The last time Doncaster Rovers were in League One, Sean O’Driscoll’s footballing aristocrats entertained their way to promotion.
After last season’s shock relegation from the Championship, Dean Saunders was tasked with building Rovers into a more rugged squad which could survive the culture shock of life in English football’s third tier.
That Rovers today stand just 90 minutes away from being crowned League One champions is testament to the work done by Saunders.
His Keepmoat Stadium success earned Saunders the job at Wolverhampton Wanderers, but Brian Flynn ensured the mid-season transition was seamless, meaning victory against Notts County today – combined with rivals Brentford and Bournemouth dropping points – would clinch promotion at the first time of asking.
Midfielder James Coppinger has played a key role in both teams. In 2008, he netted a hat-trick in the play-offs against Southend before Rovers stunned Leeds United at Wembley in the final.
This season, he was allowed to join Championship club Nottingham Forest as part of cost-cutting after relegation, but 32-year-old Coppinger returned in January to help Doncaster’s promotion push.
“To get promoted again would be amazing. With the season I have had, coming back from Forest and playing nearly every game since I returned, I feel part of it again,” said Coppinger. “The lads deserve promotion.
“The manager made some great signings in the summer, some good quality with experience and together with the lads that were already here we only had one aim this season; to get promoted.
“Whether we go up as champions or just get promoted, I think Doncaster have deserved it.
“After relegation last season, it was a transitional period and we didn’t have a big squad, 15 or 16 players plus the young lads.
“It’s been fantastic to have been part of it, having come back from Forest. The desire here, with people working hard off the pitch, has spread throughout the squad,” added Coppinger, who has chalked up over 300 league appearances to join a group of Rovers legends.
“At the end of last season, from a personal perspective, I didn’t know where I was going to be or what would happen. Once you get relegated, you want to stay and try to get the club back to where it belongs. I think the Championship is one of the best leagues in Europe. That was the aim.
“To go on loan and then come back and be part of this is magnificent. To be playing in the Championship if things go well in the next two games would be massive for Doncaster financially, for the fans and for the town in general.
“A lot of the lads have played in the Championship, but it’s a big gap from the top of League One to the Championship.
“We would have to strengthen if we reached the Championship because, in my opinion, the squad isn’t big enough.”
The maths are simple. If Doncaster win their final two games they will be champions. A win today would be enough for promotion if either Brentford (at Hartlepool, 5.20pm kick-off) or Bournemouth (home to Carlisle United) fail to win.
The title would then be decided on the final weekend of the season with Rovers at Brentford.
But Coppinger believes Doncaster must concentrate on today’s game first.
“I am relaxed and confident, just looking forward to it, to be honest,” said the Guisborough-born midfielder, who started out with Newcastle United as a teenager. “It’s down to the last two games and we have Brentford away on the final weekend.
“But all we can do is concentrate on Notts County, hopefully get three points, then see what everybody else does.
“It’s in our own hands, which is what you want, we don’t have to rely on other teams.
“If we do what we know we can do, we will get promoted.
“Notts County’s season is finished, they don’t have anything to play for, and sometimes that can be worse. They can go out and express themselves, some of them might be playing for contracts.
“We want it wrapped up before Brentford. There could yet still be some twists and turns. Bournemouth have Carlisle, who we played last week and who are a good team, and then have Tranmere in the last game.
“Brentford play Hartlepool, which is a similar scenario to us, as they don’t have much to play for, a bit of pride on Sky.
“But I would rather be in our position than anybody else’s.”
Having experienced the O’Driscoll era, where Rovers would often outplay teams with their attacking brand of passing football, Coppinger realises the current Doncaster team is very different.
It is a team built around captain Rob Jones, a no-nonsense centre-back, who almost belongs to a different age.
“We have got some quality in the team, some great players. The main thing we have, though, is a great team spirit, a togetherness,” said Coppinger.
“In the games I have been involved in since I came back, we haven’t performed well in certain games, but everyone knows their job and wants to win.
“In three or four games, we have come back and scored in the last few minutes and that’s a sign of champions.
“Hopefully, in the next two games, we can seal the title.”
Who would come out on top, if O’Driscoll’s class of 2008 came up against the modern-day Rovers?
Coppinger replied: “The 2008 team would have a lot of the possession, but the team that is playing at the minute would not give in.
“They would be good on the counter-attack, because we were quite open that season. It would be a good game, I would go for a draw.
“The 2008 team probably suited me personally more than this one does, but I think they are both successful teams and that’s all you want to be involved in.”