We said in the preview of this game that no matter how much Rovers fans view these fixtures against Sheffield Wednesday and United as derby matches, our opposite numbers will never quite see it the same way. But whether they see matches against us as a local triviality or simply another game, on view of tonight’s performance the bigger boys down the M18 are going to have to get used to us, as Rovers are setting themselves up to be a permanent feature at this level. If familiarity does breed contempt, then in a couple of seasons this could be a much more mutual South Yorkshire derby.
Sixteen months ago I came out of Hillsborough shaking my head at an inconceivable 1-0 defeat that left Doncaster still adrift at the foot of the Championship. Rovers had some how come away with nothing despite throwing so much at Sheffield Wednesday that the groundsman was busy untangling a kitchen sink from the Leppings Lane end netting as I left. Up to that point Rovers only victory in Hillsborough, or indeed Sheffield, had come as they lifted the Sheffield Senior Cup with back to back wins over Emley in 2001 and 2002. Now, Rovers have emerged from the shadows and are unbeaten in the five subsequent matches played against the Steel City sides, culminating in tonight’s brilliant 2-0 victory.
Though Rovers would eventually emerge triumphant from this game it was Wednesday, newly confident thanks to an excellent run of form under new manager Alan Irvine, who had the better of the game’s early stages. Luke Varney had already brought and admittedly comfortable save from Neil Sullivan when Rovers had a first sight of goal themselves – James O’Connor’s cross from the right met by Mark Wilson whose header went just wide of the near post. The home side came much closer to an opening goal within a minute as Marcus Tudgay bundled his way into the area, but as he was blocked the ball ricocheted into the path of Tom Soares who hit a first time shot from around ten yards only to strike the base of Sullivan’s right hand post.
That upright was to come to Rovers aid again ten minutes later as for the second time the Doncaster defence looked far from composed with the ball in the penalty area. This time the loose ball bounced free to Tudgay in space at the far post and he went to place the ball beyond Sullivan from seven yards, but the Rovers keeper got down brilliantly to his right to turn the ball onto the base of the post. The midpoint in the half though was to be the turning point of the game as Rovers began to create the better chances, beginning with an angled cross into the area from Brian Stock which Billy Sharp met with a flicked header that looked to be looping over Lee Grant and in, only for the Wednesday keeper to turn it over the bar.
John Oster was next to threaten for Rovers as his low strike from twenty-five yards was saved by Grant, and Sharp following in saw his effort snuffed out by a defender. From the resulting corner Oster again got a shot in, but this time it took a Wednesday defender to block from the Rovers midfielder. Jamie Coppinger was the next man to bring a smart save from Grant as he cut in from the Rovers right and struck a firm low, left footed shot from the top of the area that the home keeper did well to turn round his left hand post. Wilson also had another chance to break the deadlock but again his header was off target, whilst James Hayter’s miss-hit shot was comfortably held by Grant.
Rovers were now exerting control on the game and their pressure was to pay off in spectacular style before half-time. A cross in from the Rovers left came to Sharp in the area and the forward did brilliantly to twist and turn as he held off the attention of three Wednesday defenders before chipping a cross back across goal. Mark Beevers prevented Hayter from getting on it by heading it up and away, but no-one could expect what would happen as the ball came back down. Debutant Elliott Ward launched himself off the ground and met the ball with a spectacular overhead scissors kick which cannoned into the goal via the underside of the crossbar. As incredible a debut goal as you will ever see to give Rovers a 1-0 half-time lead, coming less than twelve hours after Ward had first met his new team-mates.
Understandably determined to get themselves back into the game Sheffield Wednesday had the better of the second half’s opening minutes, forcing a save from Sullivan just two minutes after the restart as the Rovers keeper pushed away a near-post header from Tudgay. As the home side struggled to get beyond the offside flag, Rovers first chance of the half came to John Oster as he took advantage of a poor pass in the Wednesday half to try his luck from distance but his shot was well clear of the crossbar. Sharp and Hayter also saw efforts fall off target, the former admittedly via a deflection, before Rovers struck again twenty minutes into the half.
Sharp held the ball up to feed James Chambers on the overlap down the left with the full-back getting to the byline before delivering a low cross which Grant got down to block. The Wednesday keeper only pushed it as far as Hayter though and he kept the ball in play to square it again, across the goalmouth to Sharp now at the back post. The Rovers striker delivered the ball goalwards first time and it took Wednesday’s James O’Connor by surprise, the ball ricocheted of him and into his own net to make it 2-0. Wednesday tried to hit back straight away and came close as an inswinging corner evaded everyone and would have snuck in but for a timely intervention by Coppinger on hand at the far post.
Rovers remained in control though and were unlucky not to add to their tally through Oster, as the midfielder curled a shot goalwards, but Grant was on hand to turn it round the post. Soon after Stock had an effort as the ball fell to him from a corner, but his shot from the edge of the area flew just over. From then on Doncaster remained in firm control as they kept the ball manfully, moving play around at their smooth effective best to prevent the home side from even getting hold of possession, never mind launching an attack. Substitute Etiene Esajas pulled an effort wide late on in the game, but by then the match was in injury time, and soon after the whistle sounded on a deserved and memorable victory for the Rovers, their first ever win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
Sheffield Wednesday line-up (4-4-2); Lee Grant; Frank Simek, Mark Beevers, Darren Purse, Tommy Spur; Tom Soares (Leon Clarke), James O’Connor, Darren Potter, Michael Gray (Etienne Esajas); Marcus Tudgay, Luke Varney
subs not used: Arron Jameson, Luke Boden, Rocky Lekaj, Sean McAllister, Richard Hinds
booked: Michael Gray
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Sam Hird, Elliott Ward, James Chambers; John Oster, Brian Stock (Jordan Mutch), Mark Wilson; James Coppinger (Dean Shiels), James Hayter; Billy Sharp (Lewis Guy)
subs not used: Ben Smith, Mustapha Dumbaya, John Spicer