The Greatest Day
Today is the day of my final university assignment deadline for the academic year. I have been so wrapped up in this that I completely forgot the massive significance of this date in the calendar leading up to it as a result.
You see, today is the anniversary of a day that will live with me (and many of you) until the dying day.
Saturday 27th April, 2013.
On that day, Doncaster Rovers travelled to London to face Brentford in a promotion face-off. Win or draw and a place in the Championship was ours…but lose, and the Bees would go above us to take that last spot at our expense. Dramatic enough going in, but what would happen during the course of the match made it so that ‘drama’ wasn’t even close to being a good enough word to describe events.
I travelled down via train that day with my father, a man who has seen Rovers through the thickest and thinnest of times. The Rovers bug is truly in the family. My Grandad was in his youth a photographer at the club and was one of the first people to be involved in filming matches at Belle Vue, sat up in that tiny gantry perched on top of the Popular Stand before embarking on a career in the RAF, and his father was also a lifelong fan, unfortunately passing away at the old ground immediately following a match a few decades ago. My dad all but stopped going during the Richardson days but, after we moved to a new house 10 minutes from Belle Vue in the summer of 1999, he decided to start going regularly again, with Richardson gone and the distance much shorter to attend.
He got himself ready to go on the opening day of the 1999/2000 season, the 7th of August if I remember rightly, and was on his way out until I ran up to him and asked if I could join him. For what reason I’ve no idea to be honest, because I was six years old, and had never seen a game of football in my life, but I was curious. So off we went and a few hours later I was hooked in for life. Down 2-1 at the break, the Rovers rallied to defeat Forest Green 3-2 and I loved every minute, even if I did need to ask at the start which team was ours – this wasn’t helped by the fact we played in all white and our opponents played in black and white stripes – and though I had no real idea what I was signing up for.
Since that day things have obviously been pretty bloody good at our little football club. Four promotions, one cup win and no less than three days out in major finals, all of them victories for the men in red. Travelling down to London that day in 2013 was just the latest in a succession of exciting games we have been lucky enough to experience in the past 13 years. Me and my friend James, who also came down with us on the train, represent that younger generation that really has only ever had it good watching Rovers.
My train tickets from that day stay in my wallet, even now. The top one is at the front and has all but faded away completely. You can still faintly make out ‘DONCASTER’ to ‘LONDON KINGS X’ on it though.
“You’re about to witness something extraordinary”
It was truly a glorious day for a football match, and the venue couldn’t have been better really. Pubs on every corner of the ground, blazing sunshine and a carnival atmosphere as two teams went for glory, it was the sort of setting you would write into a film. We stood on tables to applaud in the team coach outside one of the corner pubs, and met up with long-suffering Rovers fanatics Guy and John, friends of my father who we drove with up and down the country watching Rovers play at such illustrious venues as Hartsdown Park in Margate and Bowers Fold, where the rain poured on and off the pitch and we lost 1-0 in a league fixture to Stalybridge Celtic. How times change.
The match itself was a cagey affair, as is to be expected when both teams dare not make a mistake in pursuit of promotion. My memory of the actual match is sketchy to say the least purely because of what came at the end, but I distinctly remember the feeling of anticipation, nervousness, dread and excitement all rolled into one as it wore on. Truthfully I had a good feeling about the outcome all day long. After all we only needed a point and as soon as the game kicked off, the scoreline suited us. You may not believe me, but as referee Michael Oliver blew for that fateful penalty kick in the dying moments of injury time, part of me was still bizarrely confident that it would be alright in the end.
Needless to say that was not the overwhelming consensus in the away end. We had spent almost the entire second half constantly asking John how long was left, as for some reason he was the only one of us wearing a watch, and my dad’s reaction to the penalty is something I will never forget. As anyone who has met him can attest, he is a very dour, reserved man. The most animated he tends to get at a game is to stand up and clap politely when the Rovers net, whilst I generally jump around wooping like a lunatic. However, when McCombe’s foot or hand went up and conceded the spot kick, the old man was incredulous.
“A penalty!? He’s given a penalty!? I do not believe it! A PENALTY!?”
We all felt the same but in truth we were some 100 plus yards away and it was a good decision. James, who hopefully won’t mind me saying wears his heart on his sleeve, stormed to the back of the stand not wanting to watch, but thankfully stayed to witness what followed and was found again somewhere in the haze of pandemonium about to erupt. Marcello Trotta, bless his arrogant Italian socks, wrestled the ball away from club captain and designated spot kick taker Kevin O’Connor and placed the ball down. Neil Sullivan, a legendary figure at the club and in British football,, made sure his last act as a professional was to cause delay to the kick being taken, drawing a yellow card in the process, and an entire stadium held its collective breath.
A defining moment. For Brentford, their golden opportunity up in smoke. For Rovers, unbridled relief as the ball rattled back off the crossbar and was eventually cleared away by Paul Quinn. Billy Paynter was in the right place at the right time, apparently speaking to the bench awaiting the crushing blow, and he streamed away on the break, joined by James Coppinger.
James Coppinger: The Man
Paynter stormed forward to the edge of the box, squared the ball to Copps taking out the only remaining Brentford defender and the poor goalkeeper Simon Moore, tapping into the empty net (thank you John Southall and Glen Wilson for providing the name of my blog there) to send Rovers up as champions and start the biggest party in the country in the Griffin Park away end.
After Trotta had smashed his penalty against the woodwork, I wasn’t even facing the pitch. I was hugging complete strangers whom I had never met before, delighted that we had survived the scare and earned promotion. I turned around just in time to see Paynter send the ball over to Coppinger, and delirium followed. For anybody who was there, you know what that felt like and how incredible it was. Watching it back gives me a wave of goosebumps every single time, be it a lengthy Youtube clip, a grainy camera phone snippet or the BBC coverage that remains recorded onto my dad’s Freeview box to this day, and routinely gets a run-out when we have a spare five minutes or are in need of a lift.
In the celebrations that followed, I found my way over to friend and fellow Rovers blogger Rob Johnson, a man who would probably run out on his own wedding if Copps turned up to see him. My memory of embracing him in elation reminds me of why we do this, why we all trek out every other Saturday to watch Doncaster Rovers whether it’s a win or a loss. This season, 2015/16, has not been much fun for any of us, but we keep on plugging away because we know that sometimes we get to experience incredible moments and days like we did at Brentford. James Coppinger epitomises the modern era of the football club – always there when it really matters, a touch of class and a lot of heart poured in over 12 years of unimaginable highs and desperate lows.
Live in Hope
So we may be on the verge of relegation back to League Two, a far cry from our remarkable rise to the Championship just three years ago today. We may not be where our opponents that day are now, or matched the remarkable feats of Eddie Howe and AFC Bournemouth, who were pipped to the title that day by us but have gone on to become a very good Premier League team, but we’ll keep on coming back for more. That is why we suffer through the relegations, the turgid displays and the off-field uncertainty. We do it because we live in hope that there is a pay off to it all eventually, and there always is, whether you have to wait only months or indeed years on end, as older fans can probably attest to.
We may drop down into the basement this Saturday after playing Crewe, or we might win again and prolong the season on to the last day against Burton…drama on the final day of the season, surely not again?
Whether it is meant to be or not, I know one thing for certain. I’ll be there in August whatever the outcome of the next 10 days, and I’ll still be there decades from now, health permitting, whether Doncaster Rovers are a fairytale story in the top flight or a tragic fallen club in the non-league.