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Twenty years since Stoke | Dave Penney reflects on Rovers' stunning return to the Football League

10 May 2023


Twenty years since Stoke | Dave Penney reflects on Rovers' stunning return to the Football League

10 May 2023

It may have been one of the most memorable days in Doncaster Rovers history but the details of May 10, 2003 are a little vague for manager Dave Penney.

Five years of battling to return to the Football League culminated in one afternoon in Stoke, with a golden goal in extra time of the first ever Conference play-off final sending Rovers back and ensuring cult hero status for players and staff alike.

Pushing Penney for his innermost thoughts and feelings on that incredible afternoon against Dagenham and Redbridge two decades on, some of the details have understandably slipped by.

But he certainly remembers the feeling that it was Rovers’ time.

“When I look back at how the season went, how the semis went and then how the final went, all I think is that it was our year,” Penney said.

“We went to Chester in the semis and ended up winning on penalties. Then the final - going 2-0 up, them pulling it back and us winning in extra time with the golden goal, which I don’t think has been used since. When I look back it now, everything went our way, certainly towards the end of the season.”

It proved to be a rollercoaster afternoon at the Britannia Stadium, in front of a crowd dominated by Rovers supporters.

Rovers looked to be cruising on the hour mark after goals from Paul Green and Dave Morley only for Dagenham to battle back and level up through Mark Stein and Tarkan Mustafa, setting up extra time.

Somewhat controversially, extra time would feature the golden goal method - which proved to be the only time in English football history that a promotion would be decided in such circumstances.

And with ten minutes of extra time remaining, Francis Tierney side-footed home to secure promotion and ensure there will always be a day named after him in the Rovers calendar.

“I can’t remember a lot about the game, I was just focused on it,” Penney said. “We knew Dagenham had some good players, with Mark Stein and Tarkan Mustafa and they were big rivals for us when we were at that level.

“We knew they weren’t going to just lay down, even after we’d gone 2-0 up.

“At 2-2, they were probably favourites to go on and win it but we went again mentally and managed to get the golden goal with Franny. Then there was the celebrations with 10,000 Donny fans on the pitch.

“It could have gone either way, especially with the golden goal. With that, when the goal goes in, it’s done and dusted. There’s no coming back after that. Thankfully we got it.”

The high stakes nature of extra time could have proved daunting for a side, but Penney was determined that it would not alter his approach, once the initial 90 minutes was up.

“It didn’t change anything,” he said. “We just played the same. My teams are remembered for being a bit gung-ho. We tried to play with energy, pace and tempo to get at times. I never changed the formation during any game. We had plenty of attacking players on the field and we wanted to go on and win it and not rely on penalties.”

After near oblivion and the rebuild from the ashes, May 10, 2003 was the culmination - and in glorious fashion. But it was also merely the start of an incredible climb that resulted in securing Championship football just five years later - with plenty of the heroes of Stoke sticking around for the initial stages of the climb at least.

Penney said: “I know we had a really good squad with players like Tim Ryan, Steve Foster, Mark Albrighton, Ricky Ravenhill, Gregg Blundell. Paul Barnes was the focal point for us for the goals and a lot of good players.

“It was just a matter of steering them in the right direction. They could play, and they also had a steel about them. We never got rolled over or backed out of a challenge. We had a never say die attitude. There was some characters in that changing room.

“That was probably the main thing - the camaraderie of the lads. They were together. Some of them were a handful at times, which was a real learning curve for me as a manager. I had to deal with that.

“They were fantastic lads that did really great for me and the club.

“We didn’t change it too much after promotion. The vast majority of the lads stepped up again and we added to it. Michael McIndoe was the star player at Yeovil at the time and we managed to get him just before the season started. Leo Fortune West was another great signing and Adebayo Akinfenwa came during the season so we really added well.

“We had a lot of good players that stayed at the club and took us forward.

“Winning promotion, it was huge. They’d been out of the league for five seasons.

“It was five tough years to get out and thankfully they’ve stayed out ever since.

“They’ve had plenty of ups and downs - probably more ups and certainly Sean [O’Driscoll] took it to another level after I left.

“But getting back in the Football League, that was a massive thing for the club. It made people talk about Doncaster Rovers again.”

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