Quite often in recent seasons December has been the point at which Rovers have resurrected their campaign. In 2007 a good run of victories up to and after Christmas kick started Doncaster’s ultimately successful promotion push and of course Boxing Day 2008 marked the point that everything started to go right in the race for second tier survival. This season the same happened again, though it all began to go swimmingly earlier than normal, with the month’s opening game at Crystal Palace.
Rovers have suffered frustration at Selhurst Park on more than one occasion in the recent past. In their first season back in the League Donny were unfortunate to lose out in a thrilling League Cup tie whilst last season they went down to a 2-1 defeat thanks in part to a debatable sending off and a few even more perverse refereeing decisions which culminated in Stuart Elliott being penalised for having dared to get himself completely wiped out by a Palace player. Thankfully though now those two irksome memories have been replaced thanks to a resounding 3-0 win which frankly never looked in doubt.
More pressingly for Rovers supporters, this victory was Rovers first away win of the season. Since Rovers last league win away from home, I had come out of a relationship, wound up my own business, moved house… twice, begun a new job at the opposite side of the country and also lost and resurrected this very website. It had been a long time, so long in fact that I had stopped counting down to the next one and begun to look at Rovers away wins as a source of nostalgia. Remember when there were only four television channels? Remember buying pick and mix at Woolworths? Remember when Rovers won at Plymouth?
If you’re going to kick-start your winning record again then can be few more enjoyable ways to do it than over an axis of footballing evil known as Simon Jordan and Neil Warnock. Rovers took the game to their hosts from the start, but despite early chances they needed luck on their side to avoid going behind as with the goal gaping Neil Danns somehow skewed a shot wide of the post from just four yards out. Moments later Darren Ambrose seemingly had only to stick out a toe nail to turn the ball home as it ran along the line from a Neil Sullivan save, but somehow Gareth Roberts wrapped himself around the ball and the scores remained level.
Where Palace had failed Rovers succeeded with an excellent opening goal five minutes before half time. Billy Sharp began the move laying the ball off for Roberts who in turn played it short to Oster. The Welsh midfielder carried the ball infield from the left before feeding James Chambers on the right; the full back worked his way in to the area and his low cross was volleyed home by Sharp from eight yards out. Palace hit back after the break as Victor Moses struck the bar and Jamie Coppinger was required to head clear off the line, but it was set to be Rovers’ day.
Doncaster grabbed a second goal as Oster and Coppinger exchanged passes on the left with the former feeding Sharp and his lay-off was met by Martin Woods whose left footed effort found the far corner of the net. Firmly in control of the game Rovers grabbed a third goal with quarter of an hour to go. Woods turned neatly in the centre circle to pick out Dean Shiels who carried the ball forward and played in Hayter with a perfectly weighted pass. The Rovers forward took one touch to control and a second to place it beyond Speroni. Time to break out the “I Saw Rovers Win Away” t-shirts.
Last season Rovers notched their first ever victory over Sheffield Wednesday, triumphing 1-0 at the Keepmoat on Valentines Day. Four days after victory in South London Doncaster repeated that feat of defeating their near neighbours at the first time of asking. That February win had been secured by a headed goal from an inform striker, and this victory followed that pre-set pattern. Could it be that this was the night that Billy Sharp effectively took the place of Paul Heffernan?
Sheffield Wednesday came to the Keepmoat to shut Rovers down and stop them playing their favoured flowing football. To be fair they did just that, but for all the attacking potential this gave them in return they as well have just remained on the team coach and parked it in the penalty area. The first half was more cagey than Battersea Dogs home, but just before the break Wednesday had the best chance of either side to open the scoring as Leon Clarke was released into the area; he jinked past Jason Shackell with a neat drop of the shoulder but his left foot strike was poor and rolled harmlessly across goal.
Doncaster’s football had not been up to much throughout the game but twelve minutes from time they finally strung a number of passes together on the right and the result was to be the game’s only goal. Chambers received the ball from Sharp and then fed Simon Gillett on the right and the midfielder’s first time cross was headed home by Sharp from eight yards to put Rovers 1-0 ahead. Wednesday pushed to the end for an equaliser as you would expect, but a volley over the bar from Mark Beevers in stoppage time was as close as they came. A poor game all round, but for us that mattered not a bit. After watching Rovers run rings round sides only to be beaten by a soft goal on numerous occasions in recent seasons it was actually a pleasant experience to see them win ugly.
It wasn’t just the team themselves who were notching up victories in December, in the same week as the win over Sheffield Wednesday Viva Rovers was itself a winner. National football magazine When Saturday Comes announced their (occasionally) annual WSC Web Award winners and amongst them was this very site as we were proclaimed a Bronze Award Winner. “Dry wit combined with well-informed football analysis” was the delightful summary offered by WSC’s web columnist Ian Plenderleith. Staying on the net and the official club website meanwhile had launched arguably one of the oddest competitions ever. Completely unannounced and with no introduction or explanation they proclaimed a lucky fan the winner of their Face in a Box competition, in that they had been pictured at a game and a box had duly been drawn around their face. Their prize? A signed folder. Odd, very odd.
Back to events on the pitch and next up for Rovers was Bristol City at the Keepmoat Stadium, another match that they won 1-0 last season through a single Paul Heffernan goal, and another fixture which they would win this time round with a single goal from Billy Sharp. Not since legendary 1930s winger Derek Whipsagoodcrossin have Rovers fielded such an aptly named footballer. Whilst women are drawn to men with good looks, kind hearts, or big wallets men were starting to go weak at the knees for Billy Sharp’s goals. “If that goal was a bird I’d marry it” proclaimed Nick leaping around to my right in the afterglow of Sharp’s matchwinner against the Robins.
