On this site we have often made the assertion that if you cannot be buoyant and full of optimism for the first game of the season then when can you be. However, despite that warm fuzzy anything can happen new-season glow, being in a position to chant “We are top of the league”, as we were twenty minutes into this game, is something we had not contemplated. As opening games go, this was as fine a season beginning as we’ve ever experienced.
Of course its easy to say a win is a win, and though this was a great result there were still aspects to offer concern in this fixture. Having controlled the first half Rovers went on to show an element of complacency in the second period, a number of lackadaisical moments that would have been punished by a more effective opposition. Hopefully these slips and miss-timed leaps can be put down to new season rustiness and for now we can just enjoy the many high points from an entertaining afternoon in Lancashire.
As mentioned on Viva Rovers on Friday, Preston North End had sent out emails to their supporters last week, giving them eleven reasons to get down to the opening game of the new season. Going on the numbers of empty seats in the home sections it would seem a new shape matchday programme (a square as it happens) was not quite reason enough to draw the masses to Deepdale. Given the lacklustre showing from North End in the first half Preston’s commerical department may be thankful more had not taken the advice of their mailshot. The home side’s first half fortunes were probably summed up in as they kicked-off. A month and a half on the training ground, and all they could muster was a quick hoof straight into the stands.
Techy is probably the best word to describe the opening few minutes, but slowly Rovers began to impose themselves on the game and spread the ball around, a decent spell which brought a free-kick on the edge of the box. Martin Woods effort was blocked but Rovers retained possession with Simon Gillet getting in the game’s first shot on target, with a low effort from outside of the box that was comfortably saved by Andy Lonergen. Within a minute of this first chance Rovers had broken the deadlock as a cross from the left was cleverly flicked on to Billy Sharp by James Hayter. Sharp saw his left footed shot blocked but the ball fell to James O’Connor arriving on the corner of the area and his low driven strike found the far bottom corner of the net to put Doncaster 1-0 up.
On top on goals, Rovers were clearly on top in confidence as well with O’Connor and Jamie Coppinger working well down the right to forge another opportunity, but thankfully for the shell-shocked North End defence there was no-one in the middle to meet the cross. Just a couple of minutes later though Rovers did strike again. George Friend’s angled cross from the left finding Sharp at the far post. Somehow Lonergen got across to make a great save, but the ball just dropped into the centre of the goal where Hayter was on hand to nod it home. Rovers 2-0 up with less than twenty minutes on the clock and a notable silence spread over three-quarters of the ground as the away section began belting out the aforementioned chorus of “We are top of the league”.
From the start Preston’s approach had been physical, with Chris Brown in particular hurling himself that anyone who dained to stand still long enough for him to lumber his frame in their direction. Once Rovers had doubled their lead these challenges began to increase in regularity with George Friend taken out cruelly by David Gray to bring the game’s first yellow card. Rumours that Friend invited the challenge by telling Gray his New Day at Midnight album was shit are at this stage unfounded. Brian Stock too was being regularly targeted and a heavy late challenge on the captain by Darel Russell saw him too go into the book and led to Sean O’Driscoll glowering at Darren Ferguson in the technical area for a full minute.
Preston’s frustration was being added to by Rovers ability to keep possession; the Doncastrian ball retention bringing olés from the travelling support with the season only half an hour old. If you want an indication of how accustomed we, as Rovers fans, have become to such fluid football then note how few passes it takes for an opposition crowd to give out appreciative applause. Any four pass move which switched the ball from flank to flank was greeted with fervent clapping from the North End fans whilst similar play from Rovers is acknowledged with little more than a nod and a “nice” or “well-played” muttered under breath. We really are spoilt.
Ten minutes before the break Preston got a first genuine sight of Neil Sullivan’s goal as Brown hit a shot that deflected off Shelton Martis’ foot and bounced up and over the bar onto the top of the net. That was effectively as good as it got for Preston, though they did begin to move the ball much better as half-time approached. The only disappointing note for Rovers was a brief bit of pushing and shoving on the sidelines after a fierce challenge from Coppinger (yes, Coppinger) was followed up by a hefty lunge from Callum Davidson on Gillett. The Rovers midfielder reacted, and can be thankful for O’Connor tearing him away before he reacted more forcefully. As it was both Gillett and Davidson saw yellow.
North End were to be a much different prospect in the second half as Rovers looked to consolidate their lead more than add to it. Indeed Preston it was who had the first chance as Keith Treacey broke down the left and cut inside to find space on the edge of the area, but could only curl his right foot strike high and wide. For now though it was Rovers creating the more chances; Gillett had another low long-range strike saved, whilst Sharp put wide from the edge of the area having won possession himself and run at Lonergen’s goal. What I love about Sharp is he is an out an out forward, a goalscorer who just wants to score goals. He will hit anything goalwards, as shown minutes later as he met a low O’Connor delivery with a volley back across his own body that again flew just wide.
Having survived that Sharp induced scare Preston then created their best chance of the game thus far as some neat football on the edge of the area led to Paul Hayes being slipped in on goal, but the forward’s low shot was well blocked by the legs of Neil Sullivan. The home side were now enjoying their keenest spell, but the audible rise in anticipation from their support was