There’s probably a very tenuous irony in how this match ultimately panned out. A week which began with two Rovers players spending time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure was ended with Cardiff throwing down a giant Get Out of Jail Free card in injury time at the Cardiff City Stadium. At times today the football played by Rovers was frankly as good as it gets and on their second half performance alone Rovers deserved much more from this game than the cruel late blow they were ultimately dealt.
There is no doubting that Cardiff City had the better of the first half, though it was Rovers who had the first opportunity from a free-kick on the edge of the area. Dean Shiels sadly striking the dead ball straight into the wall and causing a half-hearted appeal for handball. That was two minutes in, and it rarely got much better for Rovers before the break, with the home side’s first chance coming minutes later. Peter Whittingham controlling a bouncing ball in midfield and hitting a speculative volley which landed comfortably over Neil Sullivan’s crossbar.
The Bluebirds did not have to wait much longer for the opening goal though as Michael Chopra struck just nine minutes in. A neatly executed lofted long ball from Whittingham had the Rovers back line appealing for an offside flag that was never going to come with Chopra timing his run just right to control the ball and fire a low shot into the far corner of Sullivan’s goal. Rovers, as they had in the latter stages at Derby and on Tuesday night against Middlesbrough, looked distinctly nervy across the balkline and throughout the half continued to pin their hopes on offside appeals rather than genuine defending.
Cardiff were instinctively quick to capitalise on this weak point and within minutes Chopra had been released again. Clean through on goal the forward tried to roll the ball beneath Sullivan, but the keeper spread himself well to save with his foot. Chopra was to fashion a similar chance later in the half form a neatly flicked through ball into the area but this time he flashed his effort wildly into the Grange Stand behind the goal.
With Cardiff dictating play somewhat Rovers chances were few and far between, though they were finding some luck by working the ball out wide. Midway through the half Gareth Roberts had put Shiels away down the left with his cross headed over by Billy Sharp. Brian Stock had also had a sight of goal, but his strike from distance was sadly always going over.
The home side had posed a threat throughout the half and arguably their best chance of extending the lead came in the last five minutes before the break as Chris Burke got away down the right and stood over an excellent cross for the unmarked Ross McCormack at the far post who got his header down but just wide of the upright. On the back foot for the opening half an hour Rovers had begun to show a little more confidence in their midfield play late in the half, though the neat passing in the centre of the pitch was not really posing a threat at the other end. Shiels was played in at one point and hit the deck in the area, though the referee waved his appeals for a penalty away, and even from our position at the other end of the stadium the official seemed to have called it right.
Thankfully for the 500 or so Rovers fans in attendance this was to prove the archetypal game of two halves as Doncaster decided to use the second half to show exactly what they are capable of when allowed to play their own game. The team adopted a higher line from the start and so the football which they had begun to play on halfway at the back end of the first half was now being worked around the opposition half, and was instantly more threatening. Two minutes in came the first opportunity on goal as Stock hoisted a ball out to Roberts advancing down the left. The full-back squared it infield with his first touch where Shiels fooled two City men with a step-over to allow Jamie Coppinger to shoot from the edge of the are and his curling effort had to be turned over the bar by David Marshall.
Cardiff forced a couple of corners minutes later, but that was to be their only threat on Sullivan’s goal for some time as Rovers controlled the play. Doncaster were working the ball neatly on the floor and neat play from Coppinger and Sharp gave Mark Wilson a chance to shoot, but his effort was deflected well wide. From the corner Sharp got in an effort but it too was blocked as Cardiff hung onto their lead.
Twenty minutes into the half came the breakthrough Rovers had been promising though as again neat play down the middle of the field saw the ball reach Wilson on the edge of the box. The midfielder looked to be crowded out but just managed to lay the ball into the path of the overlapping Roberts and the full-back caught Marshall by surprise with a well-struck left footed shot which nestled in the back of the net to make it 1-1.
