‘One of those moments that will stick out forever’ – Doncaster Rovers players look back on those 18 seconds of madness at Brentford
On the staircase up from the east stand reception at the Keepmoat Stadium, there is a huge image that cannot fail to put a smile on the face of any Doncaster Rovers supporter who sees it.
A wonderful, black and white picture with patches of notable colour picked out, looking down from high upon one of the greatest moments in the club’s history.
Across this artwork, is text of the commentary of Glen Wilson, whose work for the Rovers website on that day has joined the image itself in iconic status.
“Paynter’s away. He’s crossing half way!
“He’s got acres to run into. He’s all alone.
“He squares to Coppinger.
“Coppinger will slot it home - and he does so!
“Coppinger has turned it into the empty net!
“It’s promotion for Doncaster Rovers!
“Can you believe what has happened in the last minute here!”
Seven years on, it is still difficult to fathom what occurred in those last few seconds.
The frantic, breathless, joyous feeling conveyed by Wilson’s commentary continues to sum up perfectly the conclusion to an incredible season.
A strong, impressive campaign for Rovers, the most emphatic of responses to the disastrous ‘Experiment’, had come down to one match.
That one match pitted them against the only side that could usurp them in the battle for promotion to the Championship - Brentford.
Rovers needed a point to secure a top two finish. The hosts on a warm and sunny day at Griffin Park needed the win.
Nerves frayed throughout 94 goalless minutes in West London.
It was nothing compared to what would follow.
Rovers looked to have done enough to earn the point they needed, presenting a teaser to Brentford they struggled to find an answer to.
But disaster struck.
Jamie McCombe - one of Rovers’ impressive twin towers that term alongside skipper Rob Jones - stuck out a weary leg that appeared to catch Toumani Diagouraga high.
Referee Michael Oliver - now a Champions League official - pointed to the spot, sucking the air out of the tightly packed, two tier away end and sending all concerned with Brentford into raptures.
“I think he gave the penalty for high feet,” McCombe told the Free Press at the time.
“I thought I got the ball but it was one of those things.
“I was just devastated, thinking about what I was going to say to the lads afterwards.”
The devastation was not confined to the man who had conceded the penalty. It was a hammerblow to all concern.
“To get a penalty awarded against us in the last minute, it was sickening,” Billy Paynter told the Free Press this week.
“I thought, that’s it. That’s us into the play-offs. It’s going to be an extra month that we’re going to be training and playing games.
“I was on the sidelines getting a drink and calling whoever gave the penalty away fit to burn.”
James Coppinger said: “The whole game had been a blur.
“For us, all we needed was a draw to take us up. The longer it went on at 0-0, the nervier it got.
“It went past 90 minutes and you’re thinking ‘this is really nervy now.’
“When they got awarded the penalty, it was just heartbreak.
“I just remember thinking ‘oh my god, another three weeks of training and the play-offs.
“Although I’ve been on the winning side in the play-offs, it’s not always like that.
“I never even thought they might miss. In my mind they’d scored and I was getting my mind set for travelling up and down the A1 for training.
“I was stood on the edge of the box thinking it was a formality.”
Talismanic captain Jones said: “I couldn’t believe that we’d conceded the penalty.
“The game had gone to plan from start to finish - until that point.
“We’d played them properly. Paul Quinn had Harry Forrester in his back pocket.
“But football changes in the blink of an eye.
“All I remember really is the fight for the ball between the captain and the boy who took the penalty.”
In the drama of what was to follow, it could easily be forgotten that Brentford brought plenty of theatrics of their own.
It had been made clear to the Bees by manager Uwe Rosler that any penalties should be taken by stalwart skipper Kevin O’Connor, who had a very good record from the spot.
That message had fallen on deaf ears belonging to Marcello Trotta, a 20-year-old loanee from Fulham who had 12 goals to his name that season.
The young Italian snatched the ball and made a beeline for the spot, sparking the most untimely of arguments with his team mates.
Striker Clayton Donaldson in particular took exception to Trotta’s intentions but the brashness of his actions saw his team mates reluctantly step aside to let him face down veteran Rovers keeper Neil Sullivan.
“I was thinking ‘they’re causing their own problems here’,” Jones said.
Paynter added: “I thought ‘this is not going to be good for whoever is taking it because it’s a lot of pressure then.’
“Having Sully in goal helped as well. An experienced pro and he brought the added pressure to the lad, being stood there in goal.
“You knew he wasn’t going to place it. He was only going to smash it.
“Luckily, he did smash it.”
Trotta ran up and drilled the ball so hard he left the ground as he leg swung through.
The shot cannoned off the crossbar, sparking a mad scramble for the ball while the away fans at the opposite end of the ground erupted in celebration.
Coppinger said: “When I saw it hit the crossbar, all hell broke loose in the box with the ball up in the air.
“It gives me goosebumps talking about it.
“You’re not thinking anything at the time but I turned around and the ball was cleared by Quinny.”
Jones said: “Quinny cleared it and I think eight or nine of their players were laid on the floor behind me.
“From that point it was just surreal.”
