Still chasing a second league win and a first away from the sanctity of the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster began October with a tricky trip to face Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. According to the BBC this fixture represented one of three successive Yorkshire derbies for the Rovers, though which of Newcastle and Scunthorpe the beeb considered to have been temporarily relocated to the Land u’t’ Gods was never properly confirmed.
Before the game had even begun I had an apparition, now it may be that my senses had been disoriented by a rare win for the Donny R’sonists earlier that morning, but I swear on Leo Fortune-West’s sweatband that I bore witness to a ghostly presence. There, amongst the substitutes volleying balls at Ben Smith stood a man the very image of winger Stuart Elliott. It looked like him, he was wearing his squad number, and it was even announced over the tannoy as he, but surely it could not be.
My composure recovered the match was underway, Rovers moved the ball around on the floor, United hoofed it high somewhere behind the scoreboard. United’s aerial approach had been countered by Sean O’Driscoll with the inclusion of Byron Webster alongside Jason Shackell in defence and the two were coping well, even when an off the ball challenge by Darius Henderson left Webster with a hyper-extended elbow. Despite a harrowing anguished cry of pain Webster returned to the field two set-pieces later, whilst Henderson went unpunished but for a solid ten minutes of abuse from the travelling Rovers fans.
Doncaster steadily asserted themselves on the game and took the lead in the clichéd ‘perfect-time-to-score’ slot. Dean Shiels excellent slide rule pass fed James Hayter and he squeezed the ball home to spark bedlam in the away end. In front at half-time it was inevitable that Rovers would spend much of the second half under pressure from the Blades and that they did. United levelled through a Richard Creswell header and came close to taking the lead as Henderson hit the post, but the game was now starting to open up.
Sean O’Driscoll brought on Paul Heffernan for an added attacking threat and though he linked well with Hayter the pair struggled to forge a chance to retake the lead. Indeed arguably Heffernan’s finest hour came as he went down under a Chris Morgan challenge. As the easily loathable centre half went apoplectic at the referee and Heffernan, the Rovers forward simply grinned and walked on past Morgan leaving the man effectively raging at himself. In the end a great save from Neil Sullivan in injury time secured Rovers a deserved point ahead of the international break.
With Doncaster Rovers at this stage permanently prescribed the pre-fix ‘injury-hit’ the United game gave-way to much post-match media goading of Sean O’Driscoll about whether he intended to add to the squad during the international break. O’Driscoll of course would not be drawn into comment and instead decided to strengthen his squad during the international break by bringing in holding midfielder Simon Gillett. On paper it was an odd move, a player struggling to get a game at his own club coming in to strengthen the starting line-up of a side a division higher, but as ever with the Rovers manager, it would prove a shrewd move.
Gillett went straight into the starting line-up for Rovers next match, a South Yorkshire derby against Barnsley. It was to prove a frustrating afternoon at the Keepmoat as Rovers battered their opponents in every area bar the most telling one; they just weren’t as clinical in front of goal. From the start of this game it was clear that the afternoon was to bring a momentous clash… that between the officials’ luminous peach shirts and Barnsley’s dull gold shorts.
Rovers were in charge for the first half and much of the second but just could not find a way to break the deadlock. Rovers control on the game was clearly frustrating the visitors too leading to some clumsy and cynical fouls, with one late trip on Martin Woods leading the culprit to be called a ‘dirty toe-rag’ by a booming voice at the back of the West Stand. As the second half got underway it seemed that Barnsley had reverted to a back five to quell the Rovers threat, but on closer inspection it appeared that two of those five were indeed just one Darren Moore, looking more and more like William ‘The Fridge’ Perry with every game.
We had all watched Rovers often enough by now to know that the longer these chances came and went without being converted the more likely it was that Barnsley would nick a cruel winner themselves. And that they did. Adam Hammill turning and firing home from a tight angle to spark the sort of jubilation amongst Barnsley folk not seen since rationing in the town was ended… in 1987. The final whistle brought a chorus of boos from the home end, harsh given the overall performance, but given that Rovers fans had still only seen one league victory the frustration was obvious.
As it was Doncaster supporters would have to wait just three days for that much anticipated, and much needed second win. Doncaster despatched Peterborough United 3-1 on a very enjoyable Tuesday night at the Keepmoat thanks to Shhtrikes from Sharp, Shiels and Shackell. Admittedly it was Posh who had enjoyed the better of the opening fifteen minutes but it was Rovers who took the lead, Shiels seeing his shot saved, but Billy Sharp followed in to turn the rebound home.
Minutes later Shiels got his goal thanks to a rapid Rovers breakaway. The Northern Irish forward exchanged passes with Jamie Coppinger on the left before running onto and finishing the return ball. Rovers were enjoying themselves and so too at last were the supporters as a chorus of olés sounded one spell of controlled passing. Before half-time, Peterborough reminded Rovers that the game was not over as Aaron McClean headed a goal back. However Doncaster never really looked in danger and a Shackell header from a Woods’ near-post corner wrapped up the win.
Next up for Rovers was the season’s supposed big draw, a trip to Newcastle and reminder that football is bloody annoying at times, with its stupid twists and turns. Just when you think you’ve had a good day some vastly overpaid annoyance pops up at the end to change what you thought had been a productive afternoon away into a thoroughly miserable one. In this case it was Kevin Nolan who brought Rovers back down to earth, which given the height of the away end at Newcastle, half in St James’ Park, half in a cloud, was quite a hefty drop.
