Thanks to an international break, rather than it’s one less day, November was to be a short month within Rovers’ season with Doncaster taking to the field just three times in the four weeks. However, it was to be a month of extremes. Whilst October had ended with encouragement for rovers fans in the entertaining draw with Blackpool and the defeat that may not have been at Newcastle, the opening game of November gave reason for even the most optimistic of Doncastrians to have their doubts.
Rovers began November with a trip to face Plymouth Argyle at Home Park, with an injury hit squad now boasting just Sam Hird in terms of recognised central defenders. Sean O’Driscoll moved James O’Connor into the middle for this game, a move of necessity at the time, but as the season progressed this would come to look less of a makeshift emergency measure and more of an inspired piece of tactical maneuvering. Despite an unfamiliar feel to their side it was Rovers who had the better of the opening exchanges with chances falling to both Martin Woods and Billy Sharp.
Despite the early running from Doncaster, it was the home side who took the lead. Poor passing from Rovers in midfield allowed Alan Gow to break into space down the left and his cross was turned in by the onrushing Alan Judge from six yards out. However, within a couple of minutes it was all square again following a Woods free-kick. His cross was headed into the path of Dean Shiels who’s initial effort was blocked, but the Northern Ireland international was quickest to react to the rebound and he steered his follow-up effort between three Plymouth bodies and into the corner of the net to make it 1-1.
Five minutes into the second half though came a significant twist as Woods stretched clumsily for the ball and brought down Karl Arnason. It was Woods’ second yellow, and though it took the referee some time to remember the first one, Rovers were down to ten men. A man up already Plymouth went a goal up with twenty minutes to go. A shot from the edge of the area was blocked by O’Connor causing something of a scramble as Jamie Mackie won the ball twice from the horizontal O’Connor only for Neil Sullivan to block, but unfortunately Rory Fallon was on hand to turn in the rebound and put the home side 2-1 ahead.
Though both sides would create chances late on, Plymouth held on to their lead to secure a 2-1 win which dropped Rovers to twentieth in the Championship table. With less points (15) than they’d played matches (16) Doncaster were now just four points away from the very foot of the table. The first three months of the season had warranted just two league wins, though last year Rovers had been in a worse position and survived, the pressure to do it all again was not what many Rover supporters had been expecting. Thankfully the next game against Queens Park Rangers would offer a much needed burst of late Autumn sunshine.
QPR came to Doncaster on a solid and impressive run of form. In their six previous games Rangers had been defeated just once, and of their four wins in that period three had seen QPR hit four goals. It was a daunting task for a Rovers team who had won just twice in sixteen league games thus far. All the stats suggested that one team would be in a position to toy with the opposition in this fixture, but none of those statistics gave an inkling that it may be Doncaster. Indeed our own match report from a great afternoon at the Keepmoat Stadium began with the following paragraph.
“The Maestranza Bullring. That’s probably the only place you’ll here more olés of a Saturday afternoon than the Keepmoat Stadium if Rovers keep up this sort of form. If you look up ‘Total Football’ in an online encyclopedia you’ll see Doncaster Rovers name under the heading alongside the likes of Ajax and Barcelona. Never mind that it was put there by a Rovers fan with Wikipedia editing rights, the sentiment is true enough. What I love about Doncaster under Sean O’Driscoll is that whenever you begin to doubt, or start to get worried the team puts it one of those performances that brightens not just your weekend, but your general outlook as well. Our pub team can play football as good as anyone, and when they do its fantastic to watch.”
That said, the first half was a fairly even encounter and one which was played out predominantly in the central third of the field. Rovers created the better of the chances with Radek Cerny making impressive saves from both Shiels and John Oster. Though there had been few chances in the opening forty-five minutes, Cerny had certainly been busier than his opposite number Sullivan.
Rovers often seem to up their tempo when attacking the South Stand and in the second half of this game they did just that taking the game to the visitors for the opening twenty-five minutes. Shiels had already been denied by Cerny before Sharp, fed by Simon Gillett on the edge of the box struck the ball well but his effort was deflected just wide of the top corner. No matter though as from the resulting corner Sharp got his goal. Quinton Fortune took it quick and low to find Shiels in the box and his low cross was volleyed home by Sharp on the turn from six yards out.
