The Championship is close. We know this to be true. We are told it regularly, but more significantly we are watching it unfold as such before our eyes. There was little to choose between Watford and Rovers at Vicarage Road last week. There was little to choose between Rovers and Preston at the Keepmoat Stadium today. After two drawn games Rovers are now fourteenth in a Championship race you could throw a blanket over. But for the width of a goalpost and a goal-line Rovers could quite easily be top of the table.
You have to wonder what Rovers have to do to get the crowds to the Keepmoat Stadium. Yes the price of watching football is high, but at current only around 5% of the borough’s population are drawn to watch their town’s football team at its highest level for fifty years and playing arguably its best ever football. Despite good weather and early season optimism there were around 5,000 bits of unoccupied red plastic in the Keepmoat at kick-off, surely not all of Doncaster can be in Benidorm.
Despite the tempered home support Rovers did what they often do, beginning well and facilitating the match’s early attacks. A sliced Billy Jones clearance allowed Paul Heffernan a run at goal three minutes in with the ball coming to John Spicer who shot over the bar. Gradually Preston began to work themselves into the game and Richard Chaplow forced a first save from Neil Sullivan, although the keeper easily fielded Chaplow’s low drive.
The visitors forced a better chance midway through the half as Sullivan punched clear Callum Davidson’s deep cross to the feet of Chris Sedgwick and his ball back in from the right was headed inches beyond the top corner by a flying Barry Nicholson. Not so much a let-off for Rovers as a sign of things to come as Preston took the lead minutes later. A chipped through ball from Ross Wallace bounced kindly for Chris Brown and he escaped Jason Shackells without even pausing to acknowledge the irony before squeezing a low shot beyond Sullivan and into the corner for the opening goal.
To say this sparked some life in the Rovers would be wrong as they had matched their opponents during the first half, but they did almost hit back instantly as Heffernan found Brian Stock in space and his low thirty-yard strike was well saved by Kyle Lonergan getting down to his right. James Hayter also ha d a chance to equalise before the break but his effort on the turn was well blocked by Sean St Ledger. Just before the break Chaplow attempted to nullify the Rovers’ threat with a terrible lunge at Brian Stock which rightly brought the game’s first yellow card.
When these two sides met at Preston last December Chaplow spent the entire ninety minutes shadowing Stock and it appeared he had been given a similar task today, although he was having much less luck. Chaplow’s late first half lunge had failed to put Stock off his game and the Preston midfielder was lucky to stay on the field in the second half after his frustration with the Rovers captain got the back of him. Stock made an excellent and committed challenge in a fifty-fifty with Callum Davidson which saw the Preston man come off worse and caused Chaplow to exact some personal revenge, leaving the boot in on Stock. The referee blew his whistle and then confusingly not only chose not to caution Chaplow but also resumed play with a drop-ball.
Back onto the prettier stuff and whilst Preston had had arguably the better of the first half Rovers were already on track for claiming the second period as their own as early as the 51st minute. James Chambers released down the right cut inside his man and hit a low shot from the edge of the box that Lonergan could only parry in the direction of Hayter, but the forward’s follow-up came back off the post. The visitors ‘keeper went on to deny Rovers again as they built up pressure on the South Stand goal with a Martin Woods’ corner that was turned goalwards at the far post only for Lonergan to save.
Preston reshuffled with the introduction of giant forward Jon ‘tower-block’ Parkin and he helped engineer North End’s best chance of the half. Parkin began a break by winning a flick-on just inside the Rovers half against Adam Lockwood (although Lockwood was probably hampered by having Parkin’s fore-arm in his eye) and set Chris Brown away. Brown returned the ball to Parkin, who, after being held up by Lockwood squared to Sedgwick on the overlap but his drive was well saved by Sullivan.
That was to be a rare attack for Preston though and Rovers were rewarded for their hard work and pressure ten minutes from time. Stock released substitute John Oster down the left with a quick free-kick and he was able to cross with the outside of his right boot into the six yard box. In a congested area Shackells met the cross with a header that came back of Lonergan, the Rovers centre half followed up with a scissor kick that was blocked by a defender on the line only for Lockwood to poke home the subsequent rebound from close range. A deserved equaliser and a welcome scorer too, with Lockwood impressing in the season’s opening games, had the South Stand bouncing.
Rovers almost won it as Stock fed Dean Shiels and the substitute’s low shot from distance was turned round the post by Lonergan, but could also have been on the end of an u njust defeat had Sullivan not done well to block Sean St Ledger’s deflected drive. And so it finished level, but again with much encouragement for Rovers and their fans, most notably the addition to the squad of John Oster who seems very much an O’Driscoll type player with his willingness to advance the play by moving the ball around. As I said at the start, these games could be viewed as points lost rather than gained, but then such is the nature of the Championship that every match played could be taken in the same vein.
Man of the Match: Last Saturday we acknowledged James Chambers’ performance to show his previous employers what had slipped through their grasp, and today Brian Stock did exactly the same. “He only played about half hour for us,” commented a Preston fan I spoke to before the game and that same fan was later shown what he and his team could have won. Stock was excellent today, and proved the axis around which most of Rovers attacking revolved as well as also displaying his combative side as well. Not even the close, and brutal, attention of Richard Chaplow put him off his stride.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-1-2): Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Adam Lockwood, Jason Shackell, Gareth Roberts; John Spicer (Dean Shiels), Brian Stock, Martin Woods; James Coppinger (Sam Hird); James Hayter Paul Heffernan (John Oster)
subs not used: Ben Smith, Mark Wilson, Quinton Fortune, Lewis Guy
Preston North End line-up (4-4-1-1): Kyle Lonergan; Billy Jones, Youl Mawene (Liam Chilvers), Sean St Ledger, Callum Davidson; Chris Sedgwick, Barry Nicholson, Richard Chaplow, Ross Wallace (Jon Parkin); Paul Parry (Darren Carter); Chris Brown
subs not used: Neil Mellor, Velice Shumulikoski, Eddie Nolan, Wayne Henderson.
booked: Richard Chaplow (scything late challenge on Brian Stock)