The postponement of the Leicester match which ended 2009, was to prove a sign of things to come as a decidedly wintry winter meant January began with three further postponements. The first was the FA Cup third round tie with Brentford which was frozen off despite a sunny day in the capital and so when I should have been taking my place on a the away terrace at Griffin Park I was instead skulking out of Paddington on a rickety First Great Western service. Unsurprisingly it was no substitute, but did boast a better atmosphere than the Ricoh Stadium.
The match was rescheduled for January 13th, but by then much of the UK was under a heavy snowfall which had caused Rovers away game at Preston to also bite the white stuff, and ultimately saw the Brentford game again called off. Rovers would eventually see their fist action of 2010 when they hosted Watford on January 17th, but even in the fixture-less lull before that there was still much to talk about, and much to be concerned about as Sean O’Driscoll became linked with the vacant manager position at Burnley.
It began with a messageboard rumour on the afternoon of Monday 11th and by that evening SO’D’s odds for the job had shortened drastically from 25/1 to 7/2 joint favourite with Brian Laws and Steve Coppell, though local media still suggested Lee Clark was the prefered candidate. By midday on Tuesday 12th S*y Sp***s had a person permanently positioned outside Turf Moor and they were saying it was now between Laws and O’Driscoll. Within an hour or so O’Driscoll’s odds had shrunk to 25/1 on and just half an hour after that BBC were reporting that O’Driscoll was ‘to be named as new Burnley boss’.
Just as it seemed all was lost hope sprang eternal once more as O’Driscoll’s odds went back out to 3/1 and by 3pm Burnley supporters’ messageboards were claiming O’Driscoll had turned them down. At this point the BBC, back-pedaled like someone about to inadvertently steer a pedalo into a shipping lane reverted their story to the less committal ‘in talks with Burnley’. By 5pm the Beeb and S*y had changed their stories entirely to suggest that Laws was now favourite for the job, and by 10pm both were ‘understanding’ that Laws was to be offered the role.
The potential disaster is only firmly put to bed at midday on Wednesday as the Rovers’ Official Club website finally makes a statement on the whole saga to confirm O”Driscoll is staying with the club. Retrospective estimates have suggested that the total unworked hours in Doncaster over these forty-eight hours cost the economy around £1billion and ultimately caused the recession. And you thought it was the Bankers’ fault.
Three days later and the fans and the players were finally able to show their appreciation of the manager with some long overdue actual football. From the start Rovers took the game to their opponents Watford and controlled the opening half an hour with only the agility and reactions of Hornets’ ‘keeper Scott Loach keeping the scores level. The deadlock was finally broken though five minutes after the break as a high ball down the left channel was flicked on by Billy Sharp to Jamie Coppinger. The midfielder drew his defender out wide before a neat back-heel right into the path of Dean Shiels who, despite being closed by three Watford defenders, neatly sidestepped the challenges to strike the opening goal low beyond Loach.
After pressing for much of the half Rovers finally doubled their lead in the final quarter of an hour as Shiels played a left-wing corner to the edge of the box where John Oster flicked it on into the path of Gareth Roberts. The full-back struck the bouncing ball first time from twenty yards, catching hit perfectly with an arching shot which found the top corner of the goal to double the Rovers lead and send Roberts haring to the touchline to hurl himself at Lee Butler in celebration. Heidur Helguson scored a late penalty to salvage some hope for the dozen fancy dress hornets in the North Stand, but it was to prove too little too late as Rovers saw out a fifth win in six games to edge back into the top half of the Championship table.
Three days after defeating Watford Rovers returned to London for a third attempt at taking on Brentford in the FA Cup. Rovers started well at Griffin Park with Sharp in particular looking lively but they struggled to find the breakthrough. Thankfully though good things do come to he who waits and after two postponements and eighty-seven minutes of the eventual meeting Doncaster finally found the Brentford net as James O’Connor hurled himself at the ball in the six-yard box to score a diving header and put Rovers into the fourth round.
Such was the delay over Rovers match with Brentford that the resulting fourth round tie came just four days later as Doncaster travelled to face Derby County. On a bad run and having lost their last four meetings with the Rovers The Rams’ fans must have feared the worst, indeed the crowd was less that half of that which had seen Rovers triumph in the League at Pride Park just a month before. For the first time in over fifty years Doncaster had a genuine chance of being in the fifth round, sadly they failed to take it.
