So, four games in and what have we learned about the 2009-10 Championship thus far? I suppose the truth is, no more than we perhaps knew already. It is a division in which the margins between winning and losing are incredibly tight, and only a small number of teams stand above the rest. But for a more generous linesman at Watford, the width of a Keepmoat goal-post and a less convincing ‘keeper than Coventry’s Kieran Westwood Rovers could have quite feasibly arrived at ‘Boro as league leaders. However, had they done so, its doubtful today’s outcome would have been much different. Middlesbrough are of the small number of superior clubs, and they made this show.
There is a case for the argument that Rovers were unlucky to face Middlesbrough at the wrong time. At current, only Stewart Downing and goalkeeper Ross Turnbull had flown the Riverside nest since relegation and Mark Yeates and Danny Coyne represent solid Championship level replacements for lost luxury goods. In a couple of weeks Downing and Turnbull could have been followed back up the ladder to the Championship by Tuncay, David Wheater or Robert Huth to name but three outstanding players for this level. For Middlesbrough right now the Transfer Window is more a gaping Transfer Patio Door, and whenever one of those is left open on Teeside you have to be wary of losing your assets.
It was one of these star turns who gave Middlesbrough the lead; Tuncay reacted quickest to a flick on from Leroy Lita and controlled the ball on the move before finishing comfortably low past Neil Sullivan from fourteen yards. At this point, Tuncay had only been on the field six minutes, whilst there was a feeling amongst home fans that the man he beat should no longer have been part of the action. Ten minutes in Marvin Emnes had chased a lofted through ball by Rhys Williams only to be met by the fall force of Sullivan leaving his area. The collision (see picture) did not look pretty, and presumably only the cover of Adam Lockwood prevented Sullivan being dismissed, whilst Emnes left the field on a stretcher to be replaced by Tuncay.
Even in his short spell on the field Emnes had had the ball in the net – his fourth minute strike ruled out for offside – which perhaps illustrates the control Middlesbrough had on the match. Rovers were, typically, enjoying possession of the ball, but generally ran out of steam with it whenever they got sight of the home side’s penalty area. Half an hour in, all Rovers had to show for their play was a wayward effort from Mark Wilson and a shot from John Oster which Coyne had saved with little effort expended. At the other end Rovers were being aided greatly by Lita’s inability to remain onside, with the assistant referee at that end was in danger of dislocating a shoulder. Half-time arrived with ‘Boro in control, but Rovers far from out of it.
Middlesbrough began the second half with similarly incisive play as Adam Johnson made space for an effort which belied his previous work and Lita brought another save from Sullivan. Rovers to their credit, were still displaying football and possession to be proud of, but this was never allowed to transfer into something approaching a chance as Wheater and Huth simply swept up everything before them like Bluto holding a pre-Spinach Popeye away with a casual hand on the forehead. Eventually Brian Stock ducked and weaved his way into enough space for a long range effort which Coyne did well to save.
However, as Rovers looked for encouragement going forward the match was eventually settled at the other end with twenty minutes to go. Tony McMahon’s diagonal ball into the box from the right was brilliantly controlled and finished emphatically by Lita for a deserved second goal that caused Lita to celebrate as if he was the next Marco Tardelli.
In the final ten minutes Rovers pushed for a way back into the game, but it was to be to no real effect. Jamie Coppinger had a shot blocked by McMahon, whilst James Hayter threatened with an overhead kick, but these chances were few and far between as a formidable home defence snuffed out most opportunities before they were even created. In the end ‘Boro held out for a third straight win and a fourth consecutive clean sheet. Should they hold onto the sum of their parts then they look set for a swift return to the top-flight. As for Rovers, we continue to compete in a pleasing and competitive way, but far too often we remain as threatening as an audience at a vegan folk festival.
Middlesborough line-up (4-4-2): Danny Coyne; Jonathan Grounds, David Wheater, Roberth Huth, Rhys Williams; Mark Yeates (Jermeie Aliadiere), Julio Arca, Adam Johnson, Tony McMahon; Leroy Lita (Andrew Taylor), Marvin Emnes (Tuncay Sanli)
subs not used: Jason Steele, Justin Hoyte, Seb Hines, Joe Bennett
booked: Leroy Lita (celebrating circa Gazzetta Football Italia 1995), Julio Arca (foul)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Adam Lockwood, Jason Shackell, Gareth Roberts; John Oster (Quinton Fortune), Mark Wilson (John Spicer), Brian Stock; Jamie Coppinger, Dean Shiels (Paul Heffernan); James Hayter
subs not used: Ben Smith, Mustapha Dumbaya, Sam Hird, Lewis Guy
booked: Neil Sullivan (clumsy Harold Schumacher-esque challenge)