This was a cup tie, a dictionary definition of barnstormer. What felt like the whole of Oldham crammed in the Keepmoat Stadium North Stand; the wider vista bereft of red seats. The tie no-one wanted had gripped two towns and from the first whistle to the last there was a noise in your ears that didn’t relent.
On the pitch Oldham Athletic were the embodiment of their fantastic support; committed, collective, certainly capable, but tellingly Doncaster were better. On the ball, in their passing and the way they created chances, for the opening hour they confidently championed the divisional status quo.
The only thing absent was a goal, but achieving one of those meant getting the better of Oldham keeper, Daniel Iversen. Ten feet tall, eight feet wide; over the course of the afternoon Iversen produced a string of saves of the sort that has you looking at your fellow fans, exchanging unspoken but knowing looks as your head overrules your heart and tells you, this isn’t going to be your day.
James Coppinger, Tom Anderson, Kieran Sadlier and Herbie Kane were all brilliantly rebuffed by the palms of Iversen, and when John Marquis finally chartered a different course, navigating a path around the keeper, Peter Clarke glided across the sodden grass to produce a sensational goal line clearance.
With half an hour to go a change in personnel – the pace of Matty Blair and Mallik Wilks breathed needed life into Rovers, but also opened the game up. Play suddenly end to end. But just as hearts were rising in Yorkshire oesophagus, Rovers finally found a way through. The ball rolled to the feet of Ben Whiteman and his 25-yard shot pulled the net taught as 8,000 Doncastrians rose to their feet and twirled scarfs in a heady mix of joy and relief.
Toes dipped in the rare waters of round five, Rovers tried to plunge in a whole foot, but efforts from Alfie May and Marquis somehow flashed past posts rather than between them. Oldham – though second best – never let go of Rovers coat-tails and duly seized their chance to pull themselves back into the tie. Chris Missilou flashed a shot against the post; Callum Lang shanked the rebound, but there would be no further wastefulness. As Gevaro Nepomuceno’s free-kick was blocked Clarke pounced to spark a wave of joy and noise surely audible across the borough. Oldham were both back in town and back in the hat.
Just six minutes left, and despite all our eyes had seen, it was hard not to shake the dread that momentum would swing with the stadium’s sonorosity. Not so. A corner into the danger area; a mass of bodies, a ball onto the bar, an arm in the air, a whistle, a finger to an ear, a consultation, a hand pointed to the spot, a penalty. I couldn’t look. I turned away and met the eyes of other Rovers fans of equal disposition and desperation. Whiteman struck it. He may’ve leathered it, he may’ve tapped it. All I know is the arms of those in the South West corner of the Keepmoat went up and so I mirrored them.
Just a nervy, cagey injury time remained; tense enough to see Clarke dismissed for a frustrated swipe at Marko Marosi. Oldham pushed bodies forward, Rovers pushed the ball back, via dribbles to a corner, and hoofs into the night sky, before eventually, finally the full-time whistle. Arms and scarves in the air again. A town on its feet. A club finally, for the first time in over sixty years, in the FA Cup fifth round.
Half hour later I was in a packed Doncaster pub, full of people laughing, smiling, all of them happy. Another three hours on I was high-fiving Millwall fans on the Tube. This wasn’t an upset, it won’t grab any headlines. But in a world where eyes rarely stray from the top tier being a lower league football fan is a tough, arduous largely unrewarding existence. The only thing that gets us through is the desperate hope of new highs. “Ooh Doncaster fan, unlucky” said a guy on the train home, eyeing my scarf. Often in life, aye, but not tonight. Tonight I’m the luckiest bloke in the world.
by Glen Wilson