A mate of mine was covering this game for the press today. In the lead up to half time he sent me a text of his match summary from the press-box. It read simply “JET = skills”. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is proving a welcome addition to the Rovers; not just someone who can play football in our system, but someone who can get the crowd on their feet. For all the fantastic flowing football we’ve been treated to in recent years, we’ve rarely had the pleasure of a showman. Until now.
As my friend aptly summarised, in the first half of this match Emmanuel-Thomas was the star turn. It’s a while since I’ve seen a player bring such anticipation from a crowd wherever and whenever he gets the ball. Any time the teenager was in possession you could sense the Keepmoat Stadium crowd collectively leaning forward to ask “right, what is he going to do next?” It remind me of the reaction of Wales fans whenever Aaron Ramsey gets the ball.
Emmanuel-Thomas is by no means a quick player, nor an energetic one, but his simple lumbering presence on the ball was enough to have Derby worried. Out in the right in particular he ran through his party pieces; nutmegging Jay McEveley with ease, and then one glorious trick where he faked an inside pass with his right foot only to play in the overlapping Jamie Coppinger with his left foot, all in one movement.
It should be added to that for all his deft flicks and showboating Emmanuel-Thomas is far from a sideshow. He is a sizable presence which gives a useful additional dimension to a Rovers team which possesses all the height of the Dutch landscape. The teenager’s flick ons gave Derby something to think about other than the ball on the floor, as did his long throw-ins, which given his style of play was probably the last skill you’d expect him to have in his locker. It was like finding out Kylie Minogue can kick-box.
Rovers were kicking towards the South Stand in the first half, but despite the unfamiliarity of direction they looked the better side from the off. Derby of course lost their first and second choice goalkeeper in the week to injury and suspension respectively and with loanee David Martin thrust straight into the action it was clear that County were vulnerable at the back, lacking in confidence and communication. But for better finishing Doncaster could have taken advantage of this inside ten minutes as a free-kick caused chaos in the County area and despite three swings at the ball Elliot Ward couldn’t make enough contact to send it goal-wards.
The breakthrough came just five minutes later though as Rovers worked the ball into the area from the left and Jay Buxton wrapped himself Billy Sharp who hit the deck. The referee pointed to the spot and Buxton picked up a yellow card for his troubles too. Sharp took the penalty himself, and completely unphased by his saved spot-kick on Tuesday night rifled it emphatically past Martin to put Rovers 1-0 up. That advantage could have been doubled within minutes as Coppinger got in a shot, but Martin was alert enough to save.
At the other end Derby had been yet to threaten Neil Sullivan’s goal, primarily because whenever they worked themselves within twenty yards of the North end of the field they were flagged for offside. Midway through the half came a rare chance as Paul Green worked his way across the edge of the box before hitting a low shot which struck the inside of the post and just evaded the onrushing Steve Davies to roll to safety.
That was effectively as good as it got for Derby in the opening forty-five minutes. Rovers were dominating, as reflected in the fact that notorious West Stand moaner Geoff failed to utter a single whinge until 16 minutes and 43 seconds in. Doncaster had further chances before the break with Mark Wilson hitting a left foot strike just wide and Billy Sharp hitting a half-volley straight at Martin. As Nick two seats to my right so aptly summarised as the whistle signalled the interval; “It really has been a game of one half”.
There was a significant injury scare early in the second half as Emmanuel-Thomas turned to win the ball only to come face to shoulder with Jay Buxton. A completely accidental coming together, but one which had the loanee flat out on the deck for a good few minutes. “That’s JET back in the hangar” commented Nick, but it proved to be premature as Emmanuel-Thomas was back on his feet and jogging a somewhat mazy route to the sidelines, and returned to the field a couple of minutes later.
At this stage Rovers were still tormenting Derby and forced another chance as a break down the left saw the ball fall to James Hayter fifteen yards out, but he couldn’t keep his shot down and blazed it into the North Stand. Minutes later another left flank break saw the ball fall to John Oster, but he too was off target as his shot went inches past the far post. County had threatened briefly as Michael Tonge put a free-kick over Sullivan’s bar, but still Rovers looked more likely to score.
The inevitable finally came twenty minutes from time; Coppinger and James Chambers combined to feed Emmanuel-Thomas and he cut in from the right side to hit a fierce shot that flew into the far top corner. Never has a strike been more fitting of the description ‘unstoppable’ than this, had the net not been there, then there would be one very concussed Derby County fan sat up in DRI right about now, trying to remember his own name. We’ve said before that you can always judge the quality of a goal by the instant reaction of those watching it and the girlish screams of glee delivered by Nick, Matt and myself at the back of the West Stand will tell you this was an absolute belter.
The joy from the goal was to be supplanted with nerves within five minutes as Derby pulled a goal back. Hulse was given space in the Rovers area with his back to goal and he used it effectively to turn and place a low shot beyond Sullivan. What had looked incredibly comfortable at 1-0, now looked inexplicably shaky at 2-1. Derby had been booed off by their own support at half-time; defensively in particularly they really had been that bad. On the whole they improved little, but the extra impetus delivered by this goal, and Rovers perhaps a little guilty of taking their foot off the gas, made for a nervous final quarter of an hour.
However, despite pressing for most of the remaining time and six additional minutes as well Derby failed to produce anything to threaten Sullivan’s goal. Rovers had brought on Shelton Martis at the expense of Emmanuel-Thomas to help shore up the back line for the expected late onslaught and it was a move which paid off. Rover saw out the win, although perhaps can be disappointed that it wasn’t achieved with a little more comfort.
Man of the Match: I know we waxed lyrical about Jay Emmanuel-Thomas at the start of this report, but his cameo would have been nothing without the work being done behind him. The key man in this Rovers performance today was John Oster, the Welsh midfielder is proving an inspired signing by O’Driscoll and a revelation in the middle of the pitch where he continues to energize Rovers play, recycling the ball, holding and giving it at just the right time.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-3-1); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Elliott Ward, Gareth Roberts; Mark Wilson, John Oster; Jamie Coppinger (Jordan Mutch), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Shelton Martis), James Hayter (Martin Woods); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Ben Smith, Sam Hird, Dean Shiels, Lewis Guy
booked: James Hayter (preventing the Derby ‘keeper from clearing the ball, very effectively too)
Derby County line-up (4-4-2); David Martin; Nicky Hunt, Shaun Barker, Jake Buxton (Chris Porter), Jay McEverley; Michael Tonge, Paul Green, Robbie Savage (David Martin), Stephen Pearson; Rob Hulse, Steven Davies (Gilles Sunu)
subs not used: Dean Leacock, Dean Moxey, Russell Anderson, James Severn
booked: Jake Buxton (clumsily bringing down Billy Sharp for the penalty)