Given the Rovers poor start to the season, Lee Croft revisits a season that lives long in the memory as one of the most enduring to enjoying seasons as Rovers experienced their first stint in the Championship since 1958. This is the 2008/09 season:
After probably one of the best hangovers experienced, the pictures online of crying Leeds fans and reliving the moments of Coppinger’s hat-trick against Southend, the pitch invasion and the Hayter header, most Rovers fans went into the season optimistic but with a sense of realism about what lied ahead.
In the transfer window we brought in Matt Mills permanently for a reported 300k (then club record), James Chambers to cover JOC and Gaz Roberts, Jos Van Niewstadt in CB, John Spicer in midfielder and Darren Byfield up front, who was Bristol City’s top goal scorer as they reached the play-off final the season previous. Despite these quality signings (Byfield apart), the team resembled pretty much the same as the season before. Jason Price’s big afro was an ever present, Gareth Taylor’s wandering strolls, Neil Sullivan’s big kicks, Gaz Roberts’ deadly left foot and the magical feet of James Coppinger.
The season started against arguably one of the toughest opponents in the league as Rovers travelled to Pride Park to play against a Derby side that had endured the most successful season in Premier League history, managing just a single win. A lot of ins and outs at Pride Park and it looked as though Derby would be looking to take out their frustration from the season previous on anyone who stood in their way. They were amongst the favourites for promotion and on the opening game of the season, Derby County vs Doncaster Rovers was the second highest attendance of the season in the Championship.
Despite some near misses from Derby, Rob Hulse going agonisingly close, Sean O’Driscoll’s men stood firm to take a 0-0 draw into half time. Somehow, against the odds, the ball trickled over the line to give the Rovers a lead with just an hour played. Lewis Guy’s shin getting the final touch from a free kick that was simple but slick enough to fool the Rams’ defence. In typical ‘pub-team’ spirit, Doncaster’s first goal in the 2nd Tier in 50 years would be scored by a player wearing a replacement shirt with no name or number. But the Rovers revolution continued and the fans would roar the team onto a historic first win at the first time of asking.
The best player to have ever trained for Rovers was at it again the following week with a fantastic finish against Cardiff at the Keepmoat. Our 100% record wasn’t to last however, as Cardiff stole a last minute equaliser with ex Rovers loanee McCormack providing the bluebirds with the goal.
The next week however we we’re brought back to a crushing reality as we hardly got a look in at Loftus Road and QPR romped to a 2-0 win. However a 30 yard screamer from Richie Wellens at the Keepmoat against Coventry 7 days later would be enough to give Sean O’Driscoll 2 wins and 7 points from the opening 4 games. A solid return and a good foundation to start life in the Championship as we headed into our first ‘international break’, another benefit of being a second tier club.
The return from the break however, would be where things would go tits up. At Birmingham City away, the Rovers were gifted a golden opportunity as a nasty challenge from Blues man Mehdi Nafti saw the Brum reduced to 10 men. But with Maik Taylor in the sticks, it would be hard to break the deadlock. Wellens tried his best to lob Taylor from 40 yards but it wouldn’t creep in. After 3 penalty claims, 1 from Hayter and a couple from Guy (surprise!) the referee was not gifting the Rovers anything else and half time came with the tie deadlocked.
However 35 seconds into the second half, Jerome would latch onto a header from Marcus Bent to knock the ball past Sullivan in cruel fashion. The Rovers came back out but couldn’t score, Byfield coming closest after beating 3 men, he unleashed a fierce 25 yard drive at goal which was only beaten by Taylor’s outstretched fingertips which saw it cannon off the inside of the post and away. The Rovers lost, and the start on a common theme began. 3 days later, a Tuesday night home game to Charlton, resulted in a 1-0 defeat.
Old ghosts haunted Rovers next after McIndoe scored past his former club as Bristol City recorded a 4-1 win at Ashton Gate, Southampton would heap more misery after winning 2-0 at the Keepmoat, a result Sheffield United would mirror 3 days later. Bizarrely, the Rovers squandered the best chance I’ve ever seen when a Rovers corner (the score 0-1) saw Price’s header beat the keeper and fell to Byfield on the line who someone put it out for a goal kick, had he not been stood there, we would have scored! Nonetheless the losing streak had now reached 5 games, 7 points return from our opening 9 games and just 4 goals scored.
With many fans not really happy with the disposal of Dave Penney, it will come as no great shock to hear that many were turning on Sean O’Driscoll at this point. We we’re playing great football, but despite this we were quickly sinking and the fans wanted change. But SOD’s persistence to keep playing the same way looked to have done the job at Oakwell as Rovers lead 1-0 thanks to a Stock penalty and after Darren Moore saw red the Rovers looked to be taking all the points. Against all the odds however, the Tykes with 10 men mounted a surreal comeback and wonder goals from Iain Hume (remember him?) and Jamal Campbell-Ryce would see an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to our local rivals who only had 10 men.
The losing streak did end however, after a drab 0-0 against Blackpool, Rovers probably carved the best chances but it was typical of what had followed the previous 5 games, and had Blackpool been a little more clinical they probably would have won. The result saw the Rovers slip further adrift of safety.
The next 3 games would be nothing short of cruel. Jos Van Neiwstadt thought he did enough to earn a point at promotion favourites Reading, only to see a late winner for the Royals. Away a Carrow Road against Norwich, a team with aspirations for promotion would be an entertaining game which saw a Brian Stock penalty ten minutes from time looked likely to finally give us 3 points and end the run after 8 games without a win. Sadly however the script was written differently. A late equaliser and an injury time winner from Leroy Lita broke the Rovers hearts.
The month ended the same way it started, a game vs our neighbours Barnsley and a chance at redemption. Nothing would have been sweeter than ending our winless run against the inbreds, but instead the Rovers failed to score again at home and a solitary goal from Barnsley ended any chances of finishing October on a high.
With 14 games gone the Rovers were now occupying the relegation zones with just 8 points. The pressure was mounting on Sean O’Driscoll and the final whistle at home games were met with boos from our fans. Throughout the game many would stand and shout at the manager to make a change, or “GERRIT FORWARD!”. We were sinking without trace and looked like it was going to be a long enduring season for the Rovers faithful.
Part 2 to follow in the week ahead.