According to the BBC this was one of three successive Yorkshire derbies for Rovers so I’ll let you decide whether it is Scunthorpe or Newcastle which has been moved to the Land u’ t’ Gods while I crack on with the match report. Its not an easy report to write either as thanks to a low hanging scoreboard and a seat at the very back of the away end much of Sheffield United’s play was lost to me. Instead I had to judge where the ball would land based on the players’ reactions which thanks to a high and swirling wind left many passages of play resembling a game from Takeshi’s Castle.
Thankfully Rovers began with the ball on the floor and also began on the attack as Dean Shiels tested Mark Bunn in the opening twenty seconds. Indeed it was to be quite a lively opening as United had chances of their own inside the first five minutes with Ched Evans firing wide from the edge of the box and Andrew Davies and Darius Henderson both forcing Neil Sullivan into a save. At the other end Woods also kept Bunn active with a low long range effort.
As the game settled a pattern began to emerge with United keeping Rovers on the back foot with a succession of corners. Though for once Rovers looked equipped to deal with what they were facing with Jason Shackell, always solid in the air, joined by the pole-like Byron Webster to produce something approaching an aerial presence. However Rovers had to face a couple of these corners without Webster after an off the ball incident with Henderson, the latter yanking the arm of Webster and causing it to hyper-extend at the elbow. Despite a particularly anguished cry of pain Webster returned two set-pieces later; Henderson meanwhile went unpunished aside from a sustained few minutes abuse from the Rovers fans behind the goal.
The partnership of Webster and Shackell was being complimented by the inclusion of Sam Hird in a role located somewhere between a very deep midfielder and a fairly advanced centre half. Slotting in here Hird worked well at breaking down United’s attack and also recycling the ball. In fact the injury to Mark Wilson which forced the midfielder off on 38 minutes arguably helped Hird as it allowed him more space in which to cement himself in this position. Steadily as they familiarised themselves with their own formation and the abilities of their opposition Rovers began to come into the game.
United had enjoyed further chances with Steven Quinn firing over and Davies heading over, but the breakthrough was to come for the visitors and come before half-time in that clichéd ‘perfect-time-to-score slot. Dean Shiels carried the ball down the middle of the field and fed James Hayter with an excellent slide rule pass, and though the Rovers forward was held up by the Blades defence he did manage to squeeze out a shot that had enough momentum on it to find the back of the net. Cue brief bedlam in the away end and the five minutes injury time were seen out with a joyous bounce, but for one brief scare as Sullivan got down well to save a Richard Cresswell effort.
Rovers began the second half positively but the nature of the occasion and the scoreline at this point meant that it was inevitable that the home side would soon push them back. Sustained pressure is probably the best term for it though United were struggling to find a break through. The Blades’ attack was focussed on what managers call ‘getting the ball in the box from wide positions’ but what you and I call ‘crosses’. From one of these came the home side’s best chance thus far on the hour mark as the ball found Evans on the far side and he drove the ball across goal and inches wide of the opposite post.
Within five minutes though, and just as we were beginning to sense that Rovers might sneak a second on the break, United grabbed their inevitable equaliser. A deep cross from Glen Little at the by-line was met at the far post with a brave stooping header from Cresswell to make it 1-1. Five minutes later and United came within inches of the lead as Pantomime Villain Henderson headed onto the post from a free-kick. Still a derby isn’t a derby without end to end football and Rovers had a chance of their own moments later as Gareth Roberts fired wide.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Roberts as he was subbed off with fifteen minutes remaining, just thirty-five minutes after coming on as a sub himself. Roberts had replaced the injured Mark Wilson towards the end of the first half and when O’Driscoll chose to shuffle his pack again without disrupting his defence it was the latest addition who was sacrificed; Roberts giving way to Paul Heffernan. Once introduced Heffernan linked well with Hayter but his finest moment came as he went down under a Chris Morgan challenge. As the easily loathable centre half went apoplectic at the referee and Heffernan, the Rovers forward simply grinned and walked on past Morgan leaving the man effectively raging at himself.
Rovers had forged chances for Heffernan and Woods in the closing ten minutes but with both blocked the visitors would see out the game in the depths of their own area. O’Driscoll introduced Mustapha Dumbaya for his debut to slot into a back six as United pumped crosses into the area. As injury time began there was one last great chance for United as Kyle Walker controlled the ball twelve yards out but his powerful shot was brilliantly turned over by Sullivan.
Sometimes you can feel a little self-conscious and perhaps unambitious celebrating the final whistle in a drawn game. This was not to be one of those occasions. A draw at Bramall Lane is always going to be seen as a point gained rather than two points lost. No matter that Rovers once led, this was a threadbare Rovers side that is still adjusting to the loss of its footballing fulcrum. A welcome point and one achieved with a degree of tactical nous, hopefully it will send the trolls questioning Sean O’Driscoll’s position scuttling back under their bridge.
Man of the Match: Sam ‘der Kaiser’ Hird. Martin Woods ran him close, but Sam’s reinvention as some sort of Franz Beckenbauer-esque libero gets the nod. First premiered at Watford on opening day Sam excelled in his new role just in front of the back four breaking up play and getting the ball moving again. A tactical revelation from Sean O’Driscoll, fantastically played out by Hird.
Sheffield United line-up (4-4-2): Mark Bunn; Kyle Walker, Nick Montgomery (Ryan France), Chris Morgan, Jordan Stewart; Andrew Davies, Glen Little (David Cotterill), Steven Quinn, Richard Cresswell; Ched Evans (Keith Treacy), Darius Henderson
subs not used: Ian Bennett, Matt Kilgallon, Kyle Reid, Andy Taylor
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-1-4-1): Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Byron Webster, Jason Shackell, James Chambers; Sam Hird; John Spicer (Mustapha Dumbaya), Mark Wilson (Gareth Roberts)(Paul Heffernan), Martin Woods, Dean Shiels; James Hayter
subs not used: Ben Smith, Stuart Elliott, Waide Fairhurst, Lewis Guy
booked: Gareth Roberts (time-wasting)