It was a fairytale even that great story teller Hans Christian Andersen might have struggled to pen. Less than 20 seconds of the season remaining and former Hibs skipper Rob Jones’ dream of promotion to the English Championship looked certain to be dashed.
Opponents Brentford had just been awarded a penalty which, surely, would see them take second spot and condemn Jones’ Doncaster Rovers to the lottery of the play-offs if they were to have any hope of promotion, but in a stunning turnaround, Brentford substitute Marcello Trotta smacked his spot-kick off Neil Sullivan’s bar, sparking a breakaway for Donny’s longest-serving player James Coppinger to claim the winner in front of the 2000 Rovers fans who had made the long journey to Griffin Park. The goal, crazily, clinched not only promotion, but the League One title.
Unsurprisingly, a three-day bender has followed, Jones admitting the team coach had been left littered with empty champagne bottles and cans as he and his team-mates partied all the way home, the good times continuing the following evening at the club’s end-of-season bash before Jones, Doncaster captain and player of the year, was presented with the League One trophy at the Keepmoat Stadium last night before embarking on an open-top bus tour of the South Yorkshire town.
However, even today the 6ft 7in defender admitted he was struggling to drink in the events of the past 72 hours. He said: “It was the most incredible scenario I’ve ever sampled in my career, absolutely unbelievable.
“A draw was enough to give us promotion, but not the title, but defeat would have meant Brentford going up and we’d have been left in the play-offs. We’d never really looked in any danger in the match, there’s the euphoria of believing were about to be promoted to suddenly being down at the thought of having to go through the play-offs to the ecstasy of winning the League – all within 20 seconds.
“To be honest, it still feels totally surreal, In effect, the whole season, all 46 games of it, came down to those 20 seconds. You couldn’t have written it, nor the fact that it fell to our longest-serving player to get the goal.
“We had nearly four hours back home on the coach and it was a party all the way. The bus was littered with empty cans, bottles and, of course, champagne bottles. That trip was followed by a night out in Doncaster. Then we had the club dinner on Sunday night and last night the trophy presentation and open-top bus through the town.
“The last time I’d done that was back in 2007 when Hibs won the CIS Insurance Cup, so the trip through Doncaster certainly brought memories of touring Leith flooding back.”
It was the second time in 12 months Jones had enjoyed such scenes, helping guide his boyhood heroes Sheffield Wednesday to the League One title at the end of last season before making the move to Doncaster, freshly relegated in 2012 after a six-year stay in the Championship.
And, he admitted, it’s proved to be a rollercoaster year, with Rovers boss Dean Saunders quitting to take charge of Wolves who, ironically, are now on the brink of relegation to League One. Jones, who took over as caretaker boss alongside Brian Flynn, who was later appointed manager. Now player-coach, Jones said: “The lads have been fantastic all season. From day one they have listened to instructions, done what we want them to do and never questioned the philosophy of how you want them to play.
“It’s a massive credit to them, not just the ones who played most of the games, but those who played here and there. It’s been an emotional season with a lot going on. Dean and his assistant Brian Carey put in a lot of work putting together a team worthy of winning the title.
“There was, I suppose, the danger things could unravel when Dean moved on. We lost a couple and seemed to be going nowhere, but the lads pulled themselves together and got themselves going back in the right direction. We’ve learned a lot both as team-mates and about ourselves.”
The past 12 or 14 months have proved just as emotional for Jones. He said: “I got to play for the team I’d supported all my life [Wednesday], captained them and helped take them up to the Championship before moving on the pastures new.
“It was all new to me coming to Doncaster, but they made me captain straight away. I was caretaker manager and now player-coach. It’s been crazy, but I have loved every minute of it. Doncaster as a club have come a long way in the last decade and after having had six years in the Championship, it’s been great to take them back up at the first time of asking.
“Again it’s great credit to the chairman John Ryan and his board of directors, who have driven it as much as they possibly could and given everything they could to get the club back to where we believe it belongs.”
Jones may be 33 now, but he has no intentions of hanging up his boots, having signed a new two-year deal, although he’s already taking steps towards when his playing days are over and management beckons. And as someone who only moved into full-time football at the age of 23, he probably appreciates each passing season more than some.
He said: “Of course I am getting old in footballing terms, I look around me in the dressingroom and see a guy born on the day I started senior school.
“My team-mates just seem to be getting younger and younger. The music they play is dreadful, absolutely dreadful. I’m not into rap and all that sort of stuff, but it gets them going so fair enough.
“I’ve dipped my toe into the other side of things as I don’t want to wait until my final playing days before deciding what to do. I’ve gained fantastic experience already this season, so while I am enjoying the moment it will soon be back down to hard work preparing for what is ahead.
“I’m determined to continue playing as long as I can. I played in all but two of Doncaster’s League games, that was 44 in all and the most I have ever played in my career. I set myself a target of the number of games I wanted to play and surpassed it.
“I’ve now got three winners medals, the CIS Cup with Hibs and League One titles with Sheffield Wednesday and Doncaster, which isn’t bad – but I’m not finished yet.”