As with December’s fixture Rovers controlled great swathes of the first half with neat possession football, but this time it failed to bring them the reward of a goal. As the match wore on Rovers began to get careless in their play and the home side seized their chance. In the final ten minutes an excellent Jay McEveley strike did what none of Rovers efforts on goal had managed to do, and found the net. It was the first time Rovers had conceded in open play in almost two months, but it was all that was needed to put them out of this season’s FA Cup.
The disappointment of the match at Derby would not end there though as in the days that followed it transpired that two Rovers players had managed to get themselves arrested later that night. James Hayter and John Oster were taken into custody in Doncaster town centre in the early hours of Sunday morning for being drunk and disorderly. The confirmation of this story came on the Wednesday after the game, a day after Oster and Hayter had been missing from a Rovers side comprehensively beaten by Middlesbrough.
Though the club and the manager stated that Oster and Hayter were missing due to injury and illness the rumours that it was much more serious than that were already surfacing when the team to face ‘Boro was announced at the Keepmoat Stadium. With Brian Stock, Jason Shackell and Dean Shiels also unavailable for the game Rovers side suddenly looked as flimsy as one of Steve Brooker’s ankles with the Doncaster bench boasting just 120 minutes of Championship experience between the seven of them, and 106 of those belonged to Byron Webster.
Despite the significant absentees Rovers performed well in the first half and perhaps should have taken the lead before their opponents did so through a fantastic Adam Johnson strike. Doncaster threatened an equaliser but on the stroke of half-time they were undone on the break with Jonathan Franks scoring his first goal for the Teesiders and it was all downhill from there. Leroy Lita added a third and despite the brief hope offered Rovers fans by a great long-range strike from the on loan Jordan Mutch, Johnson struck his second of the game from a free-kick to give ‘Boro a 4-1 win.
January ended with what ultimately prove a frustrating first trip to the Cardiff City Stadium. There was a very tenuous irony in how the match panned out as a week which began with two Rovers players spending time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure ended with Cardiff throwing down a giant Get Out of Jail Free card in injury time. Rovers had begun poorly in the fixture and were on the back front for much of the first half. It was no surprise when Michael Chopra opened the scoring, indeed the only real shock was that City did not add to their lead against a disorganised Rovers backline. Only a great save from Sullivan when one on one with Chopra helped keep it at 1-0 going into the break.
Thankfully for the 500 or so Rovers fans in attendance this was to prove the archetypal game of two halves as Doncaster decided to use the second half to show exactly what they are capable of when allowed to play their own game. Two minutes in came the first opportunity on goal as Stock hoisted a ball out to Roberts advancing down the left. The full-back squared it infield with his first touch where Shiels fooled two City men with a step-over to allow Jamie Coppinger to shoot from the edge of the are and his curling effort had to be turned over the bar by David Marshall.
That chance for Coppinger was to prove a sign of things to come. Sharp and Mark Wilson both came close before the increasingly inevitable equaliser finally arrived twenty minutes in. Neat play down the middle of the field saw the ball reach Wilson on the edge of the box. The midfielder looked to be crowded out but just managed to lay the ball into the path of the overlapping Roberts and the full-back caught Marshall by surprise with a well-struck left footed shot which nestled in the back of the net.
Rovers were now in control and rather than sit back they pushed on almost doubling their lead within a couple of minutes as James Chambers and Oster combined brilliantly down the right to allow the former to get to the byline and his pull-back was met by Coppinger but his first time effort was just blocked yards out by a City defender. Rovers were having joy on the right side and fashioned another chance moments later as Oster’s cross was deflected up into the air for Coppinger to meet with a bicycle kick which had Marshall diving to his left to save.
Doncaster had done more than enough to deserve a draw and a victory wouldn’t have been totally undeserved, but as it was they came home with nothing. A slip from late substitute Webster gave Cardiff a late corner from which Ross McCormack’s ball in picked out Jay Bothroyd in the middle of the area and though it looked to be falling comfortably for Sullivan, the presence of Chopra in front of the veteran ‘keeper seemed to confuse him and Sullivan inadvertently performed something of a volleyball dig into the roof of the net. A crushing defeat, but a performance which saw Rovers clapped from the field by the home fans as well as their own hinted that things were moving in the right direction.