'It was always going to be' - Key figures reflect on Doncaster Rovers' play-off final win over Leeds United in 2008
“We were confident that they were overconfident. I think that happened.”
In trophy cabinet terms, it was a battle between David and Goliath.
Three time League champions, Champions League semi-finalists just seven years earlier, history books full of some of the most storied names in English football.
Opposite them, a club that only five years prior had hauled themselves out of non-league where they were consigned to rot after the most painful and cruel of declines.
Yet, just as the story goes, David won the day.
And James Coppinger had a feeling that would be the case a day earlier, when his Doncaster Rovers team mates looked into the eyes of their rivals from Leeds United on the Wembley turf.
What played out at the national stadium on May 25, 2008, will go down in Rovers lore as one of the club’s greatest days.
James Hayter’s bullet header early in the second half sent Rovers back to the Championship for the first time in half a century, three weeks after they had fluffed their lines away at Cheltenham Town with the chance to go up automatically.
We spoke to some of the key figures from the time and asked them to reflect on the build-up and that memorable day in the capital for Sean O’Driscoll’s side.
“There was a lot of frustration with the Cheltenham game.
“Some of us had packed our stuff thinking that we’d get promoted that day. We were on the bus in buoyant mood thinking we’d got promoted.
“It was something I learned from.
“Coming back on the bus with our tails between our legs was absolutely shocking. I remember thinking we have to go up now, we have to put it right in the play-offs.
“I remember on the way back from Cheltenham, a few of us went and sat with Sean O’Driscoll for the first time ever. That’s never really done.
“We ended up talking about the play-offs and how we would be playing Leeds and it was written in the stars that we’d beat them. It was ironic that it happened as it did.”
After losing at Cheltenham on the final day of the season, Rovers were leapfrogged in second place by Nottingham Forest, consigning them to the playoffs.
The semi-finals pitted them against Southend United.
“I played in central midfield in the first leg at Southend because Richie [Wellens] was injured I think. It was a different role for me and we drew 0-0.
“Back at home it was a different matter, back in my normal position.
“I scored a hat trick and it was one of the best nights of my career.”
Rovers ran riot in one of the greatest nights in the short history of the Keepmoat, with Coppinger scoring a hat trick in a 5-1 win.
It set up a final with Leeds nine days later, just as the players predicted it would be.
The opposition had reached the top six despite starting the season with a 15 point deduction and, despite Rovers being one of the division’s strongest sides, were widely tipped to win at Wembley.
That confidence in getting the result stretched to their players too.
“We went to look around Wembley and, probably like we were at Cheltenham, they were giving it large.
“They felt like they’d already won.
“We were walking around looking at them thinking they thought they’d won the final without actually playing it.
“We were confident that they were a bit overconfident. I think it happened.
“Watching it back, they were never really a threat. We had the better play, more chances.
“We were beginning to put together a team that not only played well, but got results and demoralised teams at times, like the Southend game.”
Not everything ran so smoothly for Rovers, with their captain’s availability for the game in question right up until kick-off.
“We went down a couple of days before and we played golf. It was nothing major, just like a little chip and putt, just to air the legs.
“I went down with my back, which I suffered with quite a lot.
“Leading up to the game, the night before, I’m thinking I’m not fit and I’m really struggling.
“I had an injection the night before and on the day of the game I woke up thinking this is no good. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it.
“I had another injection and this is me going over the limit straight away.
“My name was announced on the team sheet and I said I was okay to play.
“Then I went down in the warm-up. I had to say to Sean that I was done, I couldn’t warm-up, I couldn’t move.
“I had my head in my hands, tears in my eyes. Richie Wellens was struggling as well and we just thought it was all crashing down.
“A few minutes later Sean [O’Driscoll] walks back into the dressing room and said: ‘Stocky, I’ve had a word with the doc and he can give you one more injection. Do you want to give it a shot?”
“I said yes straight away.
“Sean was very much like Sean on that day.
“He came across quite relaxed. He never got too up - in fact he never got up at all.
“We relied on each other, Sean instilled that in us. It was a case of it not being about him cracking the whip.
“He always used to have set-tos with Sully [Neil Sullivan] because Sully didn’t believe in that, he was always brought up with being shouted and screamed at by the manager.
