Football has gone very odd. On days like today I don’t get how it can still take itself seriously. On arrival at Coventry City’s ground today, we headed inside a door to find some toilets and a bar and suddenly found ourselves inside a casino. There were blokes in replica shirts and scarves having a pint, and none of them seemed at all moved by the fact they were doing this at the base of a water feature laden staircase, beneath a huge chandelier surrounded by roulette wheels. Thats not right. This was the kind of place you don’t see in daylight and are only reminded you’ve been when you come across a flyer or a poker chip in the depths of your jacket pocket some weeks later and even then its just a hazy memory of green felt and revolving fruit images until you have rung a mate and ask “You know Tommo’s birthday? Did we end up in a f***ing Casino?” This was not the place to be reading a matchday programme, and shame on anyone who managed to do so without fearing for their very soul.
Coventry City’s corporate edge continued into the stadium itself as the PA announcer tried to whip the crowd into a frenzy, by introducing each stand. How he could bring himself to try to draw phrases like “Lets hear you in the Tesco Stand” and “Its the home to our corporate guests” toward a climactic war-cry without dropping to his knees and wondering where his dignity went I’ve no idea? I began this game with more dignity than him and I fell over on the ice walking to the stadium. Completely over. And I went down with all the poise and balance of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge too.
Football though. Thats ultimately what we came for and that’s what Rovers demonstrated for much of the first half. For a long swathe of the opening forty minutes it was such a convincing display of ball retention that you could almost hear the received pronunciation of a pre-war information film in your head. “They say possession is nine tenths of the law and no-one demonstrates that better than the boys from Doncaster Rovers. Those Northerners certainly know how to pass the ball”. As key as the passing has always been to Rovers’ play, this season has also shown them utilise pace on the break much more, and it was this which brought the game’s first chance. Ten minutes in and Dean Shiels broke forward, hitting a low shot which Kieron Westwood saved.
Coventry’s own possession was stifled to almost non-existence but despite struggling to move or retain the ball convincingly they were still able to fashion chances, notably quarter of an hour in as they were the width of the post away from taking the lead. Freddie Eastwood’s glancing header confidently left by Neil Sullivan only to strike the far upright and come back across goal. A let off perhaps, Eastwood had been unmarked, but on the whole Rovers looked very much in control. As Donny sprayed the ball around the home fans seemed to have carried their post-Christmas lunch slumber over from 24 hours previously and were only provoked into mild indignation by a couple of refereeing decisions.
But for all Rovers movement of player and ball they were unable to fashion much approaching a genuine chance. John Oster put a free-kick over the bar twenty-five minutes in and a short while later combined well with James Chambers on the right, enabling the latter to fire the ball across the goal where it just eluded both the far post and a flying Billy Sharp. The problem seemed to be a penchant for one too many touches n the final third, enabling City to do enough to smother Rovers’ attempts to turn possession into profit.
As its panto it perhaps seemed only right that someone should play the villain to liven up the crowd participation. Leon Best accepted the role, green boots substituting the usual cloud of green smoke, when required to knock the ball back to Rovers following an injury to Jason Shackell. Rather than ushering it toward Sullivan, Best leathered it goalwards from halfway and his ‘pass’ cannoned off the top of the bar. Boos and hisses from the Rovers crowd gave way to a ten minute chorus of Sean O’Driscoll’s Barmy Army and the Coventry fans, lifted their paper hats from their eyes and, murmured into life themselves.
In the closing minutes to the half Best took centre stage, and rather satisfyingly his perplexing approach to sportsmanship was hit by a sizable cloud of karma. But, not before the forward had won his side a penalty, just beating Sullivan to a through ball and with contact from the keeper needed no encouragement to go down like I had done on the icy roads two hours previously. The forward stepped up to take the penalty himself and struck the woodwork with a satisfying thwack. Within a minute Best had an even better chance that to open the scoring as Aron Gunnarrsson’s long through found a way through, but somehow from three yards Best fired high into the stands. As the travelling fans so eloquently put it “Der der der, f***ing useless”.
So, thanks in part to the goal frame and Leon Best it was goalless at half-time. Rovers had looked much the better side, but there was no denying that Coventry had enjoyed the better chances. The second period was to prove more open in terms of end to end flow, but again it would be the home side who fashioned the clearer opportunities. However, the longer the game went on you began to get the feeling that Rovers might nick it. It was that kind of game as luck rather than judgement helped prevent City taking the lead, as illustrated when Sullivan misjudged a deep corner soon after the break, but Jason Shackell was on hand to volley both the ball and, for good measure, James O’Connor’s head to safety.
