The late defeat at the Cardiff City Stadium meant that January had ended in disappointment for the Rovers, but there were early signs of good things to come at the start of February. With most Rovers fans busy tying Billy Sharp to the nearest piece of furniture so that he did not disappear out the transfer window, Shelton Martis surprised all by coming through the transfer back door. To continue the surprises the big Dutch Antilles international centre-half joined on a full long-term contract, the holy grail of Rovers offers.
On the pitch February did not begin quite so promisingly though as Rovers slumped to a 2-1 home defeat to Reading, and in front of the S*y television cameras too. This was a game which Rovers should not have lost, but subsequently conspired to do so. In absolute control in the opening twenty-five minutes and battering down the metaphysical door in the final fifteen, the components were there to have made more of this fixture. It could have gone either way and it went Reading’s. It was no disaster, despite what the messageboard reactions suggested, just disappointing.
A Shane Long header gave Reading the lead late in the first half and the visitors shrugged off their terrible green and white ‘Waitrose’ inspired away kit to add a second after the break. A Reading counter-attack always had a spare man and last to receive the ball in space as the visitors advanced all too easily was Brian Howard and he slotted it past Sullivan to make it 2-0. With ten minutes left Matt Mills blocked a goal-bound shot with his arm and after the ex-Rover was sent-off a current one Billy Sharp tucked away the resulting penalty. In the closing minutes Rovers pressed, but James Hayter hitting the crossbar was as close as they got.
Four days after that defeat Rovers made a first trip to the Walkers Stadium for a first meeting with Leicester City in nearly sixty years. With so long to wait it’s perhaps unsurprising that the game proved to be something of an anti-climax. It finished goalless, with the games most notable moment a broken jaw for City striker Matty Fryatt after being caught accidentally by the shoulder of Brian Stock. Nigel Pearson though appeared to have seen one too many Injury Lawyers 4 U adverts as he tried to apportion blame where there wasn’t a claim; “It’s not a very good challenge is it. I have seen the video. I’ve said enough. You’ll have to see it yourself.” Some would argue Pearson had said far too much.
Next for Rovers was a home game against the old foes Nottingham Forest. In November the Tricky Trees had inflicted a defeat on Doncaster for the first time in six meetings, thanks to a very impressive Rovers performance they were not to triumph again. I sensed this was going to be a good day for Rovers when I took my seat and was treated to the sight of notorious moaning fan Geoff dancing to some 80s rock played over the tannoy. Geoff’s usual pre-match routine involves asking if we went to the last away game and then telling us who played poorly in it. We subsequently decided to work these into a proverb; “Geoff’s having a dance, Rovers have every chance” or “Geoff didn’t rate Chambers away, little chance of a win today”.
Anyway, on to the game itself and Doncaster did not just match Nottingham Forest, they outplayed them and out fought them and fully deserved an impressive victory. Rovers were in control of this fixture from the out set and having rediscovered the fluidity that had deserted them in large patches of recent matches, they took the game to the visitors. That said Rovers did have something of a lucky escape from going behind undeservedly. Mark Wilson and Chris Gunter chased a through ball for the latter with Neil Sullivan coming the other way. Wilson and Sullivan slid, Gunter tumbled and though Forest went apoplectic in demanding a penalty the referee simply waved play on. A moment very easily chalked down as a lucky escape.
Having threatened for a long time Rovers eventually got their lead and it was that man again. Sharp layed the ball off to James Chambers before haring into the box, where he arrived at just the right moment to flick the full-back’s cross beyond Lee Camp with a glancing header. One nil to Rovers and an emphatic chorus of “Billy Billy Sharp, Billy Billy Sharp” rang around the Keepmoat Stadium. From then on it was always going to be Rovers victory, a likelihood significantly increased when Gareth McCleary was sent off for a terrible high challenge on John Oster.
It was a fine and impressive victory for the Rovers, but again it failed to gain any appreciation from the press. We are of course used to being under-estimated, and dismissed as a footballing force, but Mark Tallentire of The Guardian somehow managed to ignore Rover’s entire participation in this 1-0 victory. Tallentire’s 485 word report seven paragraph report on Doncaster Rovers 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest failed to contain either the word ‘Doncaster’ or the word ‘Rovers’.
No matter, Rovers simply stepped up their already impressive game, to the point where they were difficult to ignore. Forest are a rival of sort, but four days later came a memorable victory over a nearer neighbour. Up until 16th February Rovers only ever victories at Hillsborough had come in the Sheffield Senior Cup against the might of Emley and Worksop. That record was changed forever with a first ever triumph over Sheffield Wednesday in their own great big blue backyard.