Having scored eight goals in eight games coming into this fixture it was clear Sharp’s reputation proceeded him and the City back line understandably nervous as he prowled the visiting defence for a sign of weakness like Jaws waiting for some cocky pillock to go for a paddle on a lilo. His opportunity came twelve minutes in and he seized it with both hands and an emphatic right foot. A lack of communication at the back for City and Sharp pounced, carrying the ball forward and hitting an unstoppable drive from the corner of the area into the far side of the net.
Rovers held their lead fairly comfortably in the first half, but late in the second it became backs to the wall time for all and sundry in red and white hoops. With quarter of an hour to go City came within inches of getting an equaliser through Lewin Nyatanga’s header; which Sullivan nonchalantly left to glance past his right hand post as a temporary vacuum was created by the simultaneous fearful intake of breath from 9,000 Rovers fans. Sean O’Driscoll added Sam Hird to the backline to see out the final ten minutes but he needn’t have bothered really given the incredible gravitational pull Jason Shackell’s head seems to hold on a match ball. No matter where he positioned himself any lofted ball into the Rovers area is inexplicably drawn to Shackell’s bonce like a moron to Hollyoaks. Doncaster saw out the win, their third in a row, their fourth in five games and now found themselves in a much healthier fifteenth place.
Rovers final game before Christmas was a trip to face Derby County at Pride Park. Doncaster had of course begun their Championship return with victory here on the opening day of the previous season and whilst this game was never going to be as memorable or as meaningful it was to prove just as enjoyable. Maybe its because I am from a footballing family, but for me, just as much as turkey, presents, or weeping in despair in an overcrowded Asda store, Christmas is signified by a great away win on a freezing cold day. For this trip to Derby read Scarborough, Bradford and Nottingham Forest. Whilst two of those three had been emphatic wins, there was something arguably more enjoyable about the smash and grab raid performed at Pride Park as Rovers triumphed 2-0.
Derby had the game’s opening chance with Paul Green at the far post only able to turn the ball back across the face of the goal. “You should have stayed at the Rovers” chorused the Rovers fans and twenty minutes in their argument had an added dimension as Doncaster took the lead with an excellent breakaway goal. Oster carried the ball down the middle of the field before feeding Sharp with a well placed through ball. Sharp took one touch to control, it, another to cut back inside and a third to do the inevitable and pick out the back of the net as Jay McEveley, Dean Leacock and Stephen Bywater simply floundered in his wake.
Rovers almost doubled their lead before the break through a Mark Wilson volley, but come the second half and it was all Derby and all aerial as they bombarded the Rovers box. For the duration of the half it was not so much backs to the wall as crouched behind it occasionally sticking a spare limb or head over the top to hoof the ball clear. Sam Hird proved a particularly impressive barrier and at one point spent a continuous two minutes horizontally thwarting crosses.
Though penned back Rovers continued to look threatening on the break especially as Derby’s defence treated Sharp like an unearthed landmine. Intrigued enough to go towards him but frightened to death of doing the wrong thing and allowing him to explode. Rovers got their reward in the final minute as Coppinger took advantage of a poor throw-in from Bywater to calmly slot home a second goal and send the Rovers fans behind the goal into one big bouncing, scarf waving, air-punching mass of Christmas joy. So energetic were our celebrations of Rovers’ second goal that I left much of my right shin on the back of seat JJ754 at Pride Park. So welcome and joyous was the victory that it was not for another three hours that I noticed.
That win over Derby lifted Rovers into the top half of the table and meant that Christmas Day was spent with the club in their highest position for more than half a century. On Boxing Day came a genuine chance to surpass that and move even higher with a trip to face Coventry at the Ricoh Arena. Not the most local of festive fixtures, and not the most traditional of venues either, with the oddities of the Ricoh complex meaning that many a pre-match pint was drunk in the belly of a large casino beneath a huge chandelier. You wouldn’t get this at the McCain Stadium.
In possession terms Rovers dominated the opening half as they casually moved the ball from wing to wing, skipping around their opponents like the sprouts on the previous day’s lunch. It seemed that the Coventry fans had carried over their Christmas Day afternoon nap to this fixture and even when Freddie Eastwood hit the post with a header they refused to wake up. Only five minutes before time when Leon Best won himself a penalty did the home end finally stir and they did so in time to see Best leather his spot-kick off the post with a satisfying thwack. Moments later Best somehow outdid his penalty miss as from just three yards out he managed to fire his shot high into the stands. As the travelling fans so eloquently put it “Der der der, f***ing useless”.
As it was City would get another chance from the spot late in the second half as Chambers and Clinton Morrison went down in a heap attacking a cross and the referee pointed to the spot. It looked soft, but that didn’t stop Morrison tucking away the penalty. Rovers pushed and pushed but could not find a way back in and their frustration was not tempered by seeing two penalty appeals of their own waved away. Admittedly they were touch and go appeals, but each was arguably more convincing a case than that which had brought Coventry what proved to be their goal.
Rovers should have had a chance to make amends two days later with a home game against Leicester City, but alas a harsh frost saw that game postponed four hours before kick-off. As with those before it, this postponement turned many Rovers fans into fervent empiricists, the word of the match referee no longer seemingly believable without cold hard proof of the cold hard ground. Even Leicester City fans were getting shirty about it with the words ‘tin pot’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ appearing on many a Foxes messageboard, however, as VSC Forum poster BillyStubbsTears neatly put it “If you don’t want to get inconvenienced by tin pot clubs then don’t get relegated out of the Premiership”.
December had ended without a match and with many a frustrated red and white scarfed male wandering aimlessly round the Frenchgate Centre Sales. However, given the pre-Christmas run of form, it was merely a minor inconvenience in an enjoyable month.