For months after the Conference play-offs I had a painful souvenir of every game. My right knuckle was grazed from inadvertently striking the wall of the Pop Stand in celebration of Tris Whitman’s equaliser. My left knuckle carried the dried blood of a similar altercation with the back of the stand at Chester following the penalty shoot-out, whilst my shins had been removed of much skin by the seat backs at Stoke as (Sir) Francis Tierney scored that goal. I said in the preview of today’s fixture that it would not be as good as last season’s trip to Derby and whilst that remains the case I am destined to carry a reminder of it for some time as I now have a souvenir similar to those afforded in that play-off run. So energetic were our celebrations of Rovers’ second goal that I left much of my right shin on the back of seat JJ754 at Pride Park. So welcome and joyous was the victory that it was not for another three hours that I noticed. Altogether now “Jingle belles, Jingle bells, jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to see Rovers win away”.
Maybe its because I am from a footballing family, but for me, just as much as turkey, presents, or weeping in despair in an overcrowded Argos store, Christmas is signified by a great away win on a freezing cold day. For Derby yesterday read Scarborough, Bradford and Nottingham Forest. Whilst two of those three were emphatic wins, there is something arguably more enjoyable about a smash and grab raid such as the one Doncaster undertook today. Maybe it was the collective relief afforded by the second goal, or maybe it was the realisation that as a club we are expanding our options. We don’t just have to pass teams off the park to win, we’re developing a resolve to win not ugly, but to win games which could easily have been drawn or lost. It’s this new dimension which suggests Rovers and Sean O’Driscoll are getting used to this Championship malarkey.
Back to the matter in hand then, and as the two teams were announced there was a notable cheer and chant from the Doncaster followers for Derby’s Paul Green, deservedly acknowledged for his service to the Rovers. Green was also the recipient of the first chance of the game as Gary Teale was allowed space to advance down the left and his deep cross picked out the midfielder at the far post. Stretching for it Green could only stretch to turn the ball back across the face of goal with no other County players in sight. Matt next to me suggested that Green, through sentiment, could not bring himself to do anything more damaging with it. If that was the case Green went on to have a very sentimental afternoon, with many of his passes finding Rovers’ players with the travelling crowd suggesting rather loudly that “You should have stayed at the Rovers”.
Twenty minutes in there was a significant case to be made for that argument as Rovers took the lead. Though the game had been pretty even to this point Rovers had shown enough to suggest they would hold a threat breaking forward and that was how the opening goal came. John Oster carried the ball down the middle of the field before feeding Billy Sharp with a well placed through ball. Sharp took one touch to control, it, another to cut back inside and a third to do the inevitable and pick out the back of the net as Jay McEveley, Dean Leacock and Stephen Bywater simply floundered in his wake. Sharp’s sixth goal from six consecutive games and an emphatic chorus of “Billy, Billy Sharp” rang out from the away end as he jogged back to his own half.
The goal settled Rovers and brought them confidence as they enjoyed much more possession in the subsequent ten minutes. Neat play down the right in particular saw James Chambers advance and have a crack at goal which was sadly blocked before it could trouble Bywater. Again on the break Rovers posed a threat as Neil Sullivan fed Gareth Roberts and the full-back advanced before picking out the run of Sharp in the channel; the forward’s back-heel just inches away from playing in Oster.
Though the game had been fairly even there had been very little to trouble Neil Sullivan with until he was finally called into action around the half hour mark. DJ Campbell showed neat footwork on the edge of the area to control. turn and shoot, but Sullivan was down well to his right to comfortably hold his shot. The last chance of the first half went the way of the Rovers as a Dean Shiels corner was headed clear towards Mark Wilson on the edge of the area. Wilson controlled it neatly on his thigh before volleying it goal-wards where Bywater had to be at full stretch to turn the ball away from the top corner. Half-time came with an enjoyable mix of Christmas songs and hits by The Specials on the PA, and with Rovers leading by one Billy Sharp to none.
Whilst the first half had been a relatively even affair the second was played out extensively in the Rovers half. Ten minutes after the break Nigel Clough decided to undertake a different strategy as off went the pace of DJ Campbell and the irritancy of Paul Dickov to be replaced by the more sizable presence of Rob Hulse and Chris Porter. The home side hurled one corner into the box in the direction of their new height advantage though it was clawed away and soon after Sean O’Driscoll adapted his own approach to meet the new challenge. Off went outlet Shiels to be replaced by another defender in Sam Hird and the remaining half an hour was spent not so much backs to the wall as crouched behind it occasionally popping up a head or a spare limb to hoof the ball clear.
