There was much disappointment in my small section of the away end in the minutes before kick-off. Despite numerous promises from the bloke on the Vicarage Road PA system that we were just minutes away from welcoming ‘the Golden Boys’, this all male dance troupe act failed to materialise and the Watford team came out the tunnel instead. Thankfully, the rest of the away end did not share our disappointment and after a raucous atmosphere amongst the travelling Doncastrians in the half an hour up to the match there was brief respite with a hearty minutes applause in honour of Bobby Robson.
Despite the wealth of new signings made in the past week Rovers fielded a familiar line-up at kick-off, all of the starting eleven having been with us before the summer break. As you would expect really Rovers looked good with the ball on the floor, but it was through a good old fashioned ball into the channel that they earned their first opportunity on goal. Home defender Jay DeMerit lost his footing allowing Paul Heffernan to bare down on the home goal, after neatly side-stepping the covering Mike Williamson squared the ball across goal but Adrian Mariappa intercepted at the far post and ‘keeper Scott Loach smothered the ball, as the Rovers fans behind the goal appealed enthusiastically for an unlikely ‘back-pass’ free-kick.
Whilst genuine chances remained slim Rovers were proving much more adept at getting the ball down and playing football than their hosts. Indeed Sam Hird appears to have undergone a ‘You’re the next Franz Beckenbaur’ hypnosis course over the Summer the months given the confidence with which he sprayed the ball around. However, but for all their football Doncaster were a goal down after twenty-seven minutes. The referee awarded a free-kick for a tangle on the Watford left, which from the admittedly distant away enclosure looked like it could have been given Rovers way. Though the initial ball in was hooked away it only made it as far as Tommy Smith on the right edge of the box and his ball back in was turned in at the far post by Danny Graham.
Buoyed by the goal Watford began to show flashes of invention and look more threatening on the break, but having failed to test Neil Sullivan with a couple of efforts on goal the hosts were only able to enjoy their lead for ten minutes. Brian Stock was given time and space outside the Watford box and he chipped the ball toward James Hayter on the edge of the box. Somehow the forward managed to get high enough and also get enough force on the ball to meet Stock’s cross with a looping header which arced over Loach and into the top corner for a deserved equaliser. So far out was Hayter that I genuinely had time to utter a Roy of the Rovers’ style crowd shout of “That could drop in you know” between his contact and the ball finding the net.
Back on level terms Rovers, who had played well throughout the first half, almost took a lead that would not have been undeserved before the break. John Spicer had space to shoot from nearly thirty yards out but his long range effort swung outwards just too much to narrowly miss the same corner of Loach’s goal that Hayter had picked out just five minutes before.
Half-time passed amidst an array of beach-ball related injuries in the away end and an on-pitch marriage proposal, to which the answer we were told was not “You ask me here! Seriously? Here?!” but actually a yes. Some people huh? Anyway, as with the opening forty-five minutes the second half began with unkempt promises about the imminent arrival of local cabaret stars ‘the Golden Boys’, unless it really is a poorly thought out nickname for the Watford team.
Despite the fact we have in the past decade on the whole enjoyed pretty competent goalkeepers in the Rovers line-up, I remain convinced that should I ever experience coronary failure it will come as a Rovers ‘keeper allows what he deems a safe cross to float into the back of the net. Neil Sullivan, with his sixth sense of where exactly his goal is in relation to him and the ball continues to give me a regular cardiac work out and did so twice in the second half as he confidently waved at a Smith cross which bounced off the crossbar, and also as he nonchalantly ducked under a diagonal ball minutes later.
In this half Rovers were now playing with the Rovers crowd noise at their backs and after a fairly quiet opening ten minutes it was they who forced the first chance. Stock hitting an excellent half-volley from twenty-five yards which Loach had to get down to his right to beat away. Rovers were enjoying a good spell of pressure at this stage and looked to have edged in front from a corner three minutes later. Adam Lockwood flicked on at the near post and Dean Shiels at the far upright stabbed it goal-wards. Loach scrambled the ball away, but the Rovers players close-by looked convinced the ball had crossed the line. After a distanced communication with his assistant the referee decided it had not crossed the line and signalled for a corner. Whilst it was impossible to see from the away end, I received a text message from a Watford fan behind that goal which read “I reckon that was just over the line”.
Rovers continued to move the ball about well, but as the game progressed chances were becoming thinner on the ground for the visitors. An excellent diagonal ball from Sam ‘de Kaiser’ Hird almost released Hayter in the left channel but after neat interplay with Shiels Watford recovered to clear. Instead the home side began to push forward and came as close as anyone to winning the game with around quarter of an hour to go as Smith glanced a long throw goal-wards but his header missed the far post by inches.
As the match began winding down Sean O’Driscoll took the decision to consolidate what he already had introducing John Oster and James O’Connor over time for Paul Heffernan and John Spicer. Despite an injury time foray forward from Rovers the match played out as a score draw, perhaps a fair result. However, Rovers were clearly much more competent with the ball and you cannot escape the feeling that this technical superiority in games like this needs to be turned into wins in a division where every point is precious.
Many Rovers fans may point to the officials and suggest that Rovers were hard done by, but personally I don’t think that’s the case. At times the linesman on the empty Main Stand side appeared to be approaching the notion of the ball in and out of play as a theological concept rather than a matter of fact (“Ah you may feel that it has crossed the line but I say to you is the ball every truly in?”), but this was not a factor in the game’s end result. As for the supposed disallowed goal, the referee and linesman were positioned as well as they could be, but sometimes you just cannot tell, and with Loach and a defender on the post no doubt obscuring the linesman’s view as O’Driscoll will have said; “you just have to take these things on the chin”.
In terms of how the team adapted to playing without the players who have departed over the summer then frankly in this game they were not really missed. In midfield there remains plenty of quality and competition for places and though it is too soon for a proper judgement, the early indication is that the sale of Richie Wellens looks to be a good bit of business. In defence Sam Hird and Adam Lockwood were excellent and played with marked confidence, but other teams will test them more than Watford did and the lack of a real physical presence will continue to be a concern for that reason.
Man of the Match: James Chambers; It was a tough call to single out any one player today as there were encouraging performances from almost all involved. Chambers gets our nod though for a combination of excellent defensive work and a willingness and pace to get forwards and prove a useful option in attack. He certainly did enough to make Watford fans wonder why their club had let him go a few years ago.
Watford line-up (4-4-1-1): Scott Loach; Adrian Mariappa, Jay DeMerit, Mike Williamson, Lloyd Doyley; Don Cowie, Scott Severin, Ross Jenkins, Jobi McAnuff (Will Hoskins); Tommy Smith; Danny Graham
subs not used: Lee Hodson, John Eustace, Jon Harley, Michael Bryan, Nathan Ellington
Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Sam Hird, Adam Lockwood, Gareth Roberts; John Spicer (James O’Connor), Brian Stock, Martin Woods; Dean Shiels (Jamie Coppinger), James Hayter; Paul Heffernan (John Oster)
subs not used: Ben Smith, Mustapha Dumbaya, Mark Wilson, Lewis Guy