Ninian Park’s greatest ever goal?

Right, so you know about football? In that case, how would you rate Darren Utley? What do you mean, you’ve never heard of him – you must remember him! Truth be told, I had to look him up as well this morning to find out that he was that Doncaster left back who scored a wonder goal against us back in March 1997.

After two of the worst seasons in the club’s history, the City side of 1996/97 offered some hope that better days were on the way as they spent most of the campaign in the top ten of what is now called League Two. After a summer clear out that had seen many of a squad which were ranked the ninetieth best in the ninety two team league system leave the club, Manager Phil Neal started virtually from scratch as he put together a team that, on it’s day, was capable of beating the best in the division.

The signing of the talented Jason Fowler from Bristol City added creativity and some flair to the midfield, while the versatile fans favourite Jeff Eckhardt, who arrived from Stockport for a a fee of £15,000, scored a fine goal on his debut to secure a first win of the season by 1-0 at home to Brighton. With Carl Dale not having the best of seasons, the main goal threat came from veteran Steve White and the emerging youngster Simon Haworth who impressed bigger clubs with a skill and elegance that you would not normally associate with a six foot plus lower league striker.

Although they were never really in contention for automatic promotion and lost more matches than most of the teams around them, City’s total of only  nine league draws was the joint lowest in the division (the following season saw them draw an incredible twenty three times!) and so, by picking up so many wins, City were always in contention for one of the Play Off places.

The departure of Phil Neal to become Steve Coppell’s assistant manager at Manchester City saw him replaced by a returning Kenny Hibbitt and former England centreback Russell Osman who effectively became joint managers, but it did not have too much an effect on results as City went into November on a run of one defeat in nine matches. However, seven losses in their next eight games saw them plunge to thirteenth position only for a fantastic 4-1 win at top of the table Fulham in televised game to kickstart another fine run that had them climbing the table as quickly as they had been falling down it a few weeks earlier.

So it was then that City went into their home game with lowly Doncaster Rovers on Friday 14 March 1997 in the last play off position (i.e. seventh) on the back of a run which had seen them claim nineteen points from eight matches. With Doncaster languishing in twenty third place and having conceded fifteen goals in losing their previous five away games, it was a fixture which had home win written all over it, but then that’s just what we all thought when we played Plymouth a month ago!

To be honest, the only thing I remember now about the game is Doncaster’s second goal – an early goal by Darren Moore put the visitors ahead so, given that Moore, who went on to become a Premiership player at Portsmouth, West Brom and Derby, is an absolute giant of a man, I’ll assume it was a header, but the truth is that I don’t have a clue whether it was or not.

Doncaster went in 1-0 up at the break and then put the game beyond City around the hour mark with a goal that has to be the highlight of Darren Utley’s short professional career. I tended to sit in the Bob Bank at the Canton Stand end of the ground in those days and had the sort of perfect view that you get sometimes when you know that the ball is going in as soon as it leaves the player’s foot. What made this goal so special though was that Utley was out on the Bob Bank touchline not far inside the City half when he hit his shot (and it was definitely a shot not the sort of mishit centre that you can occasionally end up in the net).

City’s keeper that night was Tony Elliott who certainly wouldn’t feature in any list of best goalies I have seen at the club didn’t have a chance of saving Utley’s shot, but neither would the likes of Marshall, Alexander, Dibble and Healey as the ball arrowed into the top corner of the Grange End net. Sadly, I am pretty sure that there is no video footage of the goal (I couldn’t find anything on You Tube) and, of course, there is always a tendency to exaggerate these things as the years go by, but I would be very surprised if he wasn’t forty yards from goal when he hit his shot.

Utley played twenty two times for Doncaster that season but then was released after featuring only four times the following season in what was an awful Donny team that finished fifteen points adrift at the bottom of the table when the season ended – they were so bad that even Andy Saville managed to score twice in a 7-1 City win at Ninian Park a year to the day after Utley’s scorcher!

Actually, Donny’s transformation from Conference nobodies to Championship somebodies has to be one of the footballing success stories of the decade just ended and when you consider that they have achieved this by playing quality passing football under one of the most under rated managers around, then I think that if City couldn’t get promoted, Doncaster would be the side I would like to see go up in our place.

As for City, defeats like this one highlighted the inconsistency the side showed throughout the season. Their record against the top sides, especially away from home, was superb as they followed up  that win at eventual runners up Fulham with a win at Champions Wigan courtesy of a Haworth goal on Easter Monday and by doing the double over third placed Carlisle. Mixed in with that though, there were four defeats against the bottom five sides which goes a long way towards explaining why the last day of the season saw City needing a draw at Darlington to definitely seal the last Play Off place by finishing seventh when five sides they had beaten finished above them.

As it turned out, City did make it into the Play Offs, but only because of the failings of others as their 2-1 defeat at Darlington counted for little as rivals Lincoln and Cambridge United both lost at home. City then faced Northampton in the Play Off Semi Finals who were, at that time, something of a bogey team for us. Northampton won 1-0 in the First Leg in front of an 11,000 plus crowd at Ninian Park before a 3-2 win in a fiery return at Sixfields which saw a player from both sides dismissed booked them a Wembley date against Swansea in the final which they won with a last minute goal.

14 March 1997

Cardiff City 0 Doncaster Rovers 2 (Moore, Utley)

City Elliott; Jarman, Perry, Davies, Lloyd; Fowler, Middleton, Stoker, Partridge (Dale); White, Haworth Subs (not used) Rollo, Philliskirk

Doncaster Williams; Cunningham, Moore (1), Gore, Utley (1); Schofield, Esdaille, McDonald, Ireland;  Mike, Cramb (Larmour)

HT 0-1

Att. 5,347

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