One of the most-visited opposition grounds for Lincoln City over an 80-year period was the Belle Vue stadium at Doncaster.
Doncaster Rovers were founded in 1879 and turned professional six years later in 1885. The club initially played wherever they could, including on playing fields at Town Moor and the Racecourse before gaining a permanent ground in 1885 at what became known as the Intake Ground. This was the venue for their first few meetings with Lincoln City after election to the Football League in 1901.
Like City, Doncaster spent more than one period out of the league in the first two decades of the 20th century, including a period when they were in liquidation during the years of the First World War. Reformed in 1919, they joined the Midland League in 1920 playing temporarily at a ground in the Bennetthorpe area which included a small stand on one side. After two seasons there they moved to a nearby six-acre site across the road from Doncaster racecourse which was given the name Belle Vue.
The new ground had a pitch laid on top of large amounts of ash from coal tips which provided it with good quality drainage and it was for many years considered to be one of the best playing surfaces in the Football League. It was also notable for being the largest pitch in the UK. A stand was provided for 4,000 seated fans with terracing in front for another 3,000.
The first game at Belle Vue was against Gainsborough Trinity on 26th August 1922 and Rovers went on to finish runners-up in the Midland League and gain election to Football League Division Three (North) for the 1923/24 season. The first league match there was a 0–0 draw against Wigan Borough on 25th August 1923. Lincoln City’s first visit to the ground was on 29th December and saw a 3-2 win for the home side, the Imps’ goals coming from veteran ex-Rovers player James Bauchop and James Mackey. Further defeats came just over a year later, by 2-1 with James Heathcote scoring City’s goal, and by 1-0 on Good Friday the season after that.
1926/27 saw Lincoln’s first win at Belle Vue, the legendary Billy Dinsdale scoring his 11th goal in 8 games in a late-season 3-1 win along with Harold Andrews and full back James Bissett. A 3-0 defeat came on the opening day of the following season, one which was to finish with City as runners-up in the division although 8 points behind champions Bradford (Park Avenue). The first drawn game on the ground for City then ensued and in fact there was to be only one goal scored by either side in the next three meetings on the ground, that coming from Imps’ winger Philip Cartwright in the 1930/31 season with City holding top spot in the league table. After being pipped for promotion by one point by Chesterfield the Imps went one better in 1931/32. The 3-0 win at Belle Vue in mid-November saw Allan Hall become the first City player to score two goals on the ground on his way to becoming City’s record scorer in a season, the other goal coming from inside-forward Harold Riley.
Meanwhile, ground improvements had seen a shelter added for standing spectators on the banking of the ‘Popular Side’ followed by the laying of concrete terracing. In 1927 the main stand at the old Bennetthorpe ground was jacked up and moved on rollers to Belle Vue where it was placed on the banking at the Town End.
Following City’s two-year stay in the Second Division the two clubs met again in the 1934/35 season and goals from Thomas Robinson, reserve left-winger Joseph McAleer and stalwart half-back George Whyte produced a 3-1 win to knock Rovers off the top of the table in one of the Imps’ best performances on the ground. Doncaster however regained top spot and promotion to the Second Division. However, as with City, two seasons later they were back down again and the autumn of 1937 saw the two clubs meet in a cup competition for the first time. This was the short-lived Division Three (North) Cup and like certain competitions in more modern times evidently not given a high priority by City as a largely reserve side went down by 7-2 for the club’s worst ever defeat at Belle Vue. The league match later in the season put an end to City’s run of three league wins there with a 3-0 loss. The following season saw this losing margin equalled, with Joseph Clare’s goal being only a consolation in a 1-4 scoreline which came in the middle of an end of season run of six defeats.
Doncaster had finished the last two pre-war seasons in second place and then carried on where they left off when football resumed in the 1946/47 season. City’s visit in mid-April drew the largest crowd they were to play in front of at Belle Vue as 19,571 saw an own goal gain a creditable 1-1 draw against a side on their way to setting a points record that would not be beaten until by City themselves nearly 30 years later. The season saw the ground’s highest ever attendance with the visit of Hull City drawing a crowd of 37,099. This was made possible by the 1938 extension of the terracing and replacement of the roof on the Popular Side bringing the official capacity up to 40,000. Later, in 1952 Belle Vue became only the fourth Football League ground to have floodlights installed.
Doncaster’s stay in Division Two was the shortest possible however, and so was City’s after their own promotion a year later meaning the two clubs met again in Division Three (North) in the 1949/50 season with both of them once again challenging for a place in the higher division. It was the Rovers who were to be successful, but not until after the fifth-placed Imps had produced their highest score on the ground to date. Two goals apiece for Jock Dodds and Willy Windle in the next-to-last game of the season producing an excellent 4-1 win.
It took City two more years to join Doncaster in Division Two but when they did five seasons went by without a win. A 0-2 defeat in January 1953 was followed by two 1-1 draws, Andy Graver and Bob Gibson respectively being the scorers. Two defeats then followed, by 0-2 on the day after Boxing Day in 1955, and 1-3 the season after that, Gibson again the scorer.
In the 1957/58 season the match at Doncaster was part of City’s ‘great escape’ which saw them win the last six matches of the season to avoid relegation. In last place at the time, goals from George Hannah, Roy Chapman and Ron Harbertson saw a 3-1 win over a Doncaster side one place above them and suffering a seventh straight defeat to contribute to their own relegation from a level which they were not to return to for fifty years. Doncaster dropped straight through into Division Four in successive seasons, a feat(?) which City emulated a few years later meaning the next meeting of the clubs was in the lowest tier in March 1963.
The Imps found goals hard to come by over their next five visits to Belle Vue, the only two coming with a brace by stand-in centre forward Jim Grummett in a 2-1 win in the 1964/65 season. A 0-0 draw had been gained the previous season but these two results were sandwiched by 3-0 and 4-0 defeats, the latter being City’s heaviest ever league defeat on the ground on the opening day of a season which saw Doncaster win the Fourth Division championship. However, they suffered immediate relegation and it was back to Belle Vue for the Imps with the second goalless draw in four visits in November 1967.
I paid my first visit to Belle Vue at the beginning of November 1968, standing at the top of the Rossington End terracing to see a well-deserved 2-0 win with goals from Peter Kearns and Dave Smith putting City into 5th place. Rovers themselves remained 4th but were to go on to win the championship for the second time in four seasons. However, after two seasons in the Third they were back down again and there was a reverse of the previous scoreline in October 1971, a game with saw City midfielder Trevor Meath suffer a serious knee injury for the second time which effectively ended his career.