The South Yorkshire transport hub of Doncaster has long benefitted from its location halfway between London and Scotland. As a busy stagecoach post, it became a centre for horse breeding and was hosting races from the 1500s onwards. The Doncaster Cup is the oldest continuing event of its kind in the world.
As for football, it was a fitter at the local works of the Great Northern Railway who organised the first game, then team, here in 1879. Calling them Doncaster Rovers, Rotherham-born Albert Jenkins later became their club captain and secretary, effectively the manager in those days.
Unlike in say, Bradford or Leeds, rugby didn’t dominate in Doncaster. The professional game of XIII only started up here after World War II and the various incarnations of Doncaster RLC have only shared stadiums with soccer team Rovers in fairly recent years.
The round-ball game had a fairly slow start too, Rovers, ‘Donny’ to all, flitting between the Midland and Football Leagues until settling in the Third Division North from 1923 onwards. By then, Donny had also settled in the Low Pastures, soon to be known as Belle Vue, just the other side of Bawtry Road from the racecourse.
Never top-flight, Rovers most recently made the second tier in 2013 before a two-division descent in three seasons. They now sit in League Two, though not in danger of a drop out of the league altogether, as happened in 1998.
The 1990s saw the rise of another team in town: the Doncaster Belles. A pioneering and successful women’s team, The Belles were formed by lottery ticket sales girls at Rovers matches, way back in 1969. Winning the inaugural National Premier in 1992, The Belles then finished runners-up seven times in ten years, and were also the first women’s club to play at a professional men’s ground, sharing Belle Vue with Rovers.
Not always the most amicable of arrangements, the groundshare fell apart when Rovers faced the plunge to the fifth-flight Conference. The situation had hardly been helped by Rovers chairman Ken Richardson, who hired an ex-SAS man to burn down the ground in an insurance scam.
In 2007, good sense prevailed and Rovers, The Belles and rugby club RLFC moved into the Keepmoat Stadium, a 15,000-capacity new-build near a retail park, also on the racecourse side of town. Soon afterwards, Belle Vue blew up in a gas explosion, a sorry end to a much-loved ground.
The Keepmoat also hosted an England under-21 international in 2010, a 2-1 defeat by Greece – the same year that Rovers were achieving their highest league finish in 60 years, 12th place in the Championship.
Doncaster Sheffield Airport is 14km (nine miles) south-east of town, connected by First South Yorkshire bus X4 that runs from Stand 1 outside the terminal to Doncaster Interchange (Mon-Sat every 30min, Sun every hr, journey time 20min, £3), a 5min walk to Doncaster station in the town centre.
Alpha Mini Cabs (01302 323 333) quotes £10 from airport to town, £9 to the Keepmoat Stadium.
Doncaster is a major train hub, with regular direct services from London Kings Cross (1hr 40min journey time, cheapest online £11) and Manchester Piccadilly (1hr 15-30min journey time, cheapest online £9).
Several major bus companies serve the city – the stadium is too far to walk from the station. Travel South Yorkshire oversees the network and has all timetable and ticket information. A PLUSBUS1 day pass, added to the price of your train ticket, is £3.80.
The retail park by the stadium has three chain hotels nearby. Nearest to the ground is the Premier Inn Doncaster Lakeside, functional and affordable, with its own restaurant. Also close is the Travelodge Doncaster Lakeside, of similar ilk, with limited free parking. Just the other side of White Rose Way, the Park Inn by Radisson Doncaster is slightly sleeker, also with free parking.
For a sporting hotel with character and individuality, the recently renovated Grand St Leger by the racecourse is also walking distance from the Keepmoat, a Grand II listed building dating back to 1810. Any of its 20 rooms will be at a premium during the St Leger festival in September.
Also close and classy, the Earl of Doncaster is done out in the Art Deco style of 1938, when it opened.
By the town centre, the traditional Regent Hotel has been catering to the racing crowd for generations, with 52 en-suite rooms, a bar and restaurant.
For a something even more central, then the Red Lion is a Wetherspoons pub/hotel, with 14 en-suite rooms.
Pubs and bars dot the Market Place and the adjoining thoroughfares of Hall Gate, High Street and Silver Street, with plenty of options nearby, too.
Around the Market Place, the old-school Masons Arms at No.22 is a good place to start, with its hand-pulled ales, TV football and live music at weekends. At Nos.10-12, the Black Bull and Olde Castle Hotels are similarly traditional pub landmarks.
Round the corner on Scot Lane, the Coach & Horses has also been a favourite with locals for decades. The Horse & Groom on East Laith Gate is good for large-screen TV sport, live music and cask ales – though it’s only open for three evenings during the week and weekends.
On the High Street, Number Fifteen is another place to catch the match. Just off the High Street on Priory Walk, The Gate House is the main Wetherspoon in town, the chain having sold off the nearby Old Angel to Amber Taverns. It reopens in 2017 as the Angel & Royal. TV football has been promised.
One bar not to miss is the wonderful Cask Corner, independent and original, with real ales and ciders, and regular live acts. Close to the Doncaster Interchange bus hub, the Brewery Tap is an outlet for the recently created Doncaster Brewery.