Even the match programme suggested that this was to be a tough task for Rovers. A lavish and beautifully designed piece of literature which had the kind of typefaces normally only seen in the brochures which line the receptions of creative incubation office units. It may not have pointed to a more sophisticated class, we were in Smethwick after all and it was sold to me as a “prowgramme” for “thray quid moite”, but it did suggest we were about to come into contact witha professional unit.
The Hawthorns is something of an anti-tardis. It holds 26,500 and so the expectation is for it to be vast inside, but in truth the Main Stand is smaller than its Keepmoat counterpart. Still, with 22,000 in attendance there was an impressive atmosphere, the best of the season fuelled by the boisterous home fans sharing the Smethwick End with the Rovers. Buoyed by the support, and also by being a genuinely good team, West Brom started well and had Rovers on the back foot for the opening minutes.
Doncaster, so often assured in midfield, were being given more time on the ball than they had at Reading on Saturday, but were struggling to get it under control and play. The home side were having much less trouble and cut an impressive swathe coming at the Rovers, particularly down the flanks as they looked to get the ball in the box.
However, the instance that Rovers finally settled they produced some neat interplay outside and then inside the West Brom area and managed to take a shock lead. Sean O’Driscoll had sprung a major surprise in handing a first start to Waide Fairhurst, but the young forward combined excellently with John Oster and Billy Sharp on the edge of the box to put the latter through towards the by-line. From there Sharp cut the ball back across goal and Fairhurst stroked it into the net for a memorable first goal. Joy unbridled in the away end with scarves, shirts, and in the case of the guy in front of me, a baby, being waved in celebration.
Just after the goal West Brom were forced to substitute the injured Marek Cech and brought on Jerome Thomas who suddenly breathed new life into the left side of the Albion midfield from which much of the home side’s threat began to come. Neil Sullivan had to be alert to stop Roman Bednar meeting a cross from this side, and then minutes later saved a header from Chris Brunt from a corner. Despite the chorus of “How s**t must you be, we’re winning away” from the Rovers fans the inevitable equaliser came twenty minutes in. A corner from the Albion left was met by Jonas Olsson and his header somehow squeezed between Oster and the post for 1-1.
Level again, and perhaps with an element of pressure lifted, Rovers finally began to assert themselves on the game. After being pinned back for much of the opening twenty-five minutes they produced a spell of decent pressure around the half hour mark. A succession of corners and blocked efforts ending with Brian Stock hitting a low drive just wide of the post, whilst minutes later Martin Woods had a firm strike blocked by a desperate defending lunge.
Quarter of an hour before the break Rovers brought on James O’Connor for Gareth Roberts at left back; Roberts having been carrying a knock for about fifteen minutes prior to the change. Although play was much more even in the quarter of an hour before the break, the last two chances of the half went to West Brom in the form of two Chris Brunt free-kicks, his first was deflected into the comfortable hands of Sullivan, the second from the edge of the box flew just narrowly wide of the post. 1-1 at half time then, though Albion had bossed the opening quarter Rovers had begun to establish themselves in the game.
This was to shown as Rovers began the second half particularly brightly. Inside the first minute the ball sat up nicely for Woods and from 35 yards he struck a dipping volley that briefly had Scott Carson worried. A few minutes later a foul on the edge of the area gave Stock the opportunity to shoot; curling the dead-ball just over the bar. This seemed to spark the home side back into life and the next ten minutes saw Albion put a number of deliveries into the area, but Rovers were equal to it and most cannoned back out the box via the shaved dome of Jason Shackell who at times was heading it further than I can probably kick a ball.
Twenty minutes into the half, from another set-piece, this time a softly given free-kick on the Albion left, the home side took the lead. A good ball into the box was again met by the head of Olsson and he managed to find the bottom corner to put West Brom 2-1 ahead. “1-0 and you f***ed it up” taunted the Baggies’ fans to our left. “Premier League and you f***ed it up” came the Rovers reply. The Rovers fans had been providing a contsant backing track throughout the second half and the team seemed determined not to let this go unrewarded. After surviving a couple of Roman Bednar efforts fifteen minutes from time Rovers went on the offensive themselves.
Woods had an effort deflected over for a corner on the Rovers right. Woods took it himself and picked out Adam Lockwood haring into a unfeasibly vast space in the centre of the area. A decent contact and it would have surely been 2-2, but instead the ball seemed to pass through Lockwood’s head rather than bounce off it and somehow the defender glanced it wide leaving him standing with the aforementioned ghost-head in his hands when he should have been doing a crowd dive into the Smethwick End.
Rovers were still pressing though as Billy Sharp was played in by a chipped ball over the top from Mark Wilson, only for the linesman to raise his flag before Sharp cut the ball back across to Fairhurst. And a similar delivery from Dean Shiels almost released Sharp again but Carson was out quickly to gather. As chances were starting to come Rovers were delivered a significant and frankly stunning sucker-punch. Substitute Chris wood managed to muscle his way into controlling a bouncing ball twenty-five yards out, he pulled it out of a crowd of Rovers players and then struck a fiercome half-volley which flew into the top corner via Sullivan’s right-hand post.
Though there was six minutes still to play, and though Rovers kept pressing that goal was effectively game over. No doubt the home side, on the overall balance of play deserved a win, but 3-1 was a harsh score-line on a Rovers team who may well have made it 2-2 with ten minutes to play. Special credit to Sean O’Driscoll too for being prepared to give Fairhurst a chance, not so much throwing him in at the deepend as pushing him in off the high board. It was proved a great move as not only did Fairhurst get the goal, but he worked tirelessly throughout and was a constant threat to an established back-line.
There seems to be an odd custom in Birmingham for taunting away fans who (a) support clubs who your own side are expected to beat and (b) are a safe distance away. Last season I had passing Blues fans yelling “1-0 Ahhhh” at me from passing cars on the walk back through Digbeth when in truth they had little to gloat about. Tonight a small group of Albion fans, once ten yards past us in the opposite direction, gave a giggling burst of “1-0 and you f***ed it up”. What they don’t seem to understand is that for us, each of these games are simply marks on our journey, steps on the ladder if you will. Yeah we lost, but we expected to. The key thing for us is that we worked out what we can do against a side like West Brom and we’ll come back stronger next time. We may have “f***ed it up” in your view, but if we’re going to play teams in this part of the world I’d rather be f***ing up one goal leads against West Bromwich than Halesowen.
Man of the Match: John Spicer gets the nod for some tireless work in midfield; excellent in posession and at holding up the ball when he needed to. Also showed great strength to win the ball back for Rovers on many occasions; his best performance of the season so far.
Wes Bromwich Albion line-up (4-4-2): Scott Carson; Gianni Zuiverloon, Sheldon Martis, Jonas Olsson, Joe Mattock; Graham Dorans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Chris Brunt (Chris Wood), Marek Cech (Jerome Thomas); Robert Koran, Roman Bednar (Filipe Teixera)
subs not used: Dean Kiely, Leon Barnett, Reuban Reid, Simon Cox
booked: Joe Mattock (poor challenge straight through the back of Waide Fairhurst), Jonas Olsson (dissent)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-2-2); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Adam Lockwood, Jason Shackell, Gareth Roberts (James O’Connor); Brian Stock (Mark Wilson), John Oster (Dean Shiels); Martin Woods, John Spicer; Waide Fairhurst, Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, Sam Hird, Byron Webster, Quinton Fortune