March began with a trip to face Bristol City which I had been long looking forward to. Not only are City one of the nearest Championship teams to my current home, but I also have a good friend who is a Robins fan. It was set to be a good away day whatever, it turned out to be one of my best. It started well with a rare opportunity to pay in cash, at a turnstile, and just got better and better.
I remember the last time I chanted “We want six” at an away game – you do when it happens so rarely. Boxing Day at Scarborough’s McCain Stadium 2002, a 5-2 win, and a sign that Rovers were heading in the right direction. That day had it all, a big victory over (relatively) local rivals and a side we’d always struggled to beat, a sending off for an ex-Rovers player and a giddy packed away end who sensed our non-league sojourn was coming to an end. I know we tread the ‘look how far we’ve come’ line a lot on this site, but I make no apologies. Even as I bounced around singing Jingle Bells at the back of Scarborough’s away end I would never have envisaged that the next time I’d see Rovers notch the same score-line they would be doing so mid-table in the second tier. The Wedlock Stand at Ashton Gate may not have been as full of Rovers fans, the opponents not as eagerly anticipated, but this match was every bit as good an away day.
Despite having four key players out injured Rovers swept to what was a very deserved 5-2 victory that could and frankly should have been more. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was given more freedom to get forward and support Billy Sharp up front and between them they had the City back line terrified a fact illustrated by Rovers opening goal. Sharp received the ball on the corner of the City box and drove into the area through four City players. With the home side trying to swamp the forward, Emmanuel-Thomas moved into the space at the far post and Sharp found him with a low ball across the area that his fellow loanee slotted home from twelve yards just two minutes in.
It was a frantic opening quarter of an hour at Ashton Gate as Rovers twice led and City twice equalised. That Emmanuel-Thomas goal had been cancelled out just six minutes later as a deep cross from Jamal Campbell-Ryce was turned in at the far post by Bradley Orr. Rovers retook the lead moments later as John Oster’s driven cross was turned in by Sharp, but again City equalised and again it was Orr turning in a deep cross from Campbell-Ryce.
The match showed no signs of slowing down either as Nicky Maynard hit the crossbar for the home side and Oster forcing a good save from Dean Gerken at the other end. The goals continued to come though, and they came for the Rovers. Sharp grabbed his second to put Rovers 3-2 up as he latched on to a long clearance from Sullivan to finish well and before half-time it was four as Emmannuel-Thomas secured a brace of his own as he controlled the ball from a corner and lashed it home with his left foot.
Such had been the nature of the first half though it was clear that even with a 4-2 lead, Rovers were in no way certain of victory, and City began creating early chances. However, thankfully the second half was not to be as eventful as the first. Had it been many of us would not have lived to tell the tale, instead we’d all be strewn across the various benches of the Ashton Gate away end clutching our chests like something from the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.
In the end there was to be just one more goal, as a low driven cross from Oster was turned into his own net by Bradley Orr. The full-back it seems suffering from a Pavlovian response to finding himself racing onto a cross to the far post. As the match came to a close Emmanuel-Thomas was substituted to applause from both sets of supporters and the Rovers fans serenaded their counterparts with a chorus of “Why don’t you go home, this match is over, why don’t you go home”. It was a truly brilliant away performance by Rovers, the sort that sees you end the day several Jack Daniels later dancing to Dub Be Good to Me by Beats International at 3:30am in a nightclub you never previously had any intention of visiting. OK, maybe that last bits just me, but it was a fantastic match.
There was no time to rest on past hangovers though as Rovers were in action again just three days later with a rearranged fixture at Preston, the original Deepdale date having been lost to the weather in January. Full of confidence from their victory in Bristol, Rovers made the better start to the game and took a deserved lead half an hour in as Gareth Roberts whipped ball into the box was brilliantly volleyed home by James Hayter from fifteen yards, his low shot leaving ‘keeper Andy Lonergan with no chance.
Though Doncaster had enjoyed the better of the first half, Preston would bring the scores level before the break. A big side North End were always likely to threaten from set-pieces and that they did as Callum Davidson’s ball into the area caused problems and Neil Mellor finished from close range. The second half was to prove a more even affair, but even then Rovers had the best chance to win the game outright. James Chambers racing into the area went down as he came into contact with Paul Coutts and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. It was a soft penalty and so Preston will have felt vindicated as Sharp’s spot-kick was well saved by Lonergan and the match ultimately finished level.
Rovers first home game of the month followed with Derby County coming to the Keepmoat Stadium to play the role of supporting actor in what was to be very much Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ show. A friend of mine was covering this game for the press and at half time he sent me his first half summary via text message from the press box. It read simply; “JET = skills”. For all the fantastic flowing football we had been treated to in recent years, we’ve rarely had the pleasure of a showman at Rovers, but Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was proving to be not just someone who could impress in Rovers’ fluid system, but someone who could get the crowd on their feet.
Emmanuel-Thomas is by no means a quick player, nor an energetic one, but his simple lumbering presence on the ball was enough to have Derby worried and the home crowd collectively leaning forward with ‘right, what’s he going to do next?’ anticipation any time he got the ball. Out in the right in particular he ran through his party pieces; nutmegging Jay McEveley with ease, and then one glorious trick where he faked an inside pass with his right foot only to play in the overlapping Jamie Coppinger with his left foot, all in one movement. Full of surprises, JET then complimented his neat trickery by hurling a long throw into the six-yard box, the last skill you’d expect him to have in his locker, it was like discovering Kylie Minogue can weld.
JET rounded off his expert performance with a glorious second half strike as he cut in from the right and fired the ball into the far top corner from the edge of the area. You’ll rarely see a strike more fitting of the description ‘unstoppable’ than this. Had it not hit the back of the net there would be one very concussed Derby County fan in Doncaster Royal Infirmary still trying to remember his own name. That strike from JET made it 2-0 to the Rovers following on from Sharp’s first half penalty which had been leathered home with just as much force. Derby pulled a goal back to set up a nervous final fifteen minutes but Rovers held out for a fourth game unbeaten.
