I did a couple of silly things on Saturday. The first was of course to hype up Doncaster Rovers’ excellent record in live televised matches in our match preview. I couldn’t have tempted fate anymore without inviting it round to Vanessa Perroncel’s house and telling it to do as an England captain would (this intro will be very confusing in a couple of years’ time). The second foolish thing I did was on the train home after the game, when having finished my book I decided to use my phone’s internet service to have a look on the Rovers’ messageboards. I should really know better. The natural hunting ground of the reactionary fan is a terrible place to be after a disappointing defeat.
Because ultimately you see thats all this game was, a disappointing defeat. Contrary to the damning criticism being posted angrily by people smashing away at keyboards of a Doncastrian evening the performance was not terrible by Rovers, nor was it woeful, nor indeed was it an embarrassment. A look back through Viva Rovers’ twitter coverage of the match will give a much less clouded picture of how the evening panned out. The truth is that this was a game which Rovers should not have lost, but subsequently conspired to do so. In absolute control in the opening twenty-five minutes and battering down the metaphysical door in the final fifteen, the components were there to have made more of this fixture. But instead the performance drooped in the middle like Barry Fry’s hammock and it was in that period that Reading grabbed themselves two goals. It could have gone either way and it went Reading’s. No disaster, just disappointing.
As I have mentioned above Rovers started the game brightly and played the opening fifteen minutes in Reading’s half of the field. Smooth crisp passing, working the ball from one side to another and toying with the Reading defence it was great football, and brought Rovers a succession of early chances. Jamie Coppinger, Mark Wilson and Dean Shiels all afforded chances, but sadly all three were off target. Coppinger cut inside from the left to fashion a chance of his own, but his shot was comfortably fielded by Adam Federici in the Reading goal. How those curtly summarising the performance had neglected this spell, I am not sure, has it come to the stage where we are so nonchalant about what really is impressive football?
On the quarter of an hour Reading forced their first chance at goal as they won a free-kick twenty yards out. Brian Howard struck it, and did so well, with a fine strike which got up and over the wall and looked to be heading for the top corner but for Neil Sullivan to fling himself full stretch and somehow tip it over the bar with a brilliant one handed stop. Soon after Rovers had a free-kick in a near identical position but John Oster’s shot was much less impressive than Howard’s and Federici saved comfortably. Rovers were starting to find some joy with a lifted ball over the top of the visiting defence for Billy Sharp, twice it paid off, but on both occasions Sharp’s cut inside ended with a shot off target.
As the half wore on Rovers lost their fluidity and the tempo which had seen them control the opening quarter of an hour and Reading forced their way back into the game. Howard had already headed wide from a cross when he turned provider in a much more emphatic style. Poor possession from Oster in the Rovers half allowed Howard to escape to the right flank pursued by Shelton Martis. With the Rovers centre half drawn wide Howard exploited the space with a brilliant inswinging cross from the right which was nodded home by Shane Long for the opening goal. Rovers almost hit back before the break as a cross from the left was cleared only as far James Chambers on the edge of the area, but his well struck shot was saved well by Federici.
As with the back end of the first half the opening twenty-five minutes of the second half wee on the whole pretty even. As the clown on the PA had reminded us all at half-time “Rovers need a goal and they need one tonight” though unfortunately the play did not reflect the same urgency as even that poorly worded sentiment. There were fleeting chances as Sharp and Oster fired wide and Shiels ballooned a volley into the South Stand, but Rovers were lacking the cohesion they had shown early in the game and the true chances were eluding them, as illustrated when Jamie Coppinger whipped in an excellent cross through an empty six-yard box.
Twenty minutes from time Rovers’ night reached its low-point as for a ten minute period they went from lacklustre to sloppy and paid the price as Reading took advantage. Shane Long almost struck his second of the game with a well-struck shot from distance but again Sullivan flung himself full length to turn the ball behind impressively with one hand. The breakthrough did come five minutes later though as a poor pass from Brian Stock was picked off in the centre circle and Reading’s counter attack always had a spare man. Last to receive the ball in space as the visitors advanced all too easily was Howard and he slotted it past Sullivan to make it 2-0. Bad could have gone to worse as Jem Karacan broke minutes later, but thankfully his strike wass off target.
With ten minutes left on the clock came Rovers lifeline. Coppinger’s cross from the right was deflected into the centre of the area where it fell to Sharp only for his goalbound effort to be blocked by the left hand of Matt Mills. The referee pointed to the spot and also pointed to the mark on Mills’ arm where the ball had struck him before sending the ex-Rovers defender off. Sharp slotted the penalty firmly into the bottom corner and Rovers were suddenly just a goal down and a man up and right back in the game. The urgency returned to their play almost instantly and for the rest of the game Rovers pressed for the equaliser.
Gareth Roberts, Rovers most in form striker in 2010 hit a long range strike which flew just wide, as Rovers struggled to turn possession and territory into genuine chances with Reading swamping their own area. Substitute James Hayter came closer than anyone as he latched onto a Billy Sharp flick on by controlling and firing a fearsome half-volley at goal only to rattle the face of the crossbar. The officials through Rovers a second lifeline to grab hold of as they signified six minutes of injury time, but Federici was equal to all that Rovers could throw at him. The Reading keeper did well to turn a deflected Sharp shot away to safety and then in the dying minute managed to arch backwards to tip a dipping Stock volley over the crossbar. That was to be the last chances as Reading held on for the win.
So the word of the day really was ‘disappointing’ for all the reasons outlined at the start of this report and for a few others too. Disappointing also because I spent thirty quid on rail fares on top of the ticket price to endure this disappointment when I could have been safe at home watching a dodgy internet stream of the game. And disappointing because after the impressive run before Christmas Rovers are back in touching distance of the relegation zone. Completing the disappointment were much of Rovers own support, who elected to boo one of their own players onto the pitch. Most weeks fans seem to be inexplicably looking for an excuse to hurl derision at Lewis Guy, and this week they didn’t even allow him that leeway. Guy is the second longest serving player at this club and continues to put the effort in despite this sort of reaction. For that alone he deserves a hell of a lot more respect than that which he is afforded.
Man of the Match: After criticism thrown his way last weekend following his injury time mistake in Cardiff credit has to go to Neil Sullivan. Supporters have questioned his agility and his reactions as he approached forty years-old but today he pulled off two first class saves, the first from Brian Howard’s free-kick absolutely phenomenal, particularly as replays later showed it had taken a deflection off Billy Sharp.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Shelton Martis (Sam Hird), Gareth Roberts; John Oster, Brian Stock, Mark Wilson (Lewis Guy); Jamie Coppinger, Dean Shiels (James Hayter); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, Mustapha Dumbaya, Jordan Mutch, Paul Heffernan
booked: Billy Sharp (high foot)
Reading line-up (4-5-1); Adam Federici; Andy Griffin, Ivar Ingimarsson, Matt Mills, Ryan Bertrand; Brynyar Gunarsson, Brian Howard (Gunar Thorvaldsson), Jem Karacan, Jimmy Kebe (Simon Church)(Zurab Khizanishvili), Jobi McAnuff; Shane Long
subs not used: Ben Hamer, Alex Pearce, Scott Davies, Gregorz Rasiak
booked: Ryan Bertrand (time-wasting), Jobi McAnuff (foul)