Far from sitting on their lead against one of the division’s in form teams Rovers continued to press and Shiels this time capitalised on some nervy Rangers defending. The forward won the ball twenty-five yards out and skipped past two challenges before hitting a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. Rovers were 2-0 up and clearly enjoying it. With quarter of an hour to go Rovers took it on themselves to show Rangers how the game is played and to the olés of the home crowd strung together a neat move of thirty-five consecutive passes, until the London club had three goes at ending it with crude challenges, the last one by Mikele Leigertwood on Sharp as the forward threatened to break bringing a caution.
Rovers had other chances to extend their lead as Shiels was again thwarted by Cerny, whilst both Sharp and Jamie Coppinger had shots blocked but the game was already well won and deservedly so. This was a much needed win for the Rovers, not only was it just the third win of the season for a Doncaster side determined not to be the victims of ‘second season syndrome’, but the manner of the victory and the effectiveness of the football gave way to notable belief. A side capable of playing football this impressively would surely remain at this level the following season.
Of course Rovers don’t do things straight-forwardly and so this new found confidence was to be tested just a week later with a disappointing defeat at the hands of Nottingham Forest. Indeed my first half an hour in Nottingham that Saturday should have indicated that it was to be a day of contrasts. In that time I had drunk a cup of Gluehwein surround by Nottinghamshire emos, seen a man in Graduation robes ice-skating, and inadvertently wandered into the middle of a book-signing by TV weatherman John Kettley. All of these unexpected juxtapositions of subject and surroundings were trumped later that afternoon when the eleven men in Doncaster Rovers shirts put in a terrible performance at the City ground. From total football to total disappointment in the space of eight days.
The opening eighteen minutes brought as much to write home about as a holiday in Skegness, but then Forest took the lead in contentious circumstances. Dexter Blackstock looked to have hauled Gillet to the ground but the set-piece went Forest’s way and from it came the opening goal. The initial low ball in ricocheted around and was turned away by a good stop by Sullivan but as Majewksi fed it back into the box the prone Gareth Roberts couldn’t get out of it’s path and it went into the net via the full-back’s chest.
As Forest celebrated the Rovers bench vented their rage at the linesman on the Main Stand side, with Richard O’Kelly’s protests causing him to be banished to the stands by the match referee. Minutes later Sean O’Driscoll looked in danger of following him as he too was incensed by the assistant referee’s failure to award a throw-in. Presumably O’Driscoll was saved by the fact that he is only audible to dogs. With Rovers rattled Forest continued to press but as much as half an hour into the game they had managed as many shots on target as Rovers had. None. It took until the end of the half for Rovers to find their stride, but despite creating chances they failed to truly threaten and the half-time break gave Forest chance to regroup, which they did effectively.
The home side had begun to pressure Rovers in all areas of the field in the second half and the approach worked. Harassed and harried in possession Rovers began to lose their composure and passes began to go astray more regularly meaning it was no surprise when Forest went 2-0 up, Wes Morgan heading home a corner. Rovers woke up at this stage and forced a trio of decent chances but their inability to take them sent the guy sat behind me into an uncontrollable fit of hypothetical questions; “Why is he playing it there? What good is that? Why is he looking long? What was that? Why play it now? Why go short? Who’s that for? What are they playing at?”
His inquisitive anger was brought to a halt as Forest added a thrid goal from Rob Earnshaw, and minutes later a fourth with a fantastic strike from Lewis McGugan. Cue Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis… again. I hadn’t heard this much of their music since I saw them live at the Birmingham Academy in 2006. Rovers had lost the previous week’s fluidity and confidence and a token consolation was all they managed despite much possession in the final ten minutes as a corner from the right flank was nodded home by Billy Sharp. No Chelsea Dagger this time, but no matter we were familiar enough with the tune by now to sing it ourselves.
It had been a long and frustrating afternoon on the banks of the Trent and by the time Sharp found the net we had much room to stand and dance and sing a distinctly melancholy version of Chelsea Dagger. Not many Rovers fans had hung about to see November completely played out, but thankfully, though we didn’t know it then, December would bring much more to sing and dance about.