'We had a real belief we were better than Leeds' - Sean O'Driscoll on Doncaster Rovers' 2008 play-off glory

It was one of the greatest days in the history of Doncaster Rovers.

Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 11:40 am

A half century of exile from the second tier of English football was ended at the national stadium with victory over a Yorkshire rival and one of giants of the domestic game.

Supporters celebrated wildly as they poured out onto Wembley Way after the deserved 1-0 win over Leeds United.

In the bowels of the stadium, the Rovers squad rivalled them for exuberance.

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Sean O'Driscoll celebrates with the play-off trophy

Their manager, however, was not part of the group celebration.

Later, he would tell the media that he would most likely be celebrating with a cup of tea rather than a glass of champagne.

In that moment, as his players danced around the cavernous dressing room, he watched on through a crack in a side door. And he would not have had it any differently.

“At Wembley there is a separate area for the managers and staff to get changed,” he told the Free Press this week.

James Hayter wheels away after scoring against Leeds

“I can remember afterwards in that room, peering in through the hole and they were all going ballistic.

“I was thinking ‘it’d be nice to go in there but if I do I’m either going to get drenched or something is going to happen to me.’

“I let them get on with it.”

That manager, of course, was Sean O’Driscoll - never one to be corralled into anything he did not want to do.

Rovers players celebrate in front of their supporters at Wembley

Over the previous 20 months he had put Rovers on course for that moment, very much doing things his own way.

It has been a meticulous process, one which drew harsh criticism from certain quarters for not progressing swiftly enough.

But, by that day at Wembley in May 2008, Rovers had developed into a group playing some of the finest football in the land - not just the third tier. And it was successful too.

Arguably though, Rovers should have secured promotion three weeks earlier.

Rovers collect the play-off trophy

They headed to relegation-threatened Cheltenham Town on the final day of the regular season, where a win would have seen them claim the second automatic promotion slot.

But they lost 2-1, with Nottingham Forest heading up in their place and sending them into the play-offs.

“I can remember going to the Cheltenham game,” O’Driscoll said. “Keith Downing was the manager, they were a good little club and they had to beat us to stay up.

“I can just remember thinking if there was one club you wouldn’t want to go down it’d be them.

“I think it was quite an awkward game for us because we were arguably a much better team than them and I remember thinking we could win that game quite easily playing this way, that way or that way. I don’t know whether that had an effect but hindsight is a great thing.

“Very quickly I think you just got the sense it could be one of those games.

Sean O'Driscoll lifts the trophy alongside assistant Richard O'Kelly

“We did everything but score a goal. We hit the inside of both posts and everything that could you for them, went for them.

“It was a weird feeling standing there thinking we’ve come this far, we just need to win this game, we’re more than capable of doing it and we’re actually struggling.

“We were dominating the game but there seemed to be something missing.

“I think that game gave them a bit of a jolt.

“I remember talking to a few of them before that game and they’d already arranged where they were going for the celebrations afterwards.

“They’d almost pre-determined what the result was going to be. That was quite a lesson for them to learn as well.”

Very quickly, the manager needed to ensure his players shook off the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion and readied themselves for the first leg of the play-off semi-final six days later, at a Southend United side looking for an immediate return to the Championship.

There could be no hangover on the pitch - but, in a bid to ensure there was not, he permitted a few off it.

O’Driscoll said: “Obviously I was devastated after the Cheltenham game but I can remember being quite calm and collected. It wasn’t for any big reason.

“Everyone was obviously disappointed and I think I just said to them whatever you need to do to get over this, do it. Drink yourself silly, kick the cat, or whatever it is, do it but make sure when we return to training we’re fully focused.

“I didn’t go back on the coach which was unusual for me. I let them do whatever they wanted to do.

“When we returned to training, I can remember walking through the training ground and everyone was just focused.”

Rovers went to Roots Hall and showed just that, battling out a goalless draw that appeared to hand them the advantage in the tie.

“People talk about the second game but the Southend away game was big as well,” O’Driscoll said.

“Although it was 0-0, we had some really good chances. Pricey [Jason Price] had a couple of chances.

“They were always going to be a tough nut to crack.

“I felt we won the tie in the away leg.

“In the first leg of a play-off, away from home, a 0-0 draw is something you’d settle for before the game.

“I remember the final whistle going and there was no euphoria from the players. It was a case of half a job done.

“I think they tried to make out that we were celebrating as if we won the cup and I was thinking ‘well that didn’t happen.’ I don’t really go in for mind games - some people’s perception of something is completely different to how it is!”

It was back to the Keepmoat a week later where Rovers delivered a dominant performance to stride to Wembley.

James Coppinger scored a hat trick in a 5-1 win, after which Southend boss Steve Tilson labelled Rovers the best footballing side in the division.

O’Driscoll said: “To go into half time 3-0 up, it’s quite difficult to know what to say when you’re in that position apart from going through all the same rhetoric that they’ve heard all before.

“I think I said there is no way Southend can win this game, but you could lose it. I changed the emphasis, about it not being what they did but what we did, but saying it in a different way.

“In a situation like that, if you win the game everyone thinks you’re a genius but if you lose it everyone thinks you’re a clown. It’s the lap of the gods.”

No one was doubting O’Driscoll’s abilities at that point.

His side had set up a trip to Wembley to face Leeds, who had dispatched Carlisle United over two legs. The Championship was in touching distance.

The narrative heading into the final was not with the plucky minnow of a club however. It was all about the fairytale of Leeds overcoming a 15 point deduction to win an immediate return to the second tier.

Rovers thought differently.

“We had a real inner belief that we were better than them, we were a better side,” O’Driscoll said.

“That was without being arrogant, we knew we had to play our best but we were really capable of beating them at Wembley.

“I went up to watch their second leg at Carlisle and felt it just confirmed what I’d been thinking.

“That seemed to be the view of the players as well, without them being arrogant or complacent.”

O’Driscoll’s approach to management can best be described as handing players responsibility.

On the pitch, he wants players to think for themselves, to read situations and respond in the way they best see fit, rather than relying on him to point them in the right direction at all times.

Off the pitch, his approach was no different. Even when it came down to the key final few days before the game.

“As with a lot of things we did at the club, we asked the players what they thought,” the 62-year-old said.

“You can stay away too long. Staying in a fancy hotel might sound nice but you can get bored really easy.

“Or you can go down too late and everything is a rush.

“We gave it to the players and said they were the ones playing, how did they want to do it?

“We stayed as close as we could to Wembley. I think Leeds went to London first and trained at Arsenal and then moved hotels nearer. So they did the opposite. They went three or four days early.

“When we went to have a look at the pitch at Wembley, we’d been given a slot. But as the lads were walking around on the pitch, Leeds came as well.

“That doesn’t usually happen but with traffic and everything, they had missed their slot. So you had both sets of players on the pitch, chatting and walking around the stadium. I don’t know whether that happens that regularly, but it was strange.

“A lot of the lads knew each other so it was all fine. From our boys, we got back the sense that Leeds had been away from home for too long at that point.

“Their preparation on paper might sound fantastic but the impression we got was that they were a little bit overcooked is probably the word.

“They’re all daft things but they stick in my mind. When the players talk about it and they think they’ve got it right and the opposition have got it a bit wrong, whether that affects the result I don’t know.

“But it’s another anecdote to make sure you go into a game expecting to win rather than hoping to win.”

Rovers played like a team expecting to win that day while Leeds looked worn down, perhaps the weight of the occasion with a vociferous fan base and tremendous history proving too much to bear.

It was controlled, confident and calm from Rovers, who deservedly went ahead early in the second half through James Hayter’s bullet header from a Brian Stock corner.

“I think we knew what Leeds were all about,” O’Driscoll said.

“When you get a team with such fanatical support that they’ve got and the history they’ve got, it’s still 11v11 but they’ve got that weight behind them.

“I suppose as a team we were more flexible and adaptable. We could do different things.

“We weren’t a one trick pony, the players were adept at flipping between formations. We’d done it through the season and they didn’t need to wait for me to do it.

“Stocky [Brian Stock] always gives me stick for this because I’ve said before that it was Copps who came to me and said can we change to 4-4-2? Stocky assures me that it was him.

“But I said if you think it’s the right thing to do then do it. If you’ve allowed them to do it all season, what is the difference in this game? It’s just a bit more crucial that you win it.

“Although we weren’t a big powerful, strong team we were adept at trying to change things and being bright on certain things.

“We scored from a corner and we were really good at trying to manipulate space and get people into areas rather than just swing the ball into the box. We weren’t that big a team so we had to do something different to try to cause them problems.”

After finishing the game under pressure, the final whistle brought euphoria for all concerned with Rovers.

John Ryan’s dream of returning his boyhood club to the level they were at when he first stood on the terraces of Belle Vue had been realised.

A carefully cultivated group of players were approaching top gear and had earned the chance to show their footballing chops in the second tier, driven on by one of the brightest managers in the game.

A manager who had his own thoughts on how to celebrate the occasion

“It was just relief,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy it one little bit.

“You just think thank god that is all over.

“For the supporters and the players it was huge. I remember trying to take a backwards step.

“The players all went out and I went home.

“I got a call later on and John had arranged an open top bus.

“For me, I knew it was going to be another long day.

“That’s not begrudging anyone. It was such a big day for everyone, John, the players, the supporters.

“It’s just that if I’d had a choice, then maybe I wouldn’t have done it.”

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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.