Rovers wre now in control and almost doubled their lead within a couple of minutes as James Chambers and John Oster combined brilliantly down the right to allow the former to get to the byline and his pull-back was met by Coppinger who’s first time effort was just blocked yards out by a City defender. Rovers were having some joy getting the ball down the right side and fashioned another chance moments later as Oster’s cross was deflected up into the air for Coppinger to meet with a bicycle kick which had Marshall diving to his elft to save.
Though they had been pinned back for the best part of half an hour Cardiff finally began to pose a threat as the match wound to its conclusion. Jay Bothroyd headed over the bar from a City free-kick whilst McCormack hit a low effort which Sullivan comfortably fielded. Rovers were still trying to win it themselves though and Shiels fired wide with a strike as well before being replaced by Byron Webster in injury time as Rovers looked to see out the match.
Unfortunately for Webster he was to play a part in City’s winning goal as an unfortunate slip from him beneath the ball gave Cardiff a corner. McCormack’s ball in picked out Bothroyd in the middle of the area and though it looked to be falling comfortably for Sullivan, the presence of Chopra in front of the veteran ‘keeper seemed to confuse him and Sullivan inadvertently performed something of a volleyball dig into the roof of the net. The final whistle followed soon after to signal a defeat from a game which Rovers had done more than enough in to deserve to leave with more.
In the first half Rovers’ potency had been limited somewhat by their own formation and the speed with which they tried to get the ball forward. With Sharp effectively up front on his own the quick or long ball was leaving him isolated. After the break Rovers football was more restrained, more patient and as such they were able to get more bodies forward and offer much more threat to Cardiff’s backline.
The return of Brian Stock, or perhaps more specifically the return to form of Brian Stock made a notable difference. When Stock is playing at his best then those around him seem to exude more confidence. At Derby last Saturday Stock was misfiring and the play of Wilson and Oster became jumpy and nervy by reflection. Today Stock was assured, and ultimately Wilson and Oster looked much the better for it as well. The concern is of course that it appears the defence is garnered by a similar factor, in the presence and performance of Jason Shackell. No disrespect to Sam Hird who on the whole has performed very well this season, but it appears to be Shackell who causes the defence to up its collective game and as a team Rovers are clearly more vulnerable without him.
As well as the manner in which it was lost, this game also carried a significant note of disappointment for me in the actions of some of our supporters. To taunt Cardiff City fans by chanting the name of Peter Ridsdale and also wave money at the home fans, I feel, shows a distinct lack of appreciation for our own recent history. The likes of Ridsdale are a significant blight on the game, and it pained me yesterday to see Rovers fans gleefully chanting his name. Given how close to the wall our own club went, I cannot believe anyone would show anything but sympathy or empathy to supporters placed in similar positions by the cavalier attitudes of those running clubs.
Man of the Match: Tough to call this one really as there were astute performance throughout the Rovers team, most notably across the midfield. Dean Shiels gets the nod from us though as again he worked hard in and out of possession and often looked to be Rovers’ most threatening player. He continues to look a very shrewd signing.
Cardiff City line-up (4-4-2): David Marshall; Mark Kennedy (Kevin McNaughton), Anthony Gerrard, Gabor Gyepes, Adam Matthews; Peter Whittingham, Chris Burke (Soloman Taiwo), Gavin Rae (Darcy Blake), Ross McCormack; Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd
subs not used: Peter Enckelman, Tony Capaldi, Warren Feeney, Paul Quinn
booked: Soloman Taiwo (a ‘nothing foul’)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Sam Hird, James O’Connor, Gareth Roberts; John Oster (Jordan Mutch), Brian Stock, Mark Wilson; Jamie Coppinger (James Hayter), Dean Shiels (Byron Webster); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, John Spicer, Lewis Guy, Paul Heffernan
booked: Dean Shiels (absolutely no idea why, presumably dissent), Brian Stock (incredibly soft caution for a slight foul), James Chambers (see Brian Stock)