Record runs, pints in the Sal and fake tables - the story of Doncaster Rovers' dramatic 2023/24 season

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The dust is beginning to settle on Doncaster Rovers' dramatic play-off defeat to Crewe Alexandra.

Grant McCann's side suffered penalty heartache in their semi-final clash, meaning another year in League Two beckons.

Here, the Free Press takes a look back at what proved to be a thoroughly dramatic 2023/24 campaign for Rovers.

Iffy start

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With Grant McCann back at the helm and a clutch of new arrivals on board there was plenty of optimism among the Rovers fanbase. The hope was that the stench from the previous two seasons would gradually fade away with McCann's return allowing in some fresh air.

But their start was an iffy one. They took just two points from their first seven games, with a late defeat at Wrexham leaving them bottom of the entire Football League. Some put it down to a new-look team needing time to gel and bed in.

A plucky performance against Everton in front of a sizeable Eco-Power Stadium crowd in the EFL Cup showed the spirit in the squad but it would be mid-September before they finally tasted a league victory - thanks to a 97th minute clincher from Ben Close down at Forest Green. That kickstarted a mini-revival with four wins in their next five but conceding late goals was becoming an all-too-familiar occurrence.

Defeats to Barrow, Stockport and Mansfield all came about due to goals shipped in the last ten minutes of games.

Doncaster Rovers endured a rollercoaster campaign, surging from the lower reaches of the table to seal an unexpected play-off spot. Picture Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD.Doncaster Rovers endured a rollercoaster campaign, surging from the lower reaches of the table to seal an unexpected play-off spot. Picture Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD.
Doncaster Rovers endured a rollercoaster campaign, surging from the lower reaches of the table to seal an unexpected play-off spot. Picture Howard Roe/AHPIX LTD.

Consistency hard to come by

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As the nights drew in and weather started to turn, Rovers moved further away from relegation trouble but consistency was hard to come by. It felt like one step forward, two steps back.

Encouraging wins over Sutton and Tranmere were followed by a collapse at home to Salford. Another 90th minute goal conceded at Crewe saw Rovers lose out a five-goal thriller that they should never have lost.

A return to McCann's old club Peterborough in the FA Cup saw his current side put up a good fight but ultimately they were edged out and missed out on a potential third round payday. Progression in the EFL Trophy was confirmed thanks to a win over Nottingham Forest's kids but that was a rare highlight that preceded a thoroughly miserable December and January for the club.

Rovers fans were loud and proud in what proved to be the final game of the season, in the play-off semi-final against Crewe. (Photo by Ed Sykes/Getty Images)Rovers fans were loud and proud in what proved to be the final game of the season, in the play-off semi-final against Crewe. (Photo by Ed Sykes/Getty Images)
Rovers fans were loud and proud in what proved to be the final game of the season, in the play-off semi-final against Crewe. (Photo by Ed Sykes/Getty Images)

Winter of discontent

Injuries had started to bite with George Miller ruled out for the season (or so we thought) and loanee Louie Marsh suffered a broken arm. Bobby Faulkner suffered ankle ligament damage whilst Jon Taylor and Caolan Lavery were also beset by concerns.

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It was a theme of Rovers' season, with the number of absentees stretching into double figures at one point. They just could not get a settled side out on the pitch.

Those who formed a patched-up team for the visit of Morecambe in mid-December posted arguably the worst performance of the entire campaign. A 5-0 drubbing against a distinctively average looking side left many supporters wondering how this would all pan out.

Grant McCann has restored the bond between players and supporters.Grant McCann has restored the bond between players and supporters.
Grant McCann has restored the bond between players and supporters.

A loss at home to Bradford in front of a big home crowd just before Christmas continued the malaise before a 3-0 reverse away at Notts County finally saw fans turn on the players.

"You're not fit to wear the shirt" chanted some on the terraces that day after a third straight loss. At least Rovers posted a much better showing in a draw at Mansfield as they signed off a forgettable 2023. Surely better was to come?

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Well yes, initially. New Year's Day saw McCann's men record a straightforward and unexpected 3-0 home win over promotion-chasing MK Dons.

Changes aplenty

On and off the field there was change in the air. Prior to Christmas David Blunt stepped down as chairman with long-serving director Terry Bramall replacing him in the role. It would be something of an understatement to suggest Blunt was not popular among Rovers' fans. On his watch the club had been relegated once and were seemingly sleep-walking towards another demotion. Bramall's step-up seemed to give the fans a much-needed boost and it would precede a January squad makeover undertaken by McCann.

Out went some of the loan players, including the injured Marsh and Tyler Roberts. Mo Faal, who'd impressed and scored nine times in the first half of the season, was one exit not many were expecting. McCann revealed that Faal had suddenly decided he wanted a change of surroundings, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of the Rovers boss.

Those departures were offset by the permanent arrival of defender Jay McGrath - a Doncaster lad - and four loanees including Tottenham's Matty Craig and Lincoln winger Hakeeb Adelakun.

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Despite the injury situation starting to get slightly better, consistency was still unattainable. Rovers suffered a convincing loss at Harrogate, a last-minute defeat at home to Newport and were then taken to town by Stockport in a depressing 5-1 home battering.

