The Last Dance: How Doncaster Rovers’ glorious play-off defeat at Charlton Athletic proved to be the end of an era

It was a night where Doncaster Rovers emerged with a gallant defeat at the end of a brilliantly breathless football match, denied in the most agonising of manners when so close to the promised land.

By Liam Hoden
Friday, 18th September 2020, 8:57 am
Grant McCann
Grant McCann

But it was also a night that marked a significant turning point, the ramifications of which are still being felt a year on.

Rovers’ penalty shootout defeat to Charlton Athletic at The Valley was not only the end of their play-off campaign and excellent season, it was the last dance for several key figures including, as it would turn out, the manager.

Though tinged with sadness and disappointment, it was an incredible way for so many to bow out.

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John Marquis approaches the penalty spot in the shootout with Charlton Athletic in the play-offs

They had turned in a brilliantly brave and tireless performance to win on the night, showing no nerves as they bloodied Charlton’s nose in a thriller on their own turf.

After two minutes of the second leg, they were 3-1 down on aggregate. With two minutes left of normal time they made it 3-3 and went ahead in extra time. Victory should have been theirs.

The performance and rollercoaster nature of the match encapsulated that first - and last - season under Grant McCann. Ultra aggressive, attacking football with a strong backbone and tremendous spirit in battling against the odds.

And, it was a case of the ‘not quite there yet.’

Andy Butler celebrates after heading Rovers level

Football is a game of sliding doors moments - where the slightest change can make an incredible difference to how things would have played out in the future.

But overstating the significance of this particular moment would be a failure to acknowledge that the wheels of change were already in motion.

McCann - who himself would later depart for Hull City - had already put into play events that would lead the departure of some of his players.

McCann had spoken regularly of a tight-knit, united squad determined to prove the doubters wrong and secure promotion that season.

Tommy Rowe fires wide from the penalty spot to end Rovers' play-off campaign

And that is what he had. But that does not mean to say he wanted to keep that group of players together - promotion or no promotion.

A clear plan in mind, the steely Belfast man saw no room for some that had been major figures in Rovers’ more recent history as well as the need to react to departures that were seemingly inevitable.

Pushing that group of players to the next level last season was the presence of superb loan signings - namely Herbie Kane, Mallik Wilks and, latterly, Paul Downing.

Certainly with Kane and Wilks, there was next to no chance of either returning to Rovers.

John Marquis celebrates putting Rovers ahead in extra time

An explosive season from unpredictable forward Wilks ensured he had plenty of suitors, even if parent club Leeds United were not so keen. And there was genuine talk of a £2.5m move to an established Premier League club as the end of last season approached.

That failed to materialise but Wilks had shown enough potential to convince Barnsley to make him their next investment. The Reds paid close to £1m, which Rovers were never likely to do.

At the very least, the Championship looked to be beckoning midfielder Kane thanks to his dominant performances in the middle of the park. Another loan move out of Liverpool looked certain for the midfielder, with the second tier or a European club being the most likely.

Liverpool hesitated and opted against it in the summer, even rejecting a renewed approach from Rovers to bring him back to the Keepmoat.

McCann would ultimately reunite with both Kane and Wilks at Hull in January, confident of their abilities to thrive in the Championship.

There was a slight chance centre half Downing could have made a return, but once League One rivals had seen his performances on loan, Rovers would be priced out of his services.

The trio of top loanees were always going to be difficult to replace. In Kane and Wilks, McCann managed to land young, promising talent that showed themselves immediately ready for League One level, with little to no acclimatisation required. Repeating that feat a year later would have been an incredible achievement.

Also with their days in DN4 numbered were players whose impact had been felt across a number of seasons.

When John Marquis saw his shootout penalty saved, bringing tears to his eyes, it would prove to be his last act in a Rovers shirt.

Promotion would likely have made little difference to that.

After 66 goals over three seasons for Rovers, the striker had his heart set on a move elsewhere. He had done so for several months.

Marquis - whose extra time header at Charlton put Rovers ahead in the tie for the first time and was his 26th goal of the season - had been in turmoil as the January window drew to a close. His thoughts flipped regularly over whether he wanted to pursue the move to Sunderland, which arose as a possibility in the final few days of the month.