Four games would become five days later as Rovers travelled to face bottom of the table Peterborough United at London Road. Though bottom for some time Posh’s results had picked up coming into this game and Rovers were set for anything but an easy ride, a point reiterated when the hosts took the lead. United had threatened several times only to be denied by Neil Sullivan before they eventually went 1-0 up ten minutes into the second-half. Charlie Lee turned a corner goalwards and though Sullivan and Coppinger combined to scramble the ball away the officials ruled that it had already crossed the line.
So, if Rovers were to triumph in this game they had to do something which they had not managed to do in thirteen months, come from behind to win a game. They were to do just that thanks to goals from the team’s Welsh connection, firstly from full-back Gareth Roberts, making a welcome habit of scoring great goals. Martin Woods cross was headed clear, albeit briefly, as the ball only made it to the edge of the box where it was met on the volley by Roberts, his first time strike looping gloriously into the far corner of the net. All square both sides pushed for the win, and it would be Rovers who secured it as they broke emphatically from a Peterborough corner. The dead ball was cleared to Coppinger on the Rovers right, who in turn played in Sharp in the right channel, and though he couldn’t get a shot off he did manage to nudge the ball into the path of Oster, steaming in at the far post to turn the ball home and secure a great comeback win for Doncaster.
Incredibly Rovers were now eighth in the table and the town and the rest of the division was starting to take note. Sheffield United were next up and the game had now been handed added significance, not just a South Yorkshire derby any more, with the Blades in 7th this was suddenly a potential play-off clash. If Rovers won they would leap-frog the Blades to take the unexpected honour of being Yorkshire’s top Football League club, given that less than a decade ago we were eleventh in that pecking order it would be a notable milestone.
Rovers had ethically rested Billy Sharp from this game against the striker’s principle employers, but it seemed not to matter as from the start Doncaster showed the confidence and swagger that you would expect from a side in its highest league position in decades. Having put United on the back foot with a couple of early crosses Rovers pounced inside five minutes. A corner from the Rovers left wasn’t dealt with by the visitors and James Hayter took advantage powering the ball home from ten yards to put Doncaster 1-0 up. The Keepmoat Stadium duly erupted as three-quarters of the ground jubilantly bounced around to Tom Hark.
Doncaster dominated the first half and the only surprise in the scoreline at half-time was that they led by only one goal to nil. So impressive had been the Rovers performance up to the break that they left me with that rarest of feelings in modern day football; that I’d been undercharged. Sadly, it was not to last. United regrouped and reawoke during the interval and it was they who had the better of the second half and eventually they would find an equaliser. After a long seige on the Rovers area, James Harper’s deflected 88th minute shot salvaged a point for the Blades.
Rovers had now gone six games unbeaten as they had edged up the Championship table, a record of form which could be bettered by only other team in the division, and it would be they who Rovers faced next. Newcastle United arrived for a midweek date at the Keepmoat, leading the Championship table, but still enduring comedic turmoil off the pitch. In the run up to this fixture Steven Taylor had suffered a broken jaw and Andy Carroll a fractured hand in a training ground incident which probably hadn’t involved a head-but. Most clubs would probably have disciplined the striker, not Newcastle, they sent him on to the Keepmoat pitch and he duly scored the winner.
Rovers worked hard against Newcastle, but just could not find the breakthrough with Steve Harper more than once denying decent strikes from Rovers players and the linesman’s flag ruling out a strike from Sharp. By the time Sharp’s disallowed goal had hit the net Doncaster were already trailing to Carroll’s second half strike. The forward having raced on to Wayne Routledge’s pass on the hour mark to slot the ball beyond Sullivan. The goal had been a crushing blow, and with an equaliser failing to arrive it signalled a first defeat in a month for Sean O’Driscoll’s side.
Rovers had just one game left in March, another South Yorkshire derby date at Oakwell, but before that arrived the club was to receive two pieces of good news. The first came as Arsenal agreed to extend the loan of Emmanuel-Thomas for a further month and the second came the way of the Rovers Belles. Doncaster Rovers’ ladies side have long been a force in the women’s game and as March drew to a close they were given a significant boost with the news that they had been accepted into the FA’s new Women’s Super League. For a side with a rich history in the women’s game, and particularly given that the Belles went close to the wall last season, it was great news for the club and the town.
March would end positively on the pitch too as Rovers finally found a way to defeat Barnsley in the Championship. When the two clubs had met in League One Rovers had dominated the Tykes, but since coming into the Championship Barnsley had won in each of the three previous meetings between the two clubs. Not this time though. Rovers would return to eighth spot in the Championship thanks to a single goal from Jamie Coppinger.
Yep, at Saturday tea time on March 27th the streets and houses of Barnsley will have resembled the opening scenes of Ripping Yarns – even more so than normal – for Rovers had ended a run of three succesive defeats to their neighbours by beating The Tykes 1-0, one bloody nil. The crucial goal came ten minutes before half time. Coppinger held up play neatly on the corner of the Barnsley box before exchanging passes with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and then with the ball back at his feet Coppinger hit a curling right footed shot low into the far corner of the Barnsley goal, and promptly ran the length of the field to celebrate with the travelling Rovers supporters.
The home side of course rallied in the second half but they were unable to find their way through a resilient Rovers rear-guard and Doncaster held on to secure a much celebrated win. And so with just over a month of the season to go Rovers were still knocking on the window of the play-off places. The pub team was in high danger of being taken seriously. Surely TheLikesOfDoncaster couldn’t do it. Could they?