Forget the result for a moment, as I’m sure Rovers fans will gladly do, because all the talk after this match was of the drastic change in personnel in Sean O’Driscoll’s team selection. Five of the team’s most prominent players not just absent from the starting line-up but from the squad as a whole. Out went Jason Shackell, Brian Stock, John Oster, Dean Shiels and James Hayter, and in came much speculation as to why, with Rovers seven substitutes boasting a collective Championship experience of just 120 minutes, 106 of which belonged to Byron Webster.
Rovers fans, like any football supporters, are never shy when it comes to starting or latching on to rumours. The absence of Jason Shackell could be easily explained by injury, and given a below average performance by his admittedly high standards from Brian Stock at Derby it could be assumed that the same was true of the captain. However, the missing Oster, Hayter and Shiels ushered in such a vast inflammatory game of Chinese Whispers that there were suggestions Google was about to suspended activities in DN4. John Oster for example had according to various messageboard posts been spotted placing a bet in the West Stand, sitting in the directors box and answering questions in the press room all at the same time. This followed the prominent rumour that he had been arrested for simultaneously drinking and fighting and assaulting a police-officer in Doncaster and Derby and Sheffield respectively on Saturday night.
The club maintain that all the absentees were injured, but as the club maintain a lot of things its safe to say the truth is yet to come out. The upshot was the fielding of a significantly weakened team to face the kind of club you would like to be at your strongest against. However, despite the significant restructuring undergone the Rovers’ starting XI were holding their own against the Teesiders, and had arguably had the better of the game’s opening quarter with Paul Heffernan’s wayward twenty-five yard shot the only real chance for either side.
Twenty-five minutes in and it looked like Rovers were starting to concern the visitors, notably as Danny Coyne had to react smartly to turn a Billy Sharp strike around his post. However, the boot was about to be firmly placed on the other foot as out of nothing Middlesbrough took the lead. Adam Johnson calmly brought the ball in from the left flank and having been allowed a little space let fly with a fine long range effort which nestled firmly in the top left corner of Neil Sullivan’s goal.
Buoyed by their lead Middlesbrough now began to dictate play more, particularly in midfield where the absence of regulars was most notably being felt. Still, Rovers managed to threaten an equaliser with Sharp forcing a timely interception from David Wheater and Jamie Coppinger bringing Coyne into action again. ‘Boro were threatening too though and Jonathan Franks had already missed a glancing header before he notched the second goal of the game in first half stoppage time. The youngster took a touch to steady himself as he received a low cross from the left byline and then placed the ball in the back of the net for his first Middlesbrough goal.
Trailing by two goals Rovers began the second half with the required sense of urgency and had already forced a corner before Coppinger came close to pulling a goal back. The diminutive midfielder neatly cutting in from the right before hitting a left foot shot which was deflected just over the bar. Rovers continued to press with James Chambers heading wide from the resultant corner and Heffernan missing a chance soon after as his effort on goal was again blocked.
Unable to reduce the deficit, Rovers instead saw the margin extended through a moment of ineptitude in a defence which has recently been excelling itself. A long kick down field had both James O’Connor and Sullivan in two minds and ultimately the former inadvertently headed the ball over the latter allowing Leroy Lita to round them both and nod the ball into the empty net from little more than a yard out.
Doncaster continued to look for a way back into the game, but were being let down by their potency in front of goal. Coppinger broke forward from his own interception but sadly could not muster a firm enough shot on goal whilst Lewis Guy struck an awful effort from distance soon after. The two combined to greater effect minutes later though as an excellent ball over the top from Coppinger released Guy, who this time caught it well on the volley, but Coyne smartly turned the ball round the post. In amongst the frustration came a much anticipated moment as Coppinger was withdrawn to make way for Sean McDaid to make his first Rovers appearance after almost two years out injured.
Whilst McDaid took the goodwill, it was left to one of his fellow substitutes to take the limelight. Loan signing Jordan Mutch had arrived at Rovers just over twenty-four hours before kick-off and made an instant impression as he brought Rovers some cheer ten minutes from time. The young midfielder took aim from thirty yards and successfully found the top corner with a fine strike to make the score 3-1 and offer a glimmer of hope to Rovers fans.
Sadly, it was to prove little more than a glimmer as before the final whistle the visitors re-established their three goal cushion. O’Connor had upended Lita on the edge of the area and from the resulting free-kick Johnson struck a straight low drive which found the bottom left corner of Sullivan’s net with the keeper rooted to the spot. Rovers heaviest home defeat since a 4-0 loss to Swansea almost two years ago to the day, but it seems all the post-match talk is set to concern those who were not there, rather than those who were.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-1-2); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Sam Hird (Byron Webster), Gareth Roberts; John Spicer (Jordan Mutch), Mark Wilson, James Coppinger (Sean McDaid); Lewis Guy; Paul Heffernan, Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, Mustapha Dumbaya, Charles Fisher, Robbie Clark
booked: James O’Connor (foul)
Middlesbrough line-up (4-4-2); Danny Coyne; Tom McMahon, David Wheater, Jonathan Grounds, Justin Hoyte (Andrew Taylor); Willo Flood, Gary O’Neil, Julio Arca (Joe Bennett), Jonathan Franks (Leroy Lita); Chris Killen, Adam Johsnon
subs not used: Marvin Emnes, Jason Steele, Josh Walker, Luke Williams