There was a nervousness to the Rovers defence at the start of the second period which came as a surprise given their record coming into this game. The height and work-rate of Eastwood and Best certainly had Rovers stretched and the latter was afforded too much space seven minutes in from a cross into the area. Best’s well struck volley was turned away brilliantly by the outstretched arm of Sullivan though as the ‘keeper made amends for his earlier lack of judgement. Rovers best attack yet came just after as Oster advanced at the box from the right before feeding Sharp, the forward just getting it out of his feet, before getting it to Shiels who could only shoot over. This move illustrated the failure to move the ball just that fraction quicker which would have had Coventry beaten, and sadly was to prove the difference between a win and a loss.
Sharp was working tirelessly up front for Rovers, but he was lacking the service to make a significant impact and his first genuine shot on goal came midway through the second half, turning his markers to strike low towards goal where Westwood saved comfortably. City were now on top of things and their opportunities were much more fitting of the word; Gunnarsson curled an effort just wide from distance whilst Michael McIndoe was able to get on the end of a deep diagonal ball to strike against the outside of Sullivan’s near post. Just as it ws looking like Rovers had done enough for a fifth straight clean sheet, the home side were awarded a second penalty. From a cross into the area Chambers and Clinton Morrsion challenged for the ball, the latter hit the deck, and the referee pointed to the spot. It looked soft, but then Morrison would not have cared, as he just beat Sullivan to make it 1-0.
With five minutes plus stoppage time remaining O’Driscoll understandably went for broke, bringing on his most attacking remaining substitutes as Lewis Guy and John Spicer replaced Gareth Roberts and Mark Wilson for something approaching a 2-5-3. Whilst the change enabled Rovers to attack more the final ball and the fluidity of recent matches was lacking. Sullivan came up for a late corner, but though he put himself in the right place he could not swing a volley at it quick enough, and with the Rovers goal untended Coventry had a chance for a second goal, but McIndoe’s effort from halfway was wayward.
Shackell was thrown up front as a target man for the duration of injury time, and he was one of two Rovers players to have penalty appeals waved down. Jamie Coppinger was first as he claimed a tug on his shirt as he turned on the ball, though it seemed a reasonable claim, Coppinger went down a little too easily for the referee’ liking. Shackell too was felled in a similar manner a minute later, but despite Rovers desperation Coventry again had the better opportunity as Sullivan made a good stop with his legs to thwart another break.
And so the recent run ended with a disappointing 1-0 defeat. Don’t get me wrong, on clear-cut chances created Coventry deserved the victory. No, the frustration comes from what was shown in the first half, in that Rovers, as a collective, were the more accomplished footballers, but could not turn that into something threatening. There was neat football, and there was an inform goalscorer, but unfortunately Doncaster today failed to link those two aspects together the way they have recently done so. The same line-up which has disappointed today can, I feel, be excused the lapses of this afternoon for their form in the four games previous. They’ve but their shift in, and credit to them, but this defeat coupled with the presence of Brian Stock on the bench look set to offer Sean O’Driscoll the chance to play a different hand, and take down his Christmas tree formation before the New Year.
Man of the Match: Dean Shiels may have been subbed off with around twenty-five minutes to go but that was no reflection on his performance, as O’Driscoll simply looked to put more of a fixed presence up front with Billy Sharp. Shiels worked tirelessly up and down and, as he has in previous games, always looked Rovers’ most dangerous player on the break.
Coventry City line-up (4-4-2): Keiron Westwood; Martin Craine, Leon Barnett James McPake (Richard Wood), Patrick van Aanholt; David Bell, Aron Gunnarsson, Jack Cork, Michael McIndoe; Leon Best (Clinton Morrison), Freddie Eastwood (Gary Madine)
subs not used: Daniel Ireland, Stephen Wright, Sammy Clingan, Elliott Ward
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Jason Shackell, James O’Connor, Gareth Roberts (Lewis Guy); John Oster, Simon Gillett, Mark Wilson (John Spicer); Jamie Coppinger, Dean Shiels (James Hayter); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, Byron Webster, Sam Hird, Brian Stock