Well thats not how it was supposed to happen. Fifty years on from their last spell in the second tier and Rovers are made to wait a little longer by Cheltenham. The gold jewellery coated foul-mouthed girl behind me probably summed it up best. As Cheltenham’s Shane Higgs pulled off his fifth brilliant save of the afternoon from Paul Heffernan’s header she yelled what everyone else was thinking; “Oh will you just f*** off!” In the end it was Higgs who made the difference, had he followed the girl’s advice we could well be Championship football fans now; instead he did more than anyone on show to ensure both his and our football clubs remain in League One.
It was that sort of afternoon at Whaddon Road. The vociferous pre-match encouragement from Rovers travelling fans appeared to silence a clearly nervous home support, but on the pitch the atmosphere appeared reversed. Whilst Rovers scattered from their pre-match huddle Cheltenham’s entire squad gathered in front of the main stand and if these rituals are designed to ignite belief then it certainly worked better for the hosts
Both sides needed a win but it was Cheltenham who began more determined and took advantage of a nervy looking Rovers side. For all the short incise passing Rovers put together the end result on more than one occasion was a hopeful ball into the channel that succeeded only in reaching the hands of a Cheltenham supporter. The Robins on the other hand attacked in a more direct cut and thrust style and it brought them rewards.
Much of Steven Gillespie’s early game involvement centred around his pantomime double-act with the match official. However when the two finally broke off from their enthusiastic appeals and denials routine Gillespie turned James O’Connor rather too easily on the corner of the box, cut inside and poked the ball through the legs of Matt Mills and into the goal off the far post. Cue the Gloucestershire equivalent of delirium.
Rovers finally created chances towards the end of the half via a succession of Brian Stock right wing corners; the first saw Sam Hird denied by a great Higgs save, the second eventually fell to Richie Wellens but his effort was blocked on the line. It was as close as Doncaster would come before the break and they left the field trailing and Forest, 3-1 up over Yeovil held the promotion initiative.
In the second half Sean O’Driscoll switched to a back three with Gareth Roberts pushed forward and Cheltenham seemed unable to cope as Rovers swarmed toward the end that held their fans, the ball barely leaving the home side’s half. Chances came from crosses, and the closest chance looked to have fallen to Mark McCammon as Matt Mills headed the ball back across goal, however the Barbadian failed to make contact and the deficit remained.
When Rovers did break through they found Higgs an impenetrable barrier as he was at full length to deny a Gareth Roberts drive, and also a great strike from Paul Green was dealt with through similar agility. However, it was Green who eventually brought Rovers back in to the match getting onto Jason Price’s knockdown to blast home the equaliser. Roars from the travelling hoops, silence from the home stripes. At one all and with Neil Sullivan reduced to a spectator’s role it seemed like only one side was going to win this match; when Jason Price hit the post it was surely just a frustrating delay to the inevitable.
That wasn’t the case. Cheltenham spent a rare minute inside Rovers half and were there long enough to force a corner. Rovers, so often on the attack, lost all faculties when forced to defend and the ball bounced around the box long enough to find Connor who poked home a second goal for Cheltenham to give them an unlikely lead. Rovers needed two goals in five minutes if they were to reach the Championship; the closest they came was a Heffernan header that again Higgs dealt with brilliantly.
At the final whistle the home fans stormed on to the field to celebrate survival whilst a surreal quiet descended on the Rovers fans. In a part of the pitch not besieged by celebrations the players abjectly gathered to be given a rallying cry by assistant boss Richard O’Kelly, whilst a melancholy song began to ring out amongst the travelling fans. “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be”. However, in the body language of players and fans alike, for Rovers to reach Wembley then belief needs to be instilled again quickly before Friday’s opening play-off match.
Man of the Match: Paul Green, arguably man of the season Paul Green, the club’s longest serving player has been at the heart of this season’s push for promotion and had another great game today; could have proved the ultimate hero but for Shan Higgs
Cheltenham Town line-up (4-4-2): Shane Higgs; Jeremy Gill, Shane Duff, Keogh, Alan Wright; Scott Brown (Andy Lindegaard), David Bird, Alex Russell (Craig Armstrong), Ashley Vincent; Paul Connor, Steven Gillespie (Adam Connolly)
subs not used: Scott P Brown, Michael D’Agostino
booked: Steven Gillespie (trying the referee’s patience)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-1-2): Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Matt Mills, Sam Hird, Gareth Roberts; Brian Stock, Paul Green, Richie Wellens; Jamie Coppinger (Lewis Guy); Mark McCammon (Paul Heffernan), Gareth Taylor (Jason Price)
subs not used: James Hayter, Graeme Lee
booked: Brian Stock (foul)