Doncaster Rovers welcome Leeds United to the Keepmoat Stadium tomorrow, a meeting which former player Mick Bates would never have predicted. Leon Wobschall reports.
PRIOR to the mid-noughties, the prospect of Doncaster Rovers locking horns with Leeds United in a competitive league fixture would have seemed incredulous to many.
Doncaster lad Mick Bates, part of the Super Leeds era when Don Revie’s side were seen by many to be the best team in the land, certainly counts himself among that number.
In United’s heyday in the early 70s, Doncaster were in the Football League’s basement, with a number of Yorkshire rivals including Huddersfield Town, Bradford City and Barnsley also sampling grim fare in the bottom division during that decade.
It made the allure of a fortnightly visit to Elland Road for many in the West Riding – and across the Broad Acres and beyond – pretty irresistible. And thousands did.
But times have changed somewhat since then and anyone requiring further confirmation of that should just speak to football supporters in Doncaster as a case study, whether they be a Rovers fan or a Leeds follower.
Rovers may be attempting a first against United at the Keepmoat Stadium tomorrow, namely a maiden home win over their West Yorkshire neighbours since moving to their new stadium in 2007, but several milestones have been reached already in the modern-day history between both clubs.
Rovers claimed their first ever victory at Elland Road in a 1-0 win back in January 2008 – thanks to Brian Stock’s strike.
But that represented the starter before the main course four months later when the South Yorkshiremen deservedly booked their place in the second tier for the first time in half a century at Leeds’s expense on a famous spring afternoon at Wembley.
Or infamous one if you were a Whites fan.
Bates, from the Doncaster pit village of Armthorpe where Kevin Keegan was also raised, says he never thought he would see the day when Rovers – who he spent a short spell at in the early eighties under his former Elland Road team-mate Billy Bremner – would be trading blows with Leeds in the same league.
Not just in the same league, but on a regular basis, with Rovers actually residing one division higher than Leeds for two seasons in 2009-10 and 2008-09.
Bates is one of several with a United association who wound their careers down at Rovers, with many others including ex-Whites defenders Brendan Ormsby and Jack Ashurst and midfielder John Stiles doing the same.
In turn, a host of young players who failed to make the grade at Leeds made the short journey down the A1 to Doncaster over the years to become popular figures from the likes of Kevin Noteman to current Rovers defender James Husband, with Leeds-born Brian Deane also starting out his career at Rovers.
Ironically one aspiring teenager to make the reverse journey is Alex Mowatt, a player right on Rovers’ doorstep and from the Doncaster village of Bentley, who is strutting his stuff with Leeds after his hometown club missed out on his services.
Bates is the first to admit Rovers are where they are on merit, with his main source of perplexity and regret being the sight of Leeds not dining at the top-flight table.
Now 66, Bates said: “It’s a great story for Doncaster Rovers and it is absolutely fantastic what they have done and a bit of a tragedy for Leeds. It’s extremes on both sides.
“The expectation on Doncaster used to be nil, but they have performed fantastically well.
“Leeds expect to be always up in the top echeleons and playing well, but in recent years, it’s been a total disaster. Hopefully they are on the road back now.
“When they play each other now, it’s a toss-up. If someone had told me 30-odd years ago that would be the case, I would have said: ‘Are you kidding? Are we in a time-warp?’
“We used to play them in pre-season friendlies, but even then, we put the reserves out.
“Doncaster weren’t on the same radar and were in the old third and fourth division and we were top of the old first division.
“It’s terrible for Leeds and fantastic for Doncaster. Who would have thought it? It’s a funny old game.
“Who would have thought Doncaster Rovers would beat Leeds at Wembley? And to be fair, they deserved it.”
Bates, who joined United on the same day as close friend Eddie Gray, making 125 league appearances in a 13-year association with the club, says his allegiances remain firmly with Leeds, who will be roared on by a sell-out 4,100 travelling army tomorrow.
While Whites fans snapped up tickets and ensured a sold-out visiting enclosure in double-quick time, tickets remain in home sections, with the only prediction one can safely make tomorrow being that the away punters will soon burst into a song of “You’re just a town full of Leeds fans” not too long after kick-off.
Remembering the days of the seventies when fans from across Yorkshire and beyond went to watch Leeds, Bates said: “Many supporters are still hanging on from the great days and the dads still watch and have got their sons to be Leeds United fans and they have stuck with them through thick and thin.
“In the seventies, all the pit villages emptied and they used to go to Elland Road.
“I go to a golf club now and the dads and sons still talk about Leeds. It was a case of ‘out of the pit, straight onto the bus to Elland Road.
“Rovers were getting crowds of 1,500 and 2,000 at the time and you couldn’t blame people in Doncaster for going to see one of the best teams in Europe, who were just 30 miles away.
“But Rovers have got their hardcore and to be fair, they will stick with them through thick and thin. I’ve got a lot of friends who are Rovers fans, but I am a Leeds fan, that’s it!”