Belle Vue's glorious swansong - the story of Doncaster Rovers' former home
The haunting strains from a lone bugler who played the Last Post on a solemn Saturday will forever be recalled by Doncastrians who congregated at Belle Vue on May 2, 1998. Seemingly for one last time.
There was sorrow and anger at the demise of Doncaster Rovers, a proud club brought to its knees by the reviled regime of Ken Richardson and heading not just out of the Football League, but very likely to extinction.
Ahead of that final-day game against Colchester United, a mock-funeral cortege headed from the nearby Park Hotel to Belle Vue. A Doncaster boy, I was among the ‘mourners’ ready to say goodbye.
That Belle Vue’s farewell would be staged on the club’s own terms eight-and-a-half years later amid a festive party of celebration in a near 9,000 crowd – more last Christmas than last rites – ensured Rovers had the last laugh on their detested ex-owner.
A former owner jailed for four years after plotting to burn down the main stand in June, 1995.
Belle Vue’s swansong was as glorious as that day against Colchester was scarred. In that finale on December 23, 2006, Rovers beat Nottingham Forest 1-0 – they lost 8-0 at home in a League Cup tie against the very same opponents at the start of that wretched campaign of 1997-98 when they cheated death.
I was there at a despairing Belle Vue on that August night, just as I was five days later when Rovers were beaten 5-0 by Peterborough United. It was that sort of season.
The dilapidated ground – with its pot-holed car park and tawdry portable club offices outside – was in a bad way. It deserved better and thankfully the winter of its life was one of contentment.
Lacking glamour maybe, but Belle Vue was tarted up sufficiently and its patrons witnessed some famous nights in its old age amid the razzamatazz of the John Ryan era.
Manchester City and Aston Villa were humbled no less and if home players had not erred in the dying embers of extra-time in an unforgettable Carling Cup quarter-final against Arsenal in December, 2005, then the fall of the Gunners would have provided the biggest story. But what a night all the same.
For Ryan, those episodes – and more besides – evoked happier times of the Belle Vue of his youth when the Hexthorpe lad watched the likes of Alick Jeffrey strut their stuff and a love affair with his home-town club began.
The Fifties and Sixties were benevolent, with former Coldstream Guard Lawrie McMenemy cutting his teeth in league management at Belle Vue and winning the old fourth division with Rovers in 1968-69.
The Seventies were less feted. An uninspired time for the country and Rovers, even if it was afforded a sprinkling of stardust amid the gloom in January, 1974.
Rovers, stuck at the bottom of the Fourth Division and playing in front of crowds of 2,000, played the mighty Liverpool in an FA Cup third-round replay on an occasion when Armthorpe’s Kevin Keegan – famously rejected by his home-town club as a youngster – finally came home.
A crossbar away from winning the opening tie at Anfield late on through Peter Kitchen, Doncaster had to play the replay on a Tuesday afternoon due to power restrictions during the ‘three-day week’.
It did not stop 22,499 turning up, with Keegan getting to play on the hallowed turf at long last in a 2-0 victory for the visitors.
Kitchen and Brendan O’Callaghan – who both scored on Merseyside – provided the main shafts of light in that decade, but it took the arrival of one of Yorkshire football’s greatest names in Billy Bremner to illuminate Belle Vue again.
Short in stature, but huge in charisma, Bremner’s talismanic presence put the stadium back in the spotlight along with a classy crop of youngsters headed by the Snodin brothers.
They were present in the autumn of 1982 when Rovers played in four successive home games which produced a staggering total of 36 goals and when the hosts beat top-flight QPR in an FA Cup upset in January, 1985, when Denaby’s David Harle scored the winner.
After heading to Leeds, Bremner would later return to his other White Rose sporting love in Rovers in July, 1989 – briefly taking the field with Paul Gascoigne in a testimonial shortly before the mercurial Geordie became a phenomenon in the summer of 1990.
The surroundings were rather different to before for ‘King Billy’.
Back in the day, Belle Vue was one of just two league grounds to boast Cumberland turf – the same as Wembley – and once had the biggest pitch in England.
Another notable feature was that it had separate tunnels for the home and away team.
In its later life, it would earn notoriety and opprobrium from visiting fans for its infamous caged away section at the Rossington End.
The roof and terracing of the Popular Stand would also be condemned, a couple of years after the much-loved Family Stand was demolished at the Town End in 1985.
But to its hardy devotees, it was still home.
From the familiar cries of ‘Alpha Tote’ from the elderly lady selling raffle tickets to the unfailingly courteous tones of long-time match-day announcer Ken Avis and the ubiquitous presence of a supporter in the Popular Stand simply known as Santa on account of his unique match-day headwear.
They truly don’t make places like Belle Vue any more.