In late summer in 2009, after perhaps one too many glasses of iced cider, there were many a Rovers fan who will have turned to their nearest and dearest and said those three little words which can break the strongest hearts. “Second season syndrome”. Rovers had rallied at the end of their first Championship season to finish in the sanctity of 14th place. However since then they had lost key facets of the team’s spine. Gone were Matt Mills and Richie Wellens, and in their place came wayward experience in the ex-internationals John Oster and Quinton Fortune and untried youth in Byron Webster and Mustapha Dumbaya. Some predicted a play-off push, others relegation and there were convincing cases for both schools of thought as the 2009-10 season got underway.
The season began properly in the summer sunshine of Vicarage Road with the man on the tannoy trying to encourage all and sundry to get excited about the imminent arrival of ‘The Golden Boys’. We can’t have been the only ones to discover that the Golden Boys were not an all male sequin clad dance troupe, but an ill-thought out nickname for the Watford team themselves. You can take Elton John away from Watford, but you can’t take Watford away from Elton John, or something. Watford weren’t the only ones causing confusion. At half-time my sister asked me who ‘Disco Sid’ was. “Disco Sid?” “Yeah, they keep singing his name, ‘Disco Sid, bounce around the ground”, “No, no, they’re singing “O’Driscoll says”.
On the field Rovers starting line-up had all been with the club last season and it wasn’t just the team selection which was unfolding with the familiar air of the previous campaign. Rovers passing and moving effectively but struggling to create and take meaningful chances. That said the lack of Messrs Wellens and Mills was hardly noticable. The Rovers midfield retained possession well throughout whilst at the back Sam Hird was displaying a confidence and awareness which suggested he’d spent the Summer listening to “I’m the new Franz Beckenbaur” hypnosis tapes.
Watford took the lead just before the half hour mark from an innocuous looking free-kick on their left flank. Rovers cleared the initial delivery but were all over the place when it came back in and Danny Graham steered the ball home at the far post. Rovers were level within ten minutes in unexpected style. Brian Stock lifted a diagonal ball toward the edge of the box where it was met by the head of James Hayter and he nodded it over Loach and under the bar from all of twenty yards. So long was it in the air I even had time within its flight to shout the sort of line only normally delivered in Roy of the Rovers comics; “That could drop in you know”. And it did.
Though it finished level this was a game,which could have been won; Dean Shiels had a close range effort clawed off the line by Watford keeper Scott Loach, with a Watford supporting friend texting me almost instantly to say they thought it had gone in. It was the wrong end of the field for any Rovers fans to be sure, but given that the assistant referee had treated the ball in and out of play as a theological concept rather than a matter of fact throughout the game (“Ah ha, but I say to you, how can we be sure the ball is ever truly in play”), there is a fair chance it may have been a goal unseen. However, Sean O’Driscoll remained reassuringly pragmatic about it saying “you just have to take these things on the chin”.
As with the previous season Rovers’ opening day away league fixture was followed by a trip to Notts County in the League Cup. Last season Rovers lost an awful game 1-0 at Meadow Lane and this time faced an arguably tougher task with the Magpies now the New Money of the Midlands. The mysterious Munto Finance had poured what would ultimately turn out to be mythical sums of money into the club to bring a wealth of lower league talent and Sven Goran Eriksson to the club.
Notts were unsurprisingly fired up and enjoyed the better of the game’s chances striking the woodwork twice as Rovers hung on in for much of the games’ opening exchanges. However Doncaster were not to be humbled two seasons running and took the lead ten minutes into the second half with a noticable touch of class. Mark Wilson of all people impressively turned his man in the centre circle and released Lewis Guy on the left and he fed Jamie Coppinger who cut inside and found the bottom corner with a great finish. Rovers held on to their 1-0 lead and in doing so earned a home tie against Tottenham in the second round.
On August 15th Rovers kicked off their first home game of the season with a new addition; centre half Jason Shackell having arrived on loan from Wolves in time to line-up against Preston. Rovers were facing a familiar face in one time loanee Chris Brown, and he duly showed no regard for sentiment as he opened the scoring for the visitors. A lifted through ball from Ross Wallace saw Chris Brown break free of Shackell without even pausing to acknowledge the wordplay before slotting the ball past Neil Sullivan.
