Earlier this week Bradford City caused one of the most impressive Cup upsets of recent seasons as they defeated Arsenal in the League Cup Quarter-Finals. Whilst most football supporter’s enjoyed seeing the Bantams triumph, for Doncaster fans there was a tinge of jealousy as memories drifted to seven years ago when Rovers had been just a minute away from achieving the same feat. In issue 52 of the fanzine, produced in April 2011, editor Glen Wilson looked back on that game and wondered… what if?
A cold December night at Belle Vue. A League Cup Quarter Final between Doncaster Rovers and Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s cosmopolitan collective are up against it, a world away from the marble halls of Highbury they’re having a torrid night and haven’t fancied it much since Robin van Persie tried to control a ball on the edge of the box and was hit with all the force of a Welsh mountain, or Stephen Roberts as we know him. Now, as the match enters injury-time at the end of extra-time they find themselves 2-1 down to these lower league Northern upstarts thanks to a disastrous (yet hilarious) deliberation on the goal-line by Philippe Senderos. They need a goal, and yet the ball is all the way over in the far corner of the field at Paul Heffernan’s feet. What hope have they got?
What Happened Next
Instead of falling in a crumpled heap over the ball Heffernan tries to play it off a defender for a corner, misses his man, and Arsenal are able to break clear in front of the Main Stand where Emmanuel Eboué exchanges passes before escaping down the right wing. As he approaches the area Eboué puts in a low cross which is agonisingly beyond the reach of Roberts and Gilberto manages to hook it past Jan Budtz and into the bottom corner to level the scores. With Rovers deflated, the final whistle goes shortly afterwards and the Gunners win the resulting penalty shoot-out 3-1.
Arsenal go on to lose in the League Cup semi-finals to Wigan, but end their season on something of a high as they reach the Champions League final. However, despite taking the lead they lose 2-1 to Barcelona. On the final day of the Premier League season the Gunners secure fourth place to claim the final Champions League qualifying spot from rivals Tottenham.
For Rovers it’s back to League One action with a bump by way of a 4-0 loss at Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day, followed by a 1-0 defeat at Millmoor on New Year’s Eve. The team do eventually regain form to finish in eighth place, though Dave Penney’s reign as Doncaster manager lasts less than a month into the new season.
But it might not have been that way…
What if Heffs had just booted the ball into Asda Car Park?
With Rovers leading 2-1 and the Carling Cup Quarter Final approaching injury time Nick Fenton intercepts a throw-in and pokes the ball towards Paul Heffernan who duly dribbles it toward the corner flag. With the Pop Stand urging him to hoof the ball into the car-park of the adjacent supermarket he does just that, flicking it up neatly before volleying it high over the Rossington End fence. Eventually a replacement ball reaches Manuel Almunia, but his goal-kick is nodded back upfield by a towering Stephen Roberts header and with the ball back in Almunia’s area Phil Dowd blows for full-time.
Belle Vue erupts, for the first time in their history Rovers have reached a Cup semi-final, and a joyous pitch invasion ensues with winning goalscorer Paul Green carried shoulder high from the field. In a bizarre post-match interview Arsene Wenger claims not to have seen any of the match at all, insisting he’ll not accept the result until he has watched the whole game back later. Dave Penney meanwhile is too busy still jumping up and down in the technical area with a look of disbelief permanently etched across his face. In his absence John Ryan handles the press, and media, and goes on to do so right through Christmas… and January… and the Spring.
And so to the semi-final and a two legged tie with Premier League newcomers Wigan Athletic. Over 6,000 Rovers fans make the trip to the JJB Stadium, and the club’s support is swelled even further by glory-hunting locals who on their first trip to the stadium for a match that isn’t Rugby League presume the red and white hooped side to be that of their town. The unrest in amongst the home support extends onto the team and incredibly Rovers take the lead through former Latic Neil Roberts. Wigan equalise through Paul Scharner, but Rovers, thanks to some heroics from Jan Budtz who saves one point blank effort from Jason Roberts with his oversized quiff, hold on to end the first leg with a 1-1 draw.
For the return match Belle Vue is sold out and despite the presence of television cameras Rovers fans can be spotted, as they were for the Division 3 promotion game, in the nearby trees, on the roof of Asda , and on ladders against the fence behind the Pop Side. The full-houseroars on the Rovers, the match is tense and fraught and ultimately settled by one goal scored in the final minute. Michael McIndoe getting to the left byline, whips in a cross which flashes across the six-yard box and cannons into the roof of the net off the arse of Leo Fortune-West, the forward having bent down to tie his shoelace. Belle Vue erupts, another pitch invasion and another victory, Rovers are in the Carling Cup Final.
For a month Cup Final fever grips the town. The Asda adjacent to Belle Vue unveils a bronze football statue, cited in the exact place Heffernan’s hoofed clearance against Arsenal landed in their car-park. However the supermarket is forced to remove the monument within a week after it trips half a dozen unaware Doncastrian pensioners, and a further twenty-three adult males suffer broken toes having been unable to resist attempting to boot the ball across the tarmac.
Sean Thornton uses the final as an opportunity to resurrect his rapping career by launching the Rovers’ Cup Final single, a reworking of a Sir Mixalot classic, I Like Jan Budtz and I Cannot Lie in honour of the keeper’s heroics at the JJB Stadium. The record goes platinum, but even manufacturing it with novelty metals can’t help to shift many of them.
Rovers’ progress to the final is not completely without disappointment though as the January transfer window sees McIndoe leave the club for Premier League Portsmouth. Over 30,000 Rovers fans (well, 15,000 fans and 15,000 hangers on) travel to Cardiff for the final, but it is a disastrous day for the team as Manchester United cruise to a 7-0 victory with Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney each grabbing a hat-trick; Cristiano Ronaldo scores the other. The only bright point for Rovers fans comes late in the game when Fortune-West, on as a substitute inadvertently wipes out Ronaldo whilst appealing for a throw-in.
Rovers now return to the league where, with minds distracted by the Cup dates and lacking the pace and skill of McIndoe on the left, their form has slipped to leave them looking nervously over their shoulders at relegation. However, the team rallies in the coming months to finish 15th. In the summer Dave Penney moves north to replace new England manager Steve McLaren at Middlesbrough and takes Paul Green with him to the Riverside. Keen to capitalise on the extra fans which followed the club’s Carling Cup progress John Ryan goes after a big name manager to succeed Penney and brings Kevin Keegan to the club.
Keegan makes a couple of big name signings, bringing in both Billy Sharp and Andy Keogh from neighbours Scunthorpe and Rovers look to be on course for promotion. However, the club loses its grip on second place in the closing weeks of the season and after a defeat at Yeovil in the penultimate match Keegan goes into a bizarre rant about Bristol City manager Gary Johnson on Radio Sheffield claiming that “they’ve still got to go to play Rotherham and get something, and I tell you what I would love it, love it if we beat them.” City do get something against Rotherham… promotion and Rovers crash out in the play-off semi-finals to Blackpool.
As for Arsenal, the humiliating repots of their Cup exit to Doncaster spread and they subsequently fail to capture the signing of Emanuel Adebayor. Without the presence of the Togolese forward Arsenal can only finish the season in fifth place and to add insult to injury Tottenham claim the fourth Champions League spot. This disappointing end to their final season at Highbury means the pressure is on Arsene Wenger going into the following season. The failure of the Gunners to reach the UEFA Cup knock-out stages after defeats away to Besiktas and Bayer Leverkusen is seen by many as the final straw and Wenger is sacked in December… a year to the day after that defeat at Belle Vue.