, clearing a Steve Foster header off the line at a Rovers corner. That incident would prove a warning sign for the Dagenham defence that went unheeded as the second half got underway, however.

A frenetic start to the second half saw both sides going close, with Andy Warrington having to claw out a free kick delivery with the help of the post, and Jamie Paterson almost getting the better of Roberts in an end-to-end spell. From the resulting corner, towering defender Dave Morley met the set piece from the front corner of the box and it sailed into the net to put Rovers into a commanding 2-0 lead on 55 minutes.

Daggers Claw It Back

Fans behind the goal felt confident now, that fate was on their side. Garry Hill’s side had other plans mind, but had to be alert to prevent the game running away from them completely. Barely minutes after doubling the lead, Rovers were in again as Green fought his way into the area and fed Paterson. His teasing cross put it on a plate for Francis Tierney to finish but he mistimed his header and saw the chance go begging.

Dagenham’s way back into the game came via Route One tactics. A long Roberts goal kick was headed on by big forward Steve West and Stein got goal-side to finish it off and halve the deficit. Again Rovers could have opened the lead further still, Barnes denied once more by the keeper before Tris Whitman fluffed the rebound. Whitman had earned his place in the starting line-up for this one but unfortunately struggled with the occasion, with the Chester goal proving the peak of his career.

Penney attempted to bring new signing on Gregg Blundell – the division’s third top scorer in 2002/03 mostly playing for Northwich – in place of Whitman but couldn’t make the move before the tie was levelled. On 78 minutes, Paul Terry played a delightful through-ball into the box where it was met by marauding full back Mustafa, once a Rovers loanee, and although Tierney almost got a crucial tackle in, it was too late to stop the Tunisian finishing with aplomb to complete the comeback for Dagenham.

Paterson was among the many with tiring legs as the game edged towards Extra Time, and was replaced by Jason Blunt, who had the best of the chances late on but couldn’t connect properly with a Barnes flick-on in injury time. Extra Time would be needed to settle it after a highly entertaining 2-2 stalemate, and for what proved the only time in English history, promotion would have to be decided by the Golden Goal rule…

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

Dubbed the ‘Promotion Goal’ in this instance, the rule was simple enough and added another layer of drama to an already nerve-shredding occasion. 30 minutes would be played as usual in the additional period before penalties were needed, but if anybody scored a goal within that time frame the game would be over and the scoring side declared the winners. Unsurprisingly this made for a tense affair with two sets of fatigued players doing all they could to keep their heads above water.

Destiny is one thing, but usually 6 foot-plus, 17-goal strikers are a safer bet, especially when they are running in on goal to meet a peach of a cross. Steve West had the goal – and promotion – at his mercy from yet another Mustafa delivery, but somehow mistimed his header and skewed it wide in a moment that would have surely sealed victory for Dagenham. It was the closest they would come again.

Gregg Blundell needed treatment soon after following a nasty clash of heads, which left him with blood pouring down his face. This being non-league football in the early 2000s, all this meant was a bandage and a quick dab with a cloth, and he was soon back on the ball and on the attack. Tierney saw a free kick deflected by the wall and Green came mightily close to sealing the win himself, weaving into the area before curling inches wide of the far post in a moment of quality befitting the career he would go on to have.

This day belonged to another man though. Into the second period of Extra Time and with another shoot-out on the horizon, Rovers broke down the left. The bandaged Blundell fed Barnes down the left wing, and he got free to centre a ball along the ground. It felt as if time stood still for everyone in the stadium, everyone that is except Francis Tierney who stole a march on the defence and strode forward to turn it home and win the game, in one moment ending Doncaster Rovers’ five-year exile from the Football League.

Destiny, Fulfilled

The final whistle wasn’t even heard as Rovers fans roared, then streamed onto the pitch. Tierney wheeled away with one arm in the air, an iconic image that will surely still be seen around the club 100 years from now. Tierney, robbed of a move to Liverpool ten years prior due to injury, finally got his day in the sun, the face of a triumph that signalled Rovers were through the dark, dark days of the previous decade which had seen them nearly go out of business altogether.

Fitting as well that Paul Barnes lifted the Bob Lord Trophy alongside manager Dave Penney after the match. Barnes was the key figure in the season and was the best player on the pitch that day at the Britannia, laying on the ball for the winning goal and playing a pivotal role in what was a superb performance by the men in hoops.

A word too for John Ryan, beaming as he was on the field at full time. His vision to return his boyhood club to their seldom-seen glories of the 1950s was now fully in motion, and you would be hard pressed to convince anyone that even that day in 2003 he didn’t see the possibility of seeing Rovers playing Championship football again. Without the heroes of Stoke in 2003, we may never have seen any of the glory that was to follow.

Speaking of those glories, please join us this Sunday (March 29th) for our next Retro Rewatch as we go back to 2007 and enjoy the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final against Bristol Rovers at the Millennium Stadium.