I remember the last time I chanted “We want six” at an away game - you do when it happens so rarely. Boxing Day at Scarborough’s McCain Stadium 2002, another 5-2 win, and a sign that Rovers were heading in the right direction. That day had it all, a big victory over (relatively) local rivals and a side we’d always struggled to beat, a sending off for an ex-Rovers player and a giddy packed away end who sensed our non-league sojourn was coming to an end. The Wedlock Stand at Ashton Gate may not have been as full of Rovers fans on Saturday, the opponents not as eagerly anticipated, but this match was every bit as good an away day.
Late in the second half during that game at Scarborough I remember a Rovers fan on the phone to a mate back home going “We’ve scored five, Campbell’s been sent off, its the best game ever”. Such is life, I now sit next to that very Rovers fan in the West Stand at the Keepmoat and so today he was receiving similar sentiments via text and tweet to those he had delivered eight years ago. I know we tread the ‘look how far we’ve come’ line a lot on this site, but I make no apologies. Even as I bounced around singing Jingle Bells at the back of Scarborough’s away end I would never have envisaged that the next time I’d see Rovers notch the same score-line they would be doing so mid-table in the second tier.
This was a deserved 5-2 win, and a show of both resilience and footballing capability from Rovers. This was a victory achieved with seven (eight if you count Steve Brooker, whoever he is) players out injured, four of which, Brian Stock, Martin Woods, Jason Shackell and Shelton Martis would be highly likely starting players if available. And yet Rovers looked anything but shorthanded. The performance backed up what I’ve said often to friends who support other Championship sides. On paper, on an individual player for player comparison we are a weaker side than most in this division, but as a team, as a collective group we possess the ability to match any Championship side.
Of course having a couple of outstanding loan signings helps turn potential into performance. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was handed a first start by Sean O’Driscoll and the manager made a slight tactical shift to accommodate him. What has been best described as 4-3-2-1, became 4-2-3-1 with Emmanuel-Thomas part of a trio of players – James Hayter and Jamie Coppinger the others – giving support to Billy Sharp. It worked a treat. Hayter and Coppinger did the leg work allowing Emmanuel-Thomas more freedom to work with Sharp and the two formed a fantastic combination. I commented earlier in the season of how genuinely fearful of Billy Sharp Derby County’s defence looked. Today’s Bristol City back line possessed that same noticeably daunted look at the prospect of dealing with both Sharp and Emmanuel-Thomas.
This concern caused amongst the red shirts by Sharp was shown as Rovers took the lead inside the first two minutes. The forward received the ball on the left corner of the area with his back to goal, but with a neat turn he drove into the area between four City players. With the home side trying to swamp Sharp, Emmanuel-Thomas moved into the space at the far post and Sharp found him with a low ball across the area and his fellow loanee slotted home from twelve yards.
The lead was to last just seven minutes. Long time tormentor of Rovers Jamal Campbell-Ryce drove down the left wing before cutting back to deliver an inswinging right footed cross and Bradley Orr arrived just in time at the far post to poke the ball home. I have to be honest, once City had equalised with the sort of goal that is always going to come against our team, possessing as we do all the aerial capability of Rod Hull, I feared the worst. Thankfully I was to be stripped of my doom-laden thoughts within a couple of minutes as Rovers went back in front. Coppinger did well under pressure to pick out John Oster on the right, and his driven cross from the edge of the area was turned in from close range by Sharp.
The BBC website’s preview of this game had noted how neither Rovers nor Bristol City had scored many goals in the opening quarter an hour of games, so you can imagine their web editor’s delight as Bristol City levelled again to make it 2-2 fifteen minutes in. Campbell-Ryce again with a right foot cross, Orr again arriving at the back post to prod home, although this time he did so having first given Hayter and almighty shove in the back. I’m willing to forgive Orr though, in view of the fantastic “Eee-aw Eee-aw, Bradley Bradley Bradley Bradley Orr” chant subsequently delivered by the home fans.
And still the chances continued to come, indeed City almost took the lead after twenty minutes as Nicky Maynard’s shot on the half volley struck the top of Neil Sullivan’s bar, whilst minutes later at the other end Oster came close to putting Rovers ahead, making space for a shot only to be denied by a good save from Dean Gerken. Coppinger also threatened as Rovers pressed their opponents in their own half an he robbed Liam Fontaine of the ball before taking it forward and hitting a shot from distance which cleared the bar.
