Could this be the start of another unforgettable cup run?
In the midst of Rovers upcoming game against premier league Stoke City, this seems as good a time as any to look back on our memorable cup run of 2005.
As I was travelling home from a drab 1-0 victory against Wrexham in the League Cup, I could never in a million years have guessed the journey that Rovers had begun. I was mostly contemplating the direction in which my seemingly pointless life was heading as one is want to do when returning from a Tuesday night away game against Wrexham…
Playing that day for Wrexham were current Stoke City battering ram Jon Walters and remarkably, Rovers manager Darren Ferguson. How times have changed. Only James Coppinger in the Rovers line up remains a constant of course, with goal scorer Adam Hughes largely forgotten in the annuls of Rovers history.
Following that victory at the Racecourse Ground, Rovers promptly lost four league games in a row before beating Scunthorpe on the eve of an exciting home game against Manchester City. For the benefit of some of our younger readers, City had not yet become the footballing powerhouse they are now and this is indicative in their front two of Darius Vassell and Antoine Sibierski.
95 tense minutes failed to separate the two teams until Phil Maguire shoved Richard Dunne in the box. Vassell scored from the spot but Rovers were not to be denied as penalty specialist Michael McIndoe also converted an injury time penalty to take the tie to a penalty shoot out following Sylvain Distin’s handball. With Andy Warrington coming off injured in extra time (for a tackle that saw Nedum Onuoha sent off) the stage was set for Jan Budtz to make himself a hero. The dramatic victory was sealed as Budtz saved from Sibierski and Richard Dunne to send Belle Vue into raptures and Rovers through to the next round.
Largely forgotten about is Rovers third round tie against Gillingham in which the reds finally went through 2-0 after a late brace from Paul Heffernan setting up a blockbuster game against Aston Villa at Belle Vue.
Rovers game against Villa was their fourth in ten games so a degree of fatigue was expected. Rovers needn’t have worried. What absolutely nobody expected was the dominant and glorious victory that followed against the Premier League ever presents. Things could have been totally different had Rovers centre back Steve Foster been penalized for a blatant foul in the box on Milan Baros within the first five minutes however. Referee Mike Dean missed that one but he awarded Rovers a penalty 15 minutes later and the rest is history.
If there was a stroke of luck about the opener, there was nothing lucky about Rovers domineering second half performance as Paul Heffernan finished brilliantly from Lewis Guy’s knock down and Sean Thornton slammed home from 30 yards with a shot that absolutely didn’t take a deflection (don’t check, just take my word for it…)
Belle Vue’s biggest crowd for over thirty years (10,500) left the stadium knowing they had witnessed something special. It remains the best Rovers performance I have ever seen or to quote JR: ‘We are playing champagne football, as good as anyone in Yorkshire’.
Rovers were given another opportunity to claim a Premier League scalp just before Christmas 2005 in Arsenal. Whilst Gooners manager Arsene Wenger is well known for his contempt of the league cup, a strong line up containing Gilberto Silva, Alex Song, Aleksandr Hleb, Manuel Almunia, Nicklas Bendtner and Robin Van Persie arrived at Belle Vue probably thinking they had got lost on the way to the game and stumbled across some kind of Yorkshire post apocalyptic landscape.
I remember saying before the game that I would be happy if Rovers managed to score so even if it ended 4-1 or 5-1 the Rovers faithful would at least have a goal to celebrate. I got my wish after just 4 minutes as Michael Mcindoe somehow slotted home from an impossible angle. In my 20 years of watching Rovers I don’t think I have ever seen the home fans explode like they did when that goal hit the back of the net. Unbelievable. Scenes. Jeff.
Rovers more than held their own and were good value for their lead until a stroke of luck got Arsenal back into the tie as Quincy Owusu-Abeyie’s shot deflected off Sean Thornton and past Jan Budtz. Thornton was subbed off for Paul Green just before full time and lighting struck for the second time at the start of extra time, as Green poked in almost on the goal line following a comical mix up between the Arsenal defence and goalkeeper.
Despite a lot of Arsenal possession Rovers were actually fairly comfortable and as Paul Heffernan held the ball in the corner with 120 minutes gone it felt the tie was already won. In a moment of utter madness Heffernan tried to play the ball off an Arsenal defender for a corner and failed. From the resulting goal kick Arsenal broke away one last time and in heartbreaking slow motion the ball found its way to Gilberto Silva who silenced the Belle Vue crowd with a sickeningly confident finish.
The penalty shoot out was a mere formality as the Rovers players were clearly inconsolable and Arsenals victory was as inevitable as their disgusting post game jubilation as their players celebrated in front of the Rovers fans and players despite being almost embarrassed by their league 1 opponents.
Upon reflecting on the cup run of 2005 it is clear that anyone who was there will never forget the triumph and ultimately glorious heartbreak of a team that achieved some miraculous results. As Rovers come up against premier league opposition once again in Stoke City, it is difficult not to dream about a potential upset and the start of a new legacy.
Time to get excited.