Inbetween those games they'd reached the EFL Trophy latter stages but that run was brought to a halt in a narrow loss at Bradford.

As February came into view, Rovers were third-bottom of League Two and facing a real fight in the final third of the campaign.

'That' Sutton game

Although McCann refuses to concur, many Rovers fans believe that the 1-1 draw away at Sutton on February 3 changed their season.

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When Joe Ironside fired home a stoppage time penalty there can't have been many of the 469 travelling fans at Gander Green Lane who thought that this result would kickstart them into life.

Perhaps that day is best remembered for what happened later on, with the now infamous call made to BBC Radio Sheffield phone-in Praise or Grumble by Paul. The viral clip, where Paul goes off on multiple tangents before ending with the immortal line "I'm going to the Sal for a pint", led to Radio Sheffield hosting a subsequent special programme from the popular Doncaster pub. Its popularity would become a running theme, on social media especially, with players such as Luke Molyneux lapping it up.

What started as a bit of fun actually correlated with a snowballing of form on the field. Wins over Tranmere, Wimbledon and Grimsby - the latter which saw them win 5-1 and put in their best showing of the season - finally allowed supporters to shake off any lingering concerns about playing in the National League.

As February rolled into March, Rovers finally had that elusive dollop of momentum in their veins. Although progress was slightly checked with a loss at Walsall and a draw away at Bradford (them again), the most remarkable sequence of results was about to unfold.


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When Rovers hosted Crewe on March 9 they were 20th in the table. They had 11 games left to play but nobody was thinking about the play-offs. Why would they? McCann's men were 14 points shy of the team in seventh place.

But a confident win over Alexandra, who themselves occupied a play-off spot, would fire up the winning machine. Suddenly injuries had subsided and Rovers were able to pick a consistent starting XI. Thimothee Lo-Tutala offered a real presence in goal, Tom Anderson and Richard Wood were as experienced centre-halves as you're likely to find at this level. Adelakun had been a revelation since his arrival, so too Craig who was flourishing game-by-game. Up front Ironside was giving opposition defenders a torrid time and being the focal point of the side. One win became two, became three, became four. Swindon, Forest Green and Crawley were all felled.

Then came the home win over Wrexham. Suddenly this Rovers side were on a roll, even seeing off the Welsh big-spenders who appeared destined for promotion. As April rolled into view, McCann's men could not get enough of the winning bug.

Morecambe, Walsall and Accrington were swatted aside. Suddenly Rovers were now eighth, with three matches to go.

They couldn't, could they?


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The Barrow game, Rovers' final home match of the season, had it all. Good weather, a big home crowd and a six-goal thriller.

It didn't start great, mind. McCann's side looked unusually nervy and were two goals down at the break. A big response was needed and they duly delivered it. When Harrison Biggins stooped to head home the third goal and turn the contest on its head, the Eco-Power erupted. McCann danced a merry jig down the touchline, limbs were everywhere in the stand. This is the moment the fanbase started to believe the impossible was possible.

Two games were left to tick off and despite falling behind at Colchester, Rovers eventually ran out 4-1 winners. That equalled a club record of ten straight league wins stretching way back to 1947.

Remarkably, after 45 games, the team were now occupying a play-off spot for the first time.

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McCann had previously mentioned that he'd devised an 18-game table following the Sutton game. His aim was to pin it up on the walls at Cantley Park and see if the players could finish top of it. It was all about testing themselves to see how far they could go and see just what was possible.

In the end they finished well clear at the top of that artificial league ladder. For the final day at Gillingham all they needed to do to secure a top-seven spot was avoid defeat and they did, albeit after blowing a two-goal lead and having to play most of the second half a man light after Lo-Tutala's red card (which would later be rescinded). They'd done it. Rovers had gatecrashed the play-offs thanks to the most incredible of late-season surges.

Play-off tilt

A two-legged date with Crewe was all that stood between Rovers and a second visit to Wembley. The first leg in Cheshire couldn't have gone much better, really. They weathered an early storm from the hosts, scored a goal in each half and took a two-goal buffer with them back to South Yorkshire.

But a sloppy start on home soil quickly saw Alex reduce their arrears. And there were just 16 minutes on the clock when they levelled the tie on aggregate. In truth Rovers never really showed up for that second leg. They were restricted to half-chances by a well-drilled Crewe side who negated their threats. In the end the lottery of a penalty shoot-out decided their fate and it felt particularly cruel that Adelakun, a player who had done as much as anyone to haul this team into the play-off conversation, should be the one to botch the decisive penalty.

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Players sunk to their knees, fans fell silent. McCann cut a disconsolate and beaten man post-match, having now suffered this fate twice in both spells as Rovers manager.

What next then? If his post-match comments are anything to go by, McCann is determined to ensure his side are not the bridesmaids again next season. He spoke of a title tilt and that he only wants players committed to achieving that. This summer is likely to bring another squad reset although you would imagine not on the scale of previous years.

Evolution not revolution will likely be the order of the day. The odd tweak and addition to what looks like the bulk of a decent squad. With McCann at the helm, Rovers fans have a manager they respect and believe in. That much is obvious from viewing the reception he and the players got as they exited the pitch last Friday for one last time.

Whatever happens next season, it is unlikely Rovers fans will endure as much drama as 2023-24 threw up.

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