Grant McCann and Doncaster Rovers ready to overcome mental hurdle on road to Wembley

More than anything, what Doncaster Rovers are taking into the second leg of their play-off semi-final on Friday is a mentality that feels impregnable.

If you were writing a handbook on how to win the play-offs, it would be very similar to how Rovers finished their League Two season.

Arriving late is always helpful.

Manager Grant McCann likes to point further back but in essence it started in stoppage time at Sutton United on February 3. Doncaster were 22nd in League Two at the time, Sutton in 23rd, the second relegation spot.

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Doncaster Rovers Harrison Biggins celebrates after scoring their side's second goal in the 2-0 first leg win at Crewe (Picture: PA)Doncaster Rovers Harrison Biggins celebrates after scoring their side's second goal in the 2-0 first leg win at Crewe (Picture: PA)
Doncaster Rovers Harrison Biggins celebrates after scoring their side's second goal in the 2-0 first leg win at Crewe (Picture: PA)

The hosts were leading 1-0 when Rovers won a slightly dubious penalty, converted by Joe Ironside.

It got Doncaster their first point since McCann had told his players that week he was resetting the league table, and he wanted them to win it from there.

Since then it has more or less all been sunshine and flowers – one defeat, at Walsall – as Rovers breezed that table by seven points (second placed Wrexham played a game more).

Thirteen of the 18 games were won, including 10 consecutive victories to put them fifth in the actual table going into the final weekend of the regular season. They sealed the play-off deal with a 2-2 draw at Gillingham.

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Just towards the end there were tests too. Doncaster conceded the opening goal in the last two games of that winning streak, and were forced to hold off a comeback when they surrendered a 2-0 lead at Priestfield on the back of Thimothee Lo-Tutala's red card.

It means when they are not at their best, there is now an iron-clad belief they will come through. Monday's play-off semi-final first leg at Crewe Alexandra was a case in point.

Rovers were scratchy early on, unable to control the midfield and unsettled by Mickey Demteriou's long throw-ins. But they saw it through, and took their chances when they came.

Mathew Craig won the ball high up and combined with Hakeeb Adelukan to lay on a 34th-minute chance Luke Molyneux took super-coolly.

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Harrison Biggins, who clipped the crossbar shortly afterwards, doubled the lead three minutes into the second half at the end of a similar move, sweeping in Ironiside's pull-back.

“With how the second half of the season's gone, people are more trusting of each other and we can weather the worst periods within games better because I think we understand if we keep doing the things we've been doing, hopefully the game will switch and we'll start to get chances,” comments Craig, outstanding in midfield on Monday.

Craig only joined on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in January. He made his Spurs debut as a substitute in last season's final-day 4-1 win at Elland Road but his first senior start was a 1-0 defeat at home to Newport County, his second a 5-1 thumping against Stockport County, his third the 2-1 win over Tranmere Rovers at the start of this remarkable revival.

“It's been a little bit surreal,” he admits. “When you've been on a run like this you hope you can go on one again but for a lot of the lads it was the longest winning streak they'd had in their career as well."

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There is no question who takes the bulk of the credit. Very quickly in Gresty Road's packed Ice Cream Van Stand the chants for goalscorer Molyneux made way for signing the praises of “Super Grant McCann”, the manager who sailed the ship through choppy early-season waters.

“He does a really good job of keeping us grounded and motivating and inspiring us,” says Craig. “That's been the whole time.

“The manager's really been key in promoting that message of taking each game at a time. That's really helped all of us to stay grounded, committed to the team and the goals we want to achieve.”

Complacency poses a bigger threat to Doncaster on Friday than a Crewe side who have lost three of their last four matches – they drew the other at 22nd-placed Colchester United. Tickets for Friday's game are selling fast – not so much in the away end, perhaps.

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“It would be impossible to manage all the fans (expectations), the only thing I can manage is my team and I don't think they need much management because they're a really good group, really grounded, and they'll stay focused on the job in hand,” says McCann.

“We've got a really good group, a really good changing room, and they can manage themselves now. We've been here from the start of the season, it's not like we just kicked up here last week.

“The calmness of them in the changing room - they were pleased they won the game but there was nobody overjoyed, overhyped - it's half-time and we've got a big job to do on Friday.”

A two-nil lead is eminently cockupable in the nervous tension of the play-offs. But this Doncaster team just feels like it is in too good a place for that right now.