Rovers would go on to have the better of the second half, spending most of it pushing for an equaliser, with Hayter hitting the post early in the half. The breakthrough finally came with ten minutes to go, Oster took a free kick quickly and crossed into a crowded area where the ball was met by Shackell. The defender’s header was saved by Kyle Lonegran, he sent the rebound back with a scissor kick, but that too was blocked however this time the ball fell to Adam Lockwood and he poked home the equaliser from close range. Though both sides came close to a late winner, it finished all square.
Three days later and the Keepmoat played host to another league stalemate as Rovers were held to a goalless draw by Chris Coleman’s Coventry City side. John Oster was handed his first start for the club in a match which contained many positives for the Rovers, but Doncaster just could not find a way past City’s excellent goalkeeper Keiron Westwood. Rovers were unbeaten in three games, but were also yet to win in the league. Assessing how the club’s season was going was now very dependent on your general outloook on life.
Of course this is Yorkshire, so you can be assured that most of those outlooks were of the melancholy. The concern was that Rovers still lacked the firepower to convert chances to goals, something which makes the difference in any league, but noticeably so in one as tight as the Championship. This theory was given more fuel in Rovers next outing as they travelled to Middlesbrough to suffer their first league defeat.
Rovers can consider themselves unfortunate to have faced Middlesbrough when they did. Within ten days of the final whistle of this fixture on Teeside the transfer window had closed and many of the star components of this Middlesbrough side were then plying their trade elsewhere. Ten minutes into this game and Marvin Emnes faculties were also elsewhere as the forward as pole-axed by Sullivan careering from his line. Surprisingly Sullivan remained on the field, but the ‘Boro crowd would gain their own vengeance inside a few minutes as Leroy Lita put them 1-0 up. Lita struck again in the closing quarter of an hour to give ‘Boro a 2-0 win. The result was not too much a concern, after all this was a strong opponent, but just how little Rovers had offered in between the two goals was a worry and things were not about to get easier.
Rovers next opponents were the country’s number one club, leaders of the Premier League Tottenham Hotspur, in the second round of the Carling Cup. Reputation alone was not enough to do for the home club though and Doncaster flew out of the traps to have Spurs on the rack in the opening ten minutes. John Oster and James Hayter both denied by brilliant Carlo Cuddicini saves as the home side took the game to their opponents.
However the problem with these Premier League sides is that, as we found out with Bolton a few years ago, when they get a chance they tend to be ruthlessly professional and effective. And so it came to be, as though Rovers had seemingly controlled the game for the opening quarter of an hour they ended it 2-0 down, first Tom Huddlestone and then Jamie O’Hara being annoyingly clinical. Oster came close twice for Rovers, but the next goal went Spurs way again. Peter Crouch had been outjumped twice by James Chambers much to the enjoyment of the Keepmoat crowd, sadly neither of those occasions were on David Bentley’s 37th minute corner and the England forward stooped to head that home for a 3-0 half-time lead.
Rovers needed a way back in the game early in the second period and they were nearly delivered it as Lewis Guy went within inches with a long range effort in the opening minutes. Like swatting at a wasp that only seemed to anger Tottenham though and the visitors duly marched up the other end and scored a 4th goal. Doncaster did get on the scoresheet with quarter of an hour to go through Martin Woods penalty, noticable for Quinton Fortune optimistically rushing to get the ball from the back of the net.
Fortune’s optimism was not so misplaced it seemed as both Guy and Webster struck the woodwork for Rovers, but by the latter attempt Roman Pavlyuchenko had already wrapped things up with a fifth goal for Tottenham. It finished 5-1 to the Premier League team, a drubbing on paper, but on the Keepmoat field it had been a much more even affair in all aspects bar one; finishing. Though anyone who had not witnessed this game in full may have feared the worst ahead of Rovers final match of the season against Cardiff City, those who had been present were quietly confident.
And so August ended with another match at the Keepmoat Stadium and the visit of Championship leaders Cardiff City. With Rovers yet to win, it all pointed toward a City victory, but instead the Rovers delivered one of those performances which just have you beaming. The better side throughout Rovers saw out a 2-0 win with a degree of comfort thanks to first half goals for Adam Lockwood and James Hayter. It had taken all month, but at last Rovers had picked up their first three points of the season. The sun was shining, Rovers were winning, and Leo Fortune-West was in the crowd, the first month of the season was coming to an end with all manner of reasons for Rovers fans to have regained some of their early summer optimism.