IT WAS back in the mid- Noughties that Doncaster Rovers – labelled by former chairman John Ryan as ‘the Arsenal of the North’ – first reconnected with a town and became the talk of it too.
Those heady days that carried on into the start of the current decade will always yield a broad smile among Rovers followers, who enjoyed quite a ride and were treated to some sparkling football in front of healthy five-figure crowds along the way.
The sight of a bumper Keepmoat attendance on Sunderland’s first visit to the stadium this evening will represent a reminder of those rarified times when the likes of Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United were regular visitors.
The entertainment on offer on the pitch is also starting to turn back the clock.
On their first visit to Doncaster for a competitive fixture since August 1987 attention will not just be drawn to the sell-out Sunderland away contingent of 4,000.
The sight of the home sections also being well populated should not lost upon anyone either, with word starting to get out among those Doncastrians whose attendance levels may have fallen off in recent seasons that the current side are onto something good – and easy on the eye too.
We want to make the fans happy and make sure they come away from the Keepmoat being entertained and seeing a team who wants to win and who has got the guts and belief to get back in the game.Doncaster Rovers’ boss Grant McCann
Value certainly arrived in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Gillingham when Rovers mustered 32 attempts on goal.
It was a performance that manager Grant McCann heralded as his side’s best of the season while whetting the appetite for this evening’s marquee fixture against illustrious opponents.
McCann, who has a doubt over key midfielder Herbie Kane, said: “I hope the word is spreading a little bit. We are playing well. We can always be better and improve – definitely defensively – but I think we look a threat.
“Every time we go forward we look like we are going to score and it will only stand us in good stead.
“We want to make the fans happy and make sure they come away from the Keepmoat being entertained and seeing a team who wants to win and who has got the guts and belief to get back in the game.
“We created chances every two-and-a-half minutes on Saturday and that is what we are all about.”
Tonight’s high-stakes, high-octane occasion, to be played in front of a big gate, is one that McCann hopes will serve as an appetiser for the definitive second half of the season.
It is an encounter that all his players are relishing too and one that McCann and his side, currently sixth in the table, would dearly love to sample more regularly.
McCann added: “We are striving to have this place packed out every week. We want to be in a higher league. The Championship is where you want to be.
“Sunderland are a huge club who have started as well as we have. I know they will be coming here thinking it will be a tough game; they would be silly not to.
“We have got to make sure we give them a tough game.”
There are obvious disparities in terms of finances and levels of support between Rovers and Sunderland with McCann adamant that if budgets counted for anything then the Wearsiders would be running away with the league.
Refreshingly they are not and on the pitch the gap is considerably closer. As it stands Sunderland are just one point and three places above Rovers, who will leapfrog the North East side should they prevail tonight.
McCann said: “They will have one player on more than my whole team – I know that for a fact.
“It is a huge test for us against what is a huge club for this division.
“They should be running away with the league really with the budget they have got there.
“It is an even league, apart from Sunderland and Barnsley and the squad they have put together for about £10m.
“I know their 11 who start every week is worth about that and it is a Championship team. Those two are head and shoulders above everybody financially.
“The game will definitely show where we are.
“We want to make sure we put a performance on.
“There are some big ex-Premier League clubs in this league. It is a tough league, but I don’t think there is a team like a Blackburn or a Wigan (last year).
“I think it is open although Portsmouth have pulled away a little bit. It is open for people to put a challenge together.”
Last six games: Doncaster WLLWWD Sunderland WDDWWW.
Referee: J Simpson (Lancashire).
Last time: Doncaster 0 Sunderland 2; August 29, 1987; Division Three.