After having to endure a whole twenty minutes without the ball hitting the net Rovers fans were finally able to cheer another goal ten minutes before the break, scored in very un Rovers-like fashion. Sharp latching on to a long kick downfield from Sullivan to bare down on goal one on one with the home keeper, who was left with no chance as Sharp drove the ball home from just inside the box. Though Bristol City pushed again for a third equaliser Rovers looked capable of punishing them on the break and nearly did in emphatic style as Sharp won the race to a loose ball ten yards outside the Rovers box and set off for the opposite goal, eventually being brought down just outside the other penalty area by Cole Skuse.
Emmanuel-Thomas took the free-kick but was denied by Gerken who turned the ball over the bar. Coppinger took the resulting corner and with the home side failing to deal with it Emmanuel-Thomas took over, controlling it on the chest before moving it onto his left foot and drilling it home from ten yards to put Rovers 4-2 ahead. Incredibly it could have been five before the break too, with only a goal-line block by the legs of Gerken preventing Emmanuel-Thomas from securing a first half hat-trick.
The second half was not to be as eventful as the first, which is probably for the best, as if it had many of us would not have lived to tell the tale. We’d all be strewn across the various benches of the Ashton Gate away end clutching our chests like something from the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Such had been the nature of the first half though it was clear that even with a 4-2 lead, Rovers were in no way certain of victory. City understandably pushed for a way back into the game, Campbell-Ryce fired over in the opening minute whilst Chris Iwelumo’s height caused a constant problem for the Rovers defence. Luckily his first touch was causing him a constant problem of his own.
Not content with his two goal haul Orr was next to threaten, but Sullivan saved well from the full-back’s left foot volley. With City on the attack Rovers were being restricted to opportune counter-attack raids into the home side’s half, but as with the first half, each of these pushes contained an obvious threat. That promise was realised just after the hour mark as Sharp brought the ball forward and fed Coppinger on the edge of the area. He held the ball up before finding Oster on the right and his low driven ball across goal was turned in at the far-post; Orr suffering a Pavlovian response to finding himself arriving onto a cross at the far post turned it into his own net for a hat-trick of sorts and Rovers fifth goal.
In effect, that was the match won right there, a point reiterated by the Rovers fans as they serenaded the home supporters adjacent to us behind the goal with “Why don’t you go home, this match is over, why don’t you go home”. City had further chances as Maynard fired wide from a free-kick and Campbell-Ryce brought another save from Sullivan, but so too did Rovers. Emmanuel-Thomas was inches away from a hat-trick with a low driven shot from the edge of the area. Coppinger waltzed in from the right flank only to see his shot saved well by Gerken.
Rovers rang the changes in the final ten minutes and it was pleasing to see Emmanuel-Thomas applauded by the home fans as well as having his name championed by the away end as he made way for Jordan Mutch. Late in the game another Rovers substitute Dean Shiels could have made it six as he was released one on one, but unfortunately he was knocked off balance by a desperate recovering Louis Carey and his shot was turned behind. In all fairness, by then it didn’t really matter. This was a brilliant away performance by Rovers of the sort that sees you end the day several Jack Daniels later dancing to Dub Be Good to Me by Beats International at 3:30am in a nightclub you never previously had any intention of visiting. OK, maybe that last bits just me, but it was a fantastic match.
Man of the Match: In all honesty you could have written man of the match on a paper plane, hurled it in the Rovers dressing room door at the end of yesterday’s game and whoever it hit would have deserved the accolade. But for a more straight forward and less homo-erotic choice we’re going for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. He may not have worked as hard as some when not in possession, but he more than made amends for that when he had the ball. Neat footwork, superb control and an excellent foil for the always impressive Billy Sharp
Bristol City line-up (4-4-2); Dean Gerken; Bradley Orr, Liam Fontaine, Louis Carey, Lewin Nyatanga; Danny Haynes (Ivan Sproule), Lee Johnson, Cole Skuse, Jamal Campbell-Ryce (Paul Hartley); Chris Iwelumo, Nicky Maynard (David Clarkson)
subs not used: Steve Collis, James Wilson, Gavin Williams, John Akinde
booked: Cole Skuse (ungentlemanly name and cruelly ending a sixty yard Billy Sharp run)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-3-1); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Sam Hird, Gareth Roberts; Mark Wilson (John Spicer), John Oster; Jamie Coppinger (Dean Shiels), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Jordan Mutch), James Hayter; Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, Adam Lockwood, Mustapha Dumbaya, Lewis Guy