Marquis was torn between a desire to take the next step in his career and a personal longing to return to the south to be close to the families of his and his pregnant wife.

McCann convinced the striker to remain with Rovers and see through the promotion push. But over the next few months he would flip-flop regularly ensuring, while his performances on the pitch were not impacted, by the time that play-off campaign began he was pretty sure he wanted to move on.

For a striker that had been so prolific, to bow out in the manner that he did was hardly just.

And a missed penalty would be the last act in Rovers hoops for another major player.

Captain Tommy Rowe - whose sliced effort from the spot confirmed the play-off exit - was done and dusted too, though this situation was much less cut and dried than that of Marquis.

It would always have been a challenge for Rovers to retain Rowe - even before Championship side Bristol City came knocking.

There was a significant investment made in the classy midfielder as Darren Ferguson earmarked him as a player to build his version of Rovers around.

A deal could have been done however. But it said plenty about the approach of McCann that his desire to do so was not so strong.

McCann had planted the seeds for Rowe’s departure months earlier. He spoke of weighing up whether a player of the midfielder’s age and his recent injury record was worth the outlay on wages securing him would involve.

The important word in that is age.

McCann certainly prefers working with younger players. As, in fairness, does his successor Darren Moore.

But there was a greater desire from McCann to move on more senior members of the squad.

He had shown a reluctance to reintroduce Rowe to the starting XI after he had recovered from his injury. The midfielder insisted he was up to speed. McCann said he was not.

When it came to the balancing act between age and wage, the decision was made.

Rowe would be offered fresh terms. But they were terms he knew he could better elsewhere in what was likely to be the last considerable pay packet of his career.

Though his penalty miss was costly, Rowe had at least bowed out in style with a quite brilliant, talismanic performance at Charlton.

A similar, if more emphatic, statement of intent was made when it came to offering a new deal to Andy Butler, whose 88th minute header took Rovers into extra time at The Valley.

The offer to Butler was akin to telling someone they can have the last biscuit through gritted teeth - the gesture is there but the sincerity is more than a little lacking.

It was a contract a player like Butler, confident in his own ability, was never going to accept. But the offer had been made.

For McCann, Butler could stay, eating up less of the budget, helping out with coaching and being a reliable back up. But the impression given was he was not too concerned over whether he stayed or went.

Allowing Butler to depart was a big surprise. Another was close to happening that would have sent significant shockwaves around the club.

But for intervention from above, there was a strong chance James Coppinger too could have been allowed to leave by a manager firmly looking to the future.

Danny Andrew had also featured in his last match for the club, though his departure had far more to do with bargaining himself into a better, more suitable deal elsewhere than a desire from McCann to see him move on.

It said plenty about the manager that he was confident he could find better for less than what Andrew was demanding. And it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest he did that with Reece James, who he signed shortly before his own exit from the Keepmoat.

McCann had secured enough credit from his excellent debut season to be given the opportunity to forge a fresh Rovers squad how he saw fit - though letting Coppinger go may have been going a little too far.

Ultimately, due to his out of the blue departure to Humberside, we never got to witness what those plans for a renewed, stronger assault on promotion would entail.

That he did not see through the evolution of the squad he had instigated left Rovers fighting from behind as the start of the current season approached.

Following the unthinkable relegation to League Two in 2016, Rovers had been on an upward curve that managed to survive the surprise departure of Darren Ferguson.

Though they had come so close to reaching Wembley, that upward curve would end that night on May 17, 2019, in south London.

The events of the proceeding couple of months ensured Rovers took a sizeable step back - making the achievements of new boss Darren Moore all the more impressive, given his side were in with a shout for a play-off place when Covid-19 struck.

The rebuild passed to someone else. Thankfully, Moore has done a tremendous job so far to instigate a fresh upward curve.

May 17, 2019 will live long in the memory for Rovers fans accustomed to dramatic final matches of the season.

The pride of a brilliant performance still resonates 12 months on. And so does the lament for those heroes no longer wearing red and white.

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