Standing in Waterstones three hours before kick-off I heard the two people behind me talking about the match. “They’re playing Sheffield United today, it’s a big game,” prompted one. “It is yes, they’re eighth in the table now, nearly a play-off spot that.” “Well lets hope they win this one then.” And with that the two old dears who had been having this conversation shuffled round the corner of the A-Z authors rack and into Costa Coffee. People will scoff at Rovers’ attendances, despite their rate of growth over the last ten years, but whilst bums on seats may not be reflecting it as much as some would like, Rovers gradual league ascendancy is being noted and followed by the Doncastrian public.
In the Keepmoat Stadium itself it was notable that those who were there were in their seats earlier than normal. That tends to happen at big games, and thanks to results in midweek this had become that. John Oster’s last minute strike at Peterborough had promoted this South Yorkshire derby to a clash between seventh and eighth, two play-off contenders competing to make Cardiff City and other nervous and also to stand as Yorkshire’s number one club. Rovers had been eleventh in the county-wide pecking order as recently as ten years ago. This is the sort of stuff that gets you excited, that makes even realists like me decide that they will get a ticket for the match after all and pay the water bill on its final reminder instead of its second.
As kick-off came I was fully vindicated in my decision. Thanks to a sizable away crowd there was a good boisterous atmosphere inside the Keepmoat Stadium, the sort that allows us at the back of the West Stand the opportunity to join in without too many looks of disdain from the more senior gentlemen on the rows in front. Rovers had shuffled the pack with Billy Sharp ethically rested and looked a little nervy as United forced a corner in the opening minute, but once that brief scare had gone they soon found the confidence and the swagger that you would expect from a side in its highest league position in decades.
Having put United on the back foot with a couple of early crosses Rovers pounced inside five minutes. A corner from the Rovers left wasn’t dealt with by the visitors and James Hayter took advantage powering the ball home from ten yards to put Doncaster 1-0 up. The Keepmoat Stadium duly erupted like it’s not done for some time and three-quarters of the ground bounced around to Tom Hark. Sheffield United tried to hit back and had a couple of chances on the ten minute mark as Richard Cresswell headed over from a corner and a Henri Camara centre somehow evaded contact as it flashed across the six yard box, but in all honesty that was as positive as the Blades’ first half ever got, because Rovers were in firm control.
Doncaster could and perhaps should have been 2-0 up quarter of an hour in as a smartly taken free-kick on the right saw John Oster get to the byline. The midfielder drilled the ball low across the six yard box and somehow Shelton Martis, with the goal gaping in front of him, failed to turn the ball home. Three minutes later and another good chance for Rovers after they worked the ball from left to right with some lovely passing eventually releasing James Chambers on the right and his low cross was met by Hayter first time, but United keeper Steve Simonsen got down well to his near post to make a smart save.
Midway through the half and Rovers had yet another chance as they again profited from moving the ball wide and Oster’s far post cross was met by Hayter, but he could only divert his header wide of the far post. Though the number and frequency of chances for Rovers began to thin they were still in firm control, forcing United backwards when the opposition had the ball and effectively toying with them when in possession. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was not having his best game for Rovers but he was still showcasing the sort of skill, touch and vision which gave you that rarest of feelings in modern day football; that you’ve been undercharged. On occasion though Rovers did get a little too clever and there was a sense that they could still be caught out. Rovers should have been out of sight at the break, and so United would probably have been delighted that come the half-time whistle they were only facing a one goal deficit.
Into the second half then and from the start it was clear that some of the fluidity of Rovers play had been lost as United looked to force their way back into the game. As ever with the Blades they really did look to force it and a couple of fearsome yet (just about) fair tackles in the opening ten minutes showed that United were getting set for a battle. That said, the best chance of the opening ten minutes came Rovers way as Jamie Coppinger broke forward and cut into the box from the right channel, up against three defenders and Simonsen Coppinger looked to have delayed and changed feet at the right time, but his eventual shot was blocked by Marcel Seip, which, as with most things during today’s game, the defender knew ver little about.
With the central defensive partnership of Seip and Nyron Nosworthy United looked decidedly vulnerable and it was only once they replaced Seip with Kyle Bartley a few minutes after the block from Coppinger’s shot that they looked likely to edge their way back into the game. On the hour mark United finally strung some passes together and it almost earned them an equaliser. A neat move ended with Camara breaking down the left and crossing for Cresswell but his header flew just over the bar, you really have to wonder why they don’t knock it around like that more often. Rovers were now looking decidedly nervy and were unable to get their own game moving, instead they began to retreat further and further into their own half as United set to pelt the penalty box.
United did produce a big appeal for a penalty midway through the half as James Harper looked to have been nudged in the back by his marker, but the subsequent exaggeration of contact by Harper ultimately counted against him and the referee waved play on. With twenty minutes to go came a brief sight of goal for Rovers as Martin Woods tested Simonsen with a low drive from distance, but this half now belonged to United and they looked most likely to score. Rovers withdrew Emmanuel-Thomas for Dean Shiels to bring some much needed energy into their own play, but they remained on the back foot.
The Blades’ best chances were coming from set-pieces, as seems the case for most sides up against Rovers. Bartley had already headed one dead-ball over before Sullivan was called on to save from Cresswell with quarter of an hour remaining. James Harper also fired a shot over the bar as United continued to press to no avail. However with just two minutes remaining the breakthrough finally came from a free-kick in front of the dug-outs softly given away by Hayter. The ball deep into the area only half cleared and Harper’s subsequent low shot took a deflection which wrong footed Sullivan and helped it find the bottom corner of the net.
All square as the game moved into a slightly perplexing five minutes stoppage time and most sensed that if another goal was to come then it would go with the momentum at that point and be scored by the visitors. However, instead the last chance befell Rovers. Shiels flick on finding Hayter running on in the area, but not realising how much time he had Hayter struck it first time and it flew high into the South Stand. As time continued to wear down Rovers had two late corners but failed to direct them goalwards as United hurled bodies at the ball. The final whistle sounded on a draw which on the overall balance of play was probably a fair result, but one which will have disappointed Rovers fans more as they should have extended their lead in the first half. A third game without defeat against local rivals, eighth in the table and still not happy… anyone would think we were Sheffield United fans.
Man of the Match: We have moved this accolade around the Rovers midfield of late, as effectively as they do the ball, and today is no different. Mark Wilson had been left out the last two matches but he returned today and delivered a fantastic performance in the centre of Rovers midfield. Always on hand to break up Sheffield United’s play, win the ball and set things going again with a simple pass Wilson demonstrated all the qualities you would want in the archetypal holding midfielder.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-1-2); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Shelton Martis, Gareth Roberts; John Oster, Mark Wilson, Martin Woods (Sam Hird); Jamie Coppinger (Jordan Mutch); Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Dean Shiels), James Hayter
subs not used: Ben Smith, Adam Lockwood, Sean McDaid, John Spicer
booked: Jordan Mutch (clumsy high foot as he struggled to get into the pace of the game)
Sheffield United line-up (4-5-1); Steve Simonsen; Paul Connolly, Nyron Nosworthy, Marcel Seip (Kyle Bartley), Jordan Stewart; Mark Yeates (Glen Little), Nick Montgomery, James Harper, Stephen Quinn, Henri Camara (Andy Taylor); Richard Cresswell
subs not used: Iain Bennett, Jon Fortune, Matthew Lowton
booked: Henri Camara (late high foot on Martin Woods)