Doncaster dominated their local and more illustrious rivals throughout the game and emerged as deserving 2-0 winners. It was a victory which would, at the season’s end, be acknowledged by Rovers’ staff and players as their best of the season and it also produced a memorable goal. Elliott Ward had arrived at Rovers on loan from Coventry just that morning and he made sure he endeared himself to his new team-mates immediately with a stunning overhead kick which crashed in off the cross-bar to give Doncaster a first-half lead.
After the break Rovers simply continued where they left off and grabbed another goal courtesy of some neat interplay around the Wednesday six-yard box, the ball eventually ricocheted home via the leg of one of the Owls defenders. That second goal wrapped up the victory even though there was much time left to play. It was a great night for the Rovers’ fans and a welcome 2-0 win which nudged Doncaster firmly into the top half of the table.
Full of confidence after back to back wins Rovers travelled to London the following weekend to face a Queens Park Rangers side on a wretched run of form. There was only likely to be one winner, and yes, it was Rangers. The home side took the lead midway through the first half. Alejandro Faurlin was given space to lift in a cross from the corner of the penalty area and his delivery was met by a diving header from Jay Simpson inside the six-yard box. Sullivan somehow kept out Simpson’s header with a brilliant save, but he was powerless to stop Antonio German poking home the rebound for the opening goal.
Early in the second half Rovers drew level through James Hayter. Mark Wilson chipped the ball to Billy Sharp on the right edge of the area and he got to the byline before putting a low ball across the goal and Hayter was on hand to turn it in at the near post. However this was to be a day for blue and white hoops and with quarter of an hour to go the home side re-established their lead through Simpson. A neat lofted pass from Akos Buzsaky cleared a Rovers back-line looking for offside and Simpson ghosted in behind to control the ball, turn and finish well to make it 2-1.
Defeated in the capital Rovers had an early opportunity to put things right again with a rearranged home game against Leicester City three days later. This game had initially been frozen out in the days after Christmas, and two months on the rescheduled fixture ran the risk of falling foul of the weather as the Keepmoat Stadium was enveloped in a night-time blizzard. The conditions were to be better handled by the Foxes though as City scraped through for a 1-0 win.
The two sides had met just two weeks previously with a goalless draw at the Walkers Stadium notable only for a serious injury to City striker Matty Fryatt. Therefore there was a touch of irony about the only goal of this game, scored just twelve minutes in by Fryatt’s replacement Martin Waghorn as he raced onto a long ball and finished emphatically. Much of the second half was spent with Rovers looking for an equaliser, but they failed to find it as Chris Weale in the City goal repelled anything that looked remotely threatening and Leicester ensured that Rovers suffered a second successive defeat.
With their positive mid-month performances somewhat undone by the defeats to QPR and Leicester, Rovers fans were in need of a boost as they moved towards February’s final fixture against Crystal Palace. Luckily a significant piece of good news was to arrive on the eve of kick-off as Rovers announced that they had taken Arsenal youngster Jay Emmanuel-Thomas on a month’s loan. JET as he is abbreviated had already impressed Rovers fans when he had appeared at the Keepmoat for Blackpool earlier in the season and his debut was already eagerly anticipated.
The Palace game was to prove a farewell fixture for the Eagles’ manager Neil Warnock. Sadly Warnock was not retiring, or emigrating, but just simply abandoning his ‘cracking, genuine set of lads’ at Selhurst Park for the ‘challenge’ of a significant pay-rise at Loftus Road. Aye, he’s a good honest manager is Neil Warnock. However, his iminant move on would at least render Palace instantly more likable as a club, but for one more afternoon they were to remain a frustrating and overtly physical outfit.
Rovers had bossed the first half and had the ball in the net twice in the opening half an hour although thanks to a linesman’s flag and a shove by Sharp neither would stand. The lead would eventually be their’s though as Jamie Coppinger struck a genuinely fantastic opening goal. Coppinger received the ball from a throw-in on the right flank and cut inside, side-stepping a couple of chances across the top of the box, before hitting an unstoppable left foot strike into the far top corner of Speroni’s goal.
Approaching the midway point of the second half and Palace began to put pressure on the home defence as Jonathan Ertl broke forward but fired wide from outside the area. And then from the next attack came the Palace equaliser as Darren Ambrose fought his way into the danger area and his low cross was turned in at the far post by Kieran Djilali. If the Rovers support were disappointed by the goal, within a minute their mood was better labelled incensed as Sharp was brought down by Clint Hill when in on goal but the Palace man escaped with just a caution. The fixture, and indeed the month would end in stalemate and Rovers would subsequently begin March fourteenth in the Championship.