As Rovers fans became accustomed to the altitude somewhere in the distance their team took an unlikely lead. Jamie Coppinger on the right fed Martin Woods in the area, his outside of the boot flick found Billy Sharp and his low ball across goal was turned into the net by Dean Shiels. It wasn’t a vertigo induced mirage, Rovers were indeed 1-0 up at Newcastle. The Magpies pushed for an equaliser, but for all their time in and around the Rovers penalty area the visitors created as many chances on goal as the home side.
The second half though was much more black and white, and midway through it, after much pressure on Sullivan’s goal, Newcastle equalised through a well taken volley from Andy Carroll. Rovers though were literally handed a great chance to retake the lead as Ryan Taylor handled the ball in his penalty area and the referee pointed to the spot. Woods took the penalty and elected for power, sadly at the expense of accuracy as his kick flew wide of Steve Harper’s post.
Chance wasted Rovers suffered the now inevitable kick in the teeth in injury time as a by then ten-man Newcastle found a late late winner. Kevin Nolan finding space twenty-five yards out and his low raking long range strike went in off the post. If there was to be a compliment paid to Rovers amidst all the disappointment then it comes in the form of the unbridled joy in the home sections of St James Park at the match’s end. Our pub team had those lads worried. As my Newcastle supporting friend text me succinctly at half-time; “Bloody Doncaster Rovers… Surely not!”
October ended with a home game against Blackpool, arguably a less enticing a fixture than Newcastle the previous week, but it proved to be one hell of a game. In previous seasons this fixture had brought two goalless stale-mates with an emphasis on the ‘stale’, but this was to be much different. It was the sort of match often described as ‘one for the neutral’, but even as a partisan supporter I left the ground thoroughly entertained by an enthralling 3-3 draw.
Rovers took the lead inside five minutes as they again showed a new found ability to hit teams on the break. Woods led the charge from the edge of the Rovers area and fed John Oster on the right. The Welshman advanced down the wing before turning a low cross into the area and the onrushing Woods met it on the volley for the opening goal. Doncaster had further chances but the next goal went the visitors way a deep corner was headed back across goal by Ian Evatt and Brett Ormerod poked it between Sullivan’s legs and in.
Despite further chances it remained one apiece until half-time, whereby we were treated to some dubious ‘entertainment’ consisting of a fancy dress contest and a Pink tribute act wearing nothing but a sheer lycra half cat-suit and cleverly positioned red heart to protect her modesty. Luckily for Rovers PR department said singer’s heart was in the right place throughout even if her pitch wasn’t. As it was 31st October, at the back of the West Stand we indulged in our own half-time entertainment, Halloween-themed Rovers players. Pick of the bunch being; Waide Scarehurst, John Gh-Oster, Paul-bearer Heffernan, James Chambers-of-Horrors, Jamie Coffin-ger, Byron Spiders-Webster and Sam Hird-a-creepy-noise-downstairs.
Thankfully the on field entertainment was much better and it began with a bang in the second half, just twelve seconds gone and the ball was in the Blackpool net without the visitors touching the ball. Woods to Gillett, Gillett to Roberts, Roberts to Sharp, Sharp to the goal. Doncaster led 2-1 but ony for quarter of an hour as the visitors equalised through Jay Emmannuel-Thomas. With a neat change of feet the on-loan Arsenal midfielder glided past three Rovers players as if they were slalom poles before slotting the ball into the bottom corner. (If I were writing this in the style of an Ian McMahon diary this is the point at which I would say ‘What we’d give to have a player like that eh?’).
Rovers were still forcing chances but couldn’t get past the impressive Matt Gilks in the Seasiders’ goal. Typically though, before you could quite say “we’re starting to leave ourselves a bit open here” they found themselves a goal behind (and I know this because I was saying just this at the time). Ben Burgess curling a fine strike beyond Sullivan. O’Driscoll reacted calmly and effectively, first bringing on Mark Wilson to regain some shape, before throwing on Paul Heffernan and James Hayter for one last onslaught.
In the final minute the gung-ho approach paid off. A long angled ball from Wilson found Hayter in the area and he nodded the ball down for Sharp. The Blackpool players thought he was offside, indeed so did most of the home crowd, but the flag stayed down, the ball hit the net and eventually the home supporters erupted, with the exception of Matt to my right who remained frozen convinced the linesman was going to flag any minute. In a pulsating injury time Rover almost went on to win it; Coppinger carried the ball down the left before laying it inside to Heffernan who beat his man but steered his shot just wide of the post.
Regular readers of this site will be familiar with token moaning Rovers fan ‘Geoff’ who sits next to us at the back of the West Stand. No matter how well things are going for Rovers he will inevitably find something at which to loudly and irrationally voice his displeasure. Martin Woods is the usual target of Geoff’s vitriol though in the Blackpool game he duly extended his annoyance to the whole of the midfield. By the midway point of the second half Geoff had extended an invitation for so much of the side to “come and sit up here with me out the way” that we could have formed an impressive human pyramid on the back row. Anyway Geoff decided he’d had enough with two minutes to go, and duly missed Billy Sharp’s late equaliser. It was a very satisfying end to the month.