FOR 20 magical minutes in the second half of this entertaining Yorkshire derby, anything seemed possible for Bradford Park Avenue.
Richard Marshall’s exquisite curled strike from 20 yards meant Doncaster Rovers’ two-goal advantage had been cut in half and the Cup jitters were spreading quickly from the home fans to the League One side’s players.
The upshot was the assured control that Rovers had been displaying before Marshall’s 56th-minute strike having given way to the part-timers from Bradford suddenly seizing the initiative as they chased an almighty upset.
It nearly came to fruition, too, as Marshall had another long-range effort charged down during a spell that saw the visitors firmly in the ascendancy.
Substitute Tom Greaves then wriggled free inside the Doncaster penalty area only to shoot wide before Martin Drury wasted a similarly promising position by making a hash of a cross after being played in down the left by the impressive Paul Walker.
Sadly for the noisy 400 or so travelling fans and footballing romantics everywhere, Drury’s wasteful delivery was followed just 60 seconds later by a bullet header from Chris Brown that restored Doncaster’s two-goal lead.
Avenue’s dream of a first competitive win over a Football League club since reforming in 1988 was over, leaving captain James Knowles to admit: “The lads are absolutely gutted.
“At 2-1, I really thought we were back in it. We’d shown some real ‘cojones’ to get back into the tie after giving away a couple of sloppy goals.
“Richard has that sort of thing in his locker, either with his left or right foot. After getting the goal, we had a few chances and I really fancied us to get the goal we needed.
“But then Doncaster hit us with the sucker punch and that was that. It was a real shame, and that’s why everyone felt so gutted at the final whistle. We had run Doncaster so close.”
Avenue’s brave display not only gave the League One promotion hopefuls a genuine scare, it also helped make up for last season’s first-round appearance, when a trip to Hampshire side AFC Totton had ended in an embarrassing 8-1 defeat and two players being sent off.
Knowles, who won promotion to the Conference when he was with Farsley Celtic, added: “I was at Totton but not in the team because I was coming back from injury. So, I know how much that hurt everyone.
“A fair few of the lads who played at Doncaster were involved that day. So, it was nice to show a proper Bradford Park Avenue performance.
“The lads can be proud of what they did. But we are a hungry group and now we want to push on.
“We tend to be better in the second half of a season so if we can be anywhere near the play-offs at the halfway stage then we will have as good a chance as any.”
On the evidence of how hard they pushed Doncaster, Knowles’s confidence about Avenue’s prospects for the remainder of the Conference North season seems well placed.
Certainly, any neutral who had wandered into the Keepmoat Stadium on Saturday would never have guessed that 74 places separate the two clubs in the football pyramid.
That is not to say that Dean Saunders’s Rovers did not deserve to go through to the second round. They did, not least because of the clinical manner in which all three of the home team’s goals were scored.
But Bradford, who sit sixth in the sixth tier of English football, contributed fully to a contest that truly burst into life during a second half in which the visitors visibly grew in confidence.
Before the break, Avenue had been much more timid in possession with passes invariably going sidewards rather than forward.
Such a tame approach suited Rovers, who could have taken the lead long before Martin Woods broke the deadlock on 27 minutes with a drilled shot into the bottom corner of the net.
Nine minutes later, Doncaster doubled their advantage following neat play by Billy Paynter that left Iain Hume with the simple task of finding the net from just a yard or so out.
As the players left the field at the interval, the fear from a Bradford perspective was that they may fold and, come the final whistle, find themselves on the end of a heavy defeat.
Instead, John Deacey’s men upped their efforts and took the game to Rovers in fine fashion as Gary Woods was called on to beat away Marshall’s shot at full stretch.
Marshall then went one better 11 minutes into the second half with a stunning left-footed effort that gave Woods no chance and, for a time, it was all Bradford.
Try as they might, however, the Conference North outfit could not find the killer pass to turn their neat approach play into an equaliser and it was Doncaster who put the game to bed when Brown rose highest in the area to shatter any hopes of an Avenue fightback by meeting Paul Keegan’s corner with an unstoppable header.
Rovers manager Saunders, an FA Cup winner with Liverpool, said: “I am relieved to be in the second round. I knew it would be a difficult game. We had nothing to gain, really. And everything to lose.
“I knew Bradford were a decent team because we had drawn 3-3 with them in pre-season after being 3-1 down. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy game.
“Fair play, their goal was Premier League standard and that gave us a nervous 20 minutes. We were one mistake away from an upset or a replay.
“But then we got the third goal through a great header from Chris Brown and I am just pleased to be in the next round.”
Doncaster Rovers: Woods; Griffin, Jones, Spurr, Husband; Syers (Blake 42), Keegan, Clingan, Martin Woods; Hume (Michael Woods 88), Paynter (Brown 57). Unused substitutes: Harper, Quinn, Sullivan.
Bradford Park Avenue: Deasey (Higginson 82); Duckworth, Hotte, Knowles, Drury; Marshall, O’Brien (Holland 54), Deacey; Davidson, James (Greaves 70), Walker. Unused substitutes: Radcliffe, Jackson, Daly, Hume.
Referee: J Simpson (Lancashire).