After what seemed like an eternity, Paul Quinn hooked the ball clear and the Brentford players dropped, sensing their automatic promotion hopes were done.
Paynter said: “Looking back, I think all the Brentford players being around the box, they thought they were going to score.
“They thought they were going to score and celebrate in with their own fans at that end.
“Everyone was up around the box and it was just me on the half way line.
“He smashes the ball, it hits the bar and then the ball is going around like a pinball.
“And Quinny just boots it, and it’s coming towards me.”
Paynter - who started the day as a substitute - was the only player barring Brentford keeper Simon Moore that had not been drawn in by the penalty.
The striker - the top scorer in the side that season - stood next to the Rovers dug out, taking a drink, while his side’s season hung in the balance some 60 yards away.
It meant that when Quinn’s clearance sailed up to the half way line, Paynter had a clear run on goal, urged on by manager Brian Flynn and the rest of the Rovers bench.
“I’m thinking ‘right I’m free here,” he said. “Do I run towards the corner or towards the goal?’
“I just started running towards the goal and I think the keeper made it easy.
“When I was running up I thought I’d take it round him if he came out.
“But he drew himself out too far, which made it an easy decision for me because I saw James Coppinger free and in acres of space.”
Coppinger had reacted to the breakaway quicker than anyone else. Brentford’s players could barely lift their heads.
He said: “I saw Billy had picked it up and I just set off sprinting for my life.
“I knew that none of their players were running back and I had the beating of their defender.
“I was just praying that Billy squared it or put it in. I didn’t really care as long as we scored.”
Moore was drawn out by the advancing Paynter who clipped the perfect pass to Coppinger.
After a scruffy first touch on a bobbly surface, he slotted into an empty net in front of the wall of Rovers fans behind the goal - 18 seconds after Trotta took the penalty.
“It was an easy pass for an easy goal,” Paynter said of his decision to square rather than going for glory himself. “It was a free goal.
“It’s what you do now on FIFA. The only way to score on FIFA is to pass it.”
Coppinger wheeled away, throwing his shirt into the crowd as a flare was lit in the lower tier where limbs flew everywhere.
“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had and ever will have,” he said.
“To score that goal and go up as champions, I don’t think you’ll ever beat that.
“As the years go on, you look back and treasure it even more.”
Paynter said: “After Coppinger put it in, the feeling, the emotion, the atmosphere, the lads jumping in with the fans.
“It was crazy.”
One player in particular was definitely appreciative of the goal.
McCombe said: “I was in tears when I ran down to Copps after he’d scored. I don’t know why - I’d gone.
“I went from feeling so low and dejected to an absolutely amazing feeling.
“We’re in a really privileged position in football because there aren’t many other jobs where you can get that feeling.”
The game would resume, with Coppinger wearing Kyle Bennett’s shirt having lost his own among Rovers fans.
It was only a matter of seconds before the final whistle sounded, sealing Rovers’ promotion.
But it would be a few minutes before the significance of Coppinger’s goal would be realised.
Bournemouth - the other player in the three-way promotion battle, who started the day top of League One - had only drawn at Tranmere Rovers, meaning the three points secured at Griffin Park saw Rovers crowned champions.
Paynter said: “We’d gone from thinking ‘okay, we’ve gone from second to possibly dropping to third and then to score.’ We thought we’d got second and then we found out that Bournemouth drew at Tranmere and we’d won the league.
“Everyone was asking questions. We didn’t know the Bournemouth score. My mum and dad were in the stand and I was speaking to them.
“Finding out they had drawn was the icing on the cake then.”
Jones said: “You couldn’t write it.
“Bournemouth took the trophy to Tranmere and they didn’t win and we did it in the last minute in front of our fans.”
The Cherries being in the driving seat for top spot, and playing some 200 miles away, saw the EFL take the decision to send the champions’ trophy to Prenton Park.
It was a decision they would regret.
While Paynter admits it would have topped off the day to have lifted the trophy there and then rather than 48 hours later in front of a couple of thousand Rovers fans at the Keepmoat, it hardly dampened the celebrations.
Paynter’s own part in the celebrations was immortalised when he put on a pig’s head fancy dress that had been thrown onto the pitch.
“One of the fans chucked it on towards me and I don’t know why I put it on,” he said.
“The pictures still go around now and it’s remembered.”
For captain Jones, who had 12 months earlier earned promotion with Sheffield Wednesday, those 18 seconds and the wild celebrations that followed have pride of place among the greatest moments of his career.
“The picture is still up in my office in the house, with Copps about to put the ball into the net,” he said.
“It was a surreal moment because you’re probably 20 seconds away from going into the play-offs and the next minute you’ve won the league.
“It’s one of those moments that will stick out from your career as a footballer forever.
“It was a special goal and it was fitting that the guy who scored it was a club legend.”
He may have since gone on to become the club’s all time leading appearance maker and continues to turn in superb performances in his 16th season as a Rovers player, but when Coppinger turned into an empty net seven years ago he had secured his place in Doncaster folklore.
And the black and white image of him about to score, his green and white kit colourised, will have supporters smiling for decades to come.