DONCASTER MAY not reach the third round of the FA Cup but hearing their name in the draw was enough to fill Ian Snodin with pride. The last time they made it, in the 1984-85 season, he was the 21-year-old star of a memorable victory over Queen's Park Rangers, who at the time represented quite a scalp.
But there is more to it than that. Last March, playing at Scarborough but living in Doncaster, Snodin stood on the terraces among a paltry crowd of 739 spectators watching Rovers lose 2-0 to Barnet, their demotion to the Conference by then inevitable. It was a grim night, punctuated by the latest in a long-running series of demonstrations against the then chairman, Ken Richardson. "It broke my heart," Snodin said. "I've been a Rovers fan since I was a lad and like everyone else I thought the club was dying."
At 5,396, Saturday's attendance was the largest at Belle Vue for four years. "It just shows what is possible," Snodin said. "This is a football town and a successful team will bring the crowds back. When we beat Queen's Park Rangers in 1984 we took 10,000 to Everton in the next round. That's the level of support we could have again."
Snodin became player-manager in August - with brother Glynn as No 2 - as the Richardson era ended and control passed to John Ryan, a Cheshire businessman but a Doncaster boy whose affection for Rovers has not dimmed. Ryan remembers the Belle Vue owl, a bird which, according to local legend, resided in the roof of a stand long since pulled down and flew around the ground, illuminated by the floodlights, whenever Rovers scored. On Saturday, Ryan brought along a pottery owl, hoping to somehow recreate the magic. "It didn't bring us a win but we didn't lose," Ryan said. "I'll take it to the replay and see if it does the trick there."
Approval for Ryan and for Snodin has already pushed Doncaster's Conference crowds up to 3,200, double last season's average. And this is despite a record of 11 defeats in 18 matches that has seen their team entrenched at the bottom of the table. Snodin has recruited such luminaries as Steve Nicol, who won virtually every honour available with Liverpool, and the well-travelled Tommy Wright to complement his own experience, but as yet they have not got to grips with their new environment.
"We keep playing well and I keep saying `maybe this will be the result that turns the corner', but the table doesn't lie," Snodin said. "If anything, the standard in the Conference is higher than in the Third Division. You only have to look at how Macclesfield came out of the Conference and went straight through to promotion, and how Halifax are doing this season."
Encouragingly for him, his conviction that the corner will be turned is shared by Brian Talbot, the manager of Rushden & Diamonds, who have become a major Conference force thanks to the investment from the Dr Marten's shoes empire of Max Griggs. "They're a good side," Talbot said. "They won't have any problems."
Presumably, Talbot was excluding the replay at Nene Park tomorrow week from that assessment. Despite the absence of Adrian Foster and Darren Collins, Rushden's two leading goalscorers, Rovers failed to make home advantage count. They enjoyed plenty of possession but created few clear chances, a bobbling long-range effort from the full-back Simon Shaw taking them closest to a goal.
By contrast, Rushden forced Andy Woods into several good saves, notably twice to deny Ray Warburton in the first half, when Nicol headed off the line from Michael Mison. Nicol was magnificent at the back for Rovers, but with their full strike power restored Rushden will be favourites to go through.
Doncaster Rovers (4-4-2): Woods; Warren, Nicol, Sutherland, Shaw; Goodwin, Penney, I Snodin (Beckett, 80), Wright; Duerden (Hume, 72), Kirkwood. Substitutes not used: Maamria, George, Jones (gk).
Rushden & Diamonds (4-4-2) Gayle; Wooding, Bradshaw, Warburton, Underwood; McElhatton, Mison, Butterworth, Archer; West, Heggs. Substitutes not used: Foster, Hanlon, Hamsher, Brady, Rodwell.
Referee: S Mathieson (Stockport).
Bookings: Doncaster Snodin, Sutherland; Rushden West, Underwood, McElhatton.
Man of the match: Nicol.