Billy Sharp strikes again. Not since legendary 1930s winger Derek Whipsagoodcrossin have Rovers fielded such an aptly named footballer. Whilst women are drawn to men with good looks, kind hearts, big wallets or apparently an impressive golfing career men can’t help but go weak at the knees for Billy Sharp’s goals. “If that goal was a bird I’d marry it” proclaimed Nick leaping around to my right in the afterglow of Sharp’s strike today.
Quite simply Sharp is on fire. His incredible current goal-scoring run is turning a team with the potential to upset sides in this division to a club striding purposefully up the table. Eight goals in eight games for Sharp, four wins in five games for Rovers. It’s no coincidence. Rovers’ football has found the man in the right place at the right time that it needed and now we just need to make him ours. The chorus of “Sign him up” was pretty conclusive a summary as to how Rovers fans feel. The only detractor would probably be Nick’s actual wife.
Sean O’Driscoll was forced to make one change in view of the injury to Martin Woods, but he elected to make two. James Hayter moved to the bench as Mark Wilson and Simon Gillett came into midfield and Rovers shuffled back to a 4-3-2-1. It worked well in the opening half as the extra man in front of the back four enabled Rovers to swamp Bristol City in the middle and gain freedom for full-backs James Chambers and captain Gareth Roberts.
Thanks to this tactical shift Rovers were looking more threatening in attack than their opponents, with Jamie Coppinger’s neat footwork in particular causing headaches. All that was lacking was a correctly weighted cross as Coppinger got into a promising position only to over hit the final ball. Sharp’s reputation proceeded him with the City back line understandably nervous as he prowled the visiting defence for a sign of weakness like Jaws waiting for some cocky pillock to go for a paddle on a lilo.
His opportunity came twelve minutes in and he seized it with both hands and an emphatic right foot. A lack of communication at the back for City and Sharp pounced, carrying the ball forward and hitting an unstoppable drive from the corner of the area into the far side of the net. A brilliant strike from a player so full of confidence he’ll probably win X-Factor this weekend as well.
Buoyed by the goal Rovers began to move the ball about as you would expect, though as neat and enjoyable as the football was, eighteen minutes in is a little to early to be crying olé. There were chances to increase the lead though as Shiels got to the byline and stung the palms of Dean Gerken. Sharp headed another effort just wide and Gillett volleyed over from a frankly optimistic corner routine.
The game was almost at the half hour mark before City finally had an effort on goal worth me writing about; Nicky Maynard’s shot comfortably fielded by Sullivan. Rovers midfield and defence combined well to stub out any further chances before they were even created. Aside from a Paul Hartley effort which flew over the bar the visitor’s attacks were ended by either a well-timed tackle or block, or a Jason Shackell header. Rovers meanwhile had one more effort before the break as Coppinger worked his way forward but his well struck shot was straight at Gerken and the half ended with the score-line a fair reflection.
Half time and a chance for fans in the South Stand to get a picture of, or with, the watching (Sir) Francis Tierney. He may not have been acknowledged on the field but his name was regularly sung in the stands during the first half. In the West Stand we amused ourselves with Christmas themed Rovers players. Best of a bad bunch; Brian Stock-ing filler, Martinsel Woods and Simon Gil-little town of Bethlehem.
Back to the football and Gary Johnson shuffled his pack for the second half, threw caution to the wind and introduced Alvaro Saborio to the action too. It did the trick as City began the second half much improved and brought a fine save from Sullivan three minutes in; Saborio’s well hit shot beaten away from the top corner by the Rovers keeper.
That effort sparked life into City and they dominated the opening ten minutes of the half with Saborio hitting a shot just wide before Maynard did find the net. However by the time he rifled in his shot, from a ball hoisted back into the box, he had already been flagged offside.
Now it was Rovers’ turn to begin their offensive as some neat play down the right ended with Gillett burrowing his way into space in the area only to put his effort over the bar. Skipper Roberts also came close with a right footed effort that traipsed past the post with Gerken unsighted. For all Rovers passing qualities their best chance of a second goal came from a distinctly route one passage of play. Chambers short back-pass forced an almighty hoof from Sullivan that inadvertently released Sharp; he got between the last defender and the keeper but sliced his strike so wildly it went out for a throw in.
From then on in, save for the occasional break or neat retention of possession it was backs to the wall time for Rovers as City began to push for an equaliser. With quarter of an hour to go they came within inches of getting it through Lewin Nyatanga’s header; which Sullivan nonchalantly left to glance past his right hand post as a temporary vacuum was created by the simultaneous fearful intake of breath from 9,000 Rovers fans. Gavin Williams low effort was also seen wide with equal confidence from Sullivan and confirmation that this probably wasn’t going to be City’s day came as Maynard’s low strike was blocked, in one motion, by the foot then face of one of his team-mates.
After defending nervously at the start of the half Rovers now looked decidedly more controlled under pressure, but to make absolutely sure Sam Hird was added to the back line with ten minutes to go. O’Driscoll needn’t have bothered really given the incredible gravitational pull Shackell’s head seems to hold on the match ball. No matter where he positions himself any lofted ball into the Rovers area is inexplicably drawn to Shackell’s bonce like a moron to Hollyoaks.
As the Robins attacks floundered Rovers saw out the remaining time, including an unfathomable four minutes stoppage time, with a series of breakaways. There was still time for Lee Johnson to remind us all he’s every bit as irritating as his father with a crude frustrated challenge on Coppinger. To his credit though the Rovers man just skipped onward and the final whistle sounded with Rovers on the attack.
Under O’Driscoll Rovers have always been about the team ethic – strength coming from the sum of our parts – but the truth is no Christmas tree formation is complete without a star at its top. In amongst all this merriment and seasonal joy for Rovers fans there is one underlying concern that with each goal Sharp scores he edges further out of our price zone should Sheffield United decide to sell him in January. If Sharp is to remain in Doncaster then the theory is that one, two or possibly three players would have to make way, but who? On his current form you could probably sell everyone and just play Sharp… and Sullivan… and someone on the wing to field Sullivan’s kicks.
Man of the Match: Captain for the day Gareth Roberts maintained his excellent recent run of form at full-back. One passage of play in the second half where he hurled himself fearlessly into and won three succesive challenges perfectly highlighting his tenacity.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Jason Shackell, James O’Connor, Gareth Roberts; John Oster (John Spicer), Simon Gillett, Mark Wilson; Jamie Coppinger, Dean Shiels (Sam Hird); Billy Sharp (James Hayter)
subs not used: Ben Smith, Adam Lockwood, Byron Webster, Lewis Guy
booked: Simon Gillett (miss-timed tackle)
Bristol City line-up (4-4-2): Dean Gerken; Bradley Orr, Liam Fontaine, Lewin Nyatanga (Lee Johnson) Jamie McAllister; Cole Skuse, Paul Hartley, Marvin Elliott (Alvaro Saborio), Danny Haynes; Ivan Sproule (Gavin Williams), Nicky Maynard
subs not used: Stephen Henderson, Jamie McCombe, Louis Carey, David Clarkson
booked: Bradley Orr (poor challenge on Shackell)