Derby were having the better of the possession but seemed unsure what to do with it. Oster, Wilson and Simon Gillett harried in the middle and so the home side had little option but to loft the ball into the area whenever the chance came. However, when they eventually did that it was effectively mopped up by the pace of O’Connor, the head of Shackell, or the reactionary flailing legs of Hird who at one point in the half spent a continuous two minutes horizontally thwarting crosses. There was no doubt the home side were on top, but for all time spent in Rovers half of the field Derby were devoid of a plan B and subsequently created very little in the way of genuine opportunities.
Indeed Rovers arguably had as many sights of goals as their opponents through getting the ball forward quickly; once as Oster broke, effectively using Sharp as a decoy, as he wound through three Derby defenders only to slice his final shot. Otherwise, the threat came from Sharp, now on his own up front, but his presence alone worked to significant effect. Not only is he making much of the male population of Doncaster question their sexuality, but he also has Championship defenders terrified. As penned back as Rovers were, whenever they did get it clear Derby’s defence treated Sharp like an unearthed landmine. Intrigued enough to go towards him but frightened to death of doing the wrong thing and allowing him to explode. It was Sharp’s persistence in chasing a long ball forward that induced a comical handball from Bywater as he intercepted only to carry the ball out of his area.
Though isolated Sharp had worked tirelessly and almost engineered a chance all on his own in the final ten minutes as he cut in from the left and beat two men, but his shot was easily smothered by Bywater. Soon after Sharp was taken off for Lewis Guy and rewarded with a deserving standing ovation from the Rovers fans, his name ringing out around Pride Park’s strangely angled rafters. At the other end Derby’s forward Rob Hulse was trying to earn himself similar praise as the chief engineer the home side’s best chances. However, having finally got through the Rovers’ impressive back-line he was twice thwarted by Sullivan, firstly as the ‘keeper held a less than perfect header and secondly as he was quickly off his line to smother at Hulse’s feet.
As solid as Sullivan is the one facet of his play which occasionally lets him down is his distribution. Indeed kicking from his hands he has a knack for finding touch which would have Jonny Wilkinson turning a shade of green. However in comparison to Bywater this afternoon Sullivan was getting his man with the success rate of a Canadian Mountie. Bywater’s kicking had been wildly off-target for the majority of the ninety minutes and when he elected to try using his hands in injury-time he was to fare no better, and indeed disastrously worse.
Desperate to keep play moving as time ticked down and already out on the flank Bywater decided to take a throw-in himself. With nothing on close by he hurled it infield in the direction of McEveley. Possessing all the accuracy of many of his earlier kicks his throw almost went to Guy, just evaded Wilson, but was taken from the toe of McEveley by Jamie Coppinger. The Rovers man advanced with the ball, and though Bywater made it back to his goal, he was in no position to make a save and Coppinger coolly slotted it home to spark much less cool celebrations behind the goal as the travelling Rovers fans descended into one big bouncing, scarf waving, shin-grazing mass of Christmas joy.
As Rovers celebrated the County fans streamed out the exits and by the time the final whistle went a couple of minutes later there were more empty seats than supporters along three sides of Pride Park. The Rovers fans remained to give their team suitable acclaim and encouragingly the players too looked every bit as joyous at the result, with Billy Sharp particularly enthusiastic in his celebrations.
Sharp may be grabbing the headlines, with a goal in each of the last six games, but this is far from a one man show. Five of those matches have seen Rovers record clean sheets, and if it wasn’t for the efforts of the collective Sharp would just be notching consolation goals. Thanks to heroics at the back and the knack for delivering the forward the right ball from midfield Doncaster are looking complete. Rovers are now 11th in the Championship; the last time they were this high at Yuletide the Christmas dinner was rationed.
Man of the Match: Given the effort in the second half this accolade had to go to a defender really. Of late Jason Shackell has been so solid that you could use him to break up diamonds, however James O’Connor gets the nod from us though as he continues to reward Sean O’Driscoll’s bold tactical move to revert him to centre half with an excellent all round performance.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Jason Shackell, Gareth Roberts; John Oster (James Hayter), Simon Gillett, Mark Wilson; Jamie Coppinger, Dean Shiels (Sam Hird); Billy Sharp (Lewis Guy)
subs not used: Ben Smith, Byron Webster, John Spicer, Rob Clark
booked: Gareth Roberts (presumably a foul, in all the excitement I’ve forgotten)
Derby County line-up (4-4-2): Stephen Bywater; Jay McEveley, Paul Connolly, Dean Leacock, Dean Moxey; Paul Green, Robbie Savage (Lee Croft), Stephen Pearson, Gary Teale; DJ Campbell (Rob Hulse), Paul Dickov (Chris Porter)
subs not used: Saul Deeney, Jake Buxton, Jake Livermore, Lee Hendrie
booked: Stephen Bywater (comedy handball)