Part One is available HERE
In the summer of 1999, John Ryan must have felt pretty proud. A year previous was a time of uncertainty but along with Aidan Phelan, Ian MacMahon and Peter Wetzel to name a few; John Ryan had helped to save Doncaster Rovers and keep the club alive, going from the pits of nothing to a sell out crowd at Belle Vue witnessing the club win the Endsleigh Challenge Trophy.
But the club were still in the Conference, and were still some way away from achieving Ryan’s first promise of getting the club back into the league. However, he put his money where his mouth is, and for a team that finished in the lower half of the Conference we continued to sign some pretty big names. Mark Atkins, a midfielder who lifted the Premier League Trophy with Blackburn Rovers 5 years previous signed for the club in what was considered by some as the coup of the century. Despite this, the club could only go on to retain the Challenge Trophy that season with a small improvement in their final league position than that of the season before.
Ian Snodin’s reign would be brought to an end and Steve Wignall was brought in. A former Doncaster player who had successful managerial spells at the newly formed Aldershot Town and later Colchester was seen as a fantastic appointment. However, with only one team being promoted each season it was becoming a difficult task and it wasn’t long before pressure began mounting on Wignall.
Off the pitch Ryan was also piling pressure on the Council for a new Stadium. Unlike Richardson he had no financial interest on the Belle Vue lease and felt he could only continue to fund the club for so much longer in the run down Belle Vue. Getting the club into a new stadium was probably more important for Ryan than getting them out of the Conference, and in a political move to force the Council’s hand Ryan resigned as Chairman in late 2001.
Before Ryan rejoined the board in 2003 after the council finally committed to the new stadium, there were times when it was rumoured that Ryan was considering withdrawing his financial support. As a result, the Supporters Club and Viking supporters Co-operative were footing the bill for the first team hotel stays when playing far away in late 2001 and early 2002. Although he didn’t return as Chairman straight away, Ryan did at least continue to financially support the club in 2002 and remained an active shareholder.
During this short time, Wignall was replaced by player Dave Penney as he made the step up to management. The Nationwide Conference also announced that 2 promotion places would be up for grabs with the introduction of the Conference Play Offs. As a club that was challenging in the top 5 of the Conference, this gave the club new hope that a return back into the Football League was on the horizon.
The 2002-03 season would become one of the most memorable season’s of Ryan’s tenure, as he played out a childhood dream when he played for the first team against Hereford in the final league game of the season. Winning 4-2 and a play-place confirmed, Ryan entered the guinness book of records when he made his professional debut at 52 years and 11 months.
And so, the Rovers would take part in the first ever Conference Play Offs, with a 2 legged tie against Chester City was all that remained between Doncaster Rovers and a date at Stoke to compete for a place in the Football League. The first leg at Belle Vue saw ex Rovers player Kevin MacIntyre pop up to silence the Rovers fans and in cruel footballing fashion a simple finger on the lips was the celebration. The tie wouldn’t end in all doom and gloom for the Vikings however, as Tristian Whitman popped up in injury time to score a fine effort with the outside of his foot to give the Rovers some hope going into the second leg at the Deva Stadium.
Half an hour on the clock and Wayne Hatswell, who scored probably the most famous own goal of the decade 1 year previous, put the hosts into the lead and that feeling of nerves that your season hangs in the balance of this game started to surface. Thankfully, Paul Barnes prodded home the equaliser that was perhaps the most ugliest goal ever scored, but the Rovers fans behind the goal celebrated as if it was the most important, and at that very moment in time, It was.
With the game tied at 1-1 and 2-2 on aggregate, the only way to separate Chester and the Rovers would be a penalty shootout. Patterson would take the first for the Rovers, only to see Brown in the Chester goal make a good save and set the pressure mounting on Penney’s boys. Warrington however was to earn himself hero status saving the first and last Chester penalty which saw Chester knocked out, and a trip to Stoke’s Brittannia Stadium on the cards for the Rovers, playing against Dagenham and Redbridge for a place in the Football League.
And so, on the 10th May 2003, over 10,000 Rovers fans descended to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium in the first ever Conference Play Off Final. There has rarely been a better sight than Paul Green scoring the first goal of the game in front of the travelling army and setting Doncaster on their way. 10 minutes into the second half and it was soon 2-0 thanks to a goal from big man Dave Morley. At 2-0 up things were looking good, but as JR once recalled, “We don’t do things the easy way” and Dagenham would come back into the game and level 2-2 after goals from Mark Stein and Tarkan Mustafa.
Prior to this game (and since) – no team had ever won promotion via a Golden Goal, but the Rovers were determined to break that habit and 10 minutes from the end of extra time the unlikely hero Francis Tierney popped up to slot home arguably the most important goal in Doncaster Rovers’ history. 5 years on since relegation to the conference and John Ryan had steered his club back into the league. Achieving the first of his promises.
Our 5 year stint in the Conference is often looked back upon by some as more enjoyable and a time when things were much less serious. Perhaps that is a virtue of always looking back at the ‘Golden Age’ because for John Ryan this period saw political struggles with the council, 3 different managers and promotion coming in the most nail-biting of circumstances. Nevertheless he kept his word and got Doncaster Rovers back into the league, a feat that would plate him in golden armour.