“There were times when I think that should have happened but Sean would never do that.
“It was the same at Wembley, he stayed calm and controlled.”
“What an amazing occasion to be a part of.’ I did everything I could to try to get on that pitch.
“When I look back at it and I look at the Leeds team, looking them in the eye, I felt they couldn’t handle the occasion being that it’s Leeds United.
“The players at the time, and it might be a controversial thing to say, but I don’t think they lived up to be able to play for Leeds United.
“I think the pressure got to them a bit. You could sense it in the air.
“Standing there though, when they were singing that song, all the Leeds fans singing Marching On Together, that was unbelievable.
“I don’t think I’ll ever experience a noise like that again.
“The occasion was amazing. We started off so well, we took the game to them.”
“I watched it a couple of weeks ago, and my palms were still sweaty. I obviously knew the score.
“I just couldn’t really remember the game, how it played out with us on top so much and having some great chances.
“Watching it back, having 80,000 watching the game, it’s incredible.”
Rovers were on top, but the breakthrough did not come until the 47th minute when Hayter produced a brilliant header from a Stock corner.
“My actual corners before that weren’t particularly great. I heard the commentators when I watched it back saying the deliveries haven’t been good and he was right.
“All I can remember was thinking ‘try to put this in the most dangerous place ever.’
“We used to have corner routines where we’d put signals up and have all this movement. That one was just a case of hand up, get the boys lined up and stick it into the danger area, which is sometimes the best thing to do.
“I always remember, and when I laugh when I look back on it, [James] Hayter is like a robber in the night, creeping from underneath the goalkeeper where he was meant to stand, losing [Johnny] Howson and then landing it straight on his head with a great finish.”
Leeds pushed as the game wore on but Rovers were largely in control and did not look like surrendering their lead.
“There was a bit of pressure later on from Leeds and I remember with about a minute to go, a cross came in and when Neil Sullivan caught it, I just burst into tears.
“The emotion of everything and the occasion, the fact I knew we were going to win, I was literally crying for the last minute.
“At the end when they all lined up and did the dive in front of the fans, I left that one well alone. I think my back would have snapped in half!”
“It was such an amazing experience.
“I’d just had my first son, so to share it with him, and with my grandad too, who’s no longer with us. To have the picture at Wembley with my medal on, suit and tie, with him.
“For my mum and dad and my girlfriend who is my wife now to watch it, it’s just an amazing feeling. Living out my dream to play at Wembley and win.
“A lot of people can say they’ve played at Wembley but not that many have won. I went to watch Middlesbrough there four times and never saw them win. That was the first time I’d been to Wembley with my team and won! It was worth waiting for.
“There’s no better feeling than to walk up them steps and lift that trophy, with a special group of players, all on the same page, all wanting the same thing and were all a great bunch of guys as well.”
JOHN RYAN, former Rovers chairman
“I think my greatest moment was fairly obvious.
“Leeds were always the big team when I was growing up in Doncaster. It’s still a big side.
“It might have been only 1-0 but we beat them well and it should have been three or four nil at half time. We blasted them.
“The quality of the football was stunning.
“I think that’s as good a team as Rovers have ever had.”
“The best way to go up is through the play-offs I think.
“I’d won the league in League Two and it just didn’t feel the same as it did.
“If I knew I was going up in the play-offs, I’d pick that every time.”
“I remember Greeny having to have a drugs test so he didn’t come back on the coach with us, which was soul-destroying for him.
“We had to wait for him but we couldn’t wait any longer with him struggling to take a wee.
“He had to go back on the wives and girlfriends’ coach while all the lads partied on the way back.
“We got dropped off in the town centre and went out, and we went out the day after with our medals on.”
“It was a great occasion.
“We got on the bus and got dropped off straight in Doncaster town centre. All the fans were chanting. What a great following that was.
“The people of Doncaster, I’ll never forget, they really made my time there such a memorable one.
“Going into the bars there, you felt like a king.”
“So many of the lads wanted to get promoted and were ready, the club was almost set to get promoted.
“It was always going to be. If it wasn’t to be at Cheltenham.
“Watching that game back, the way we played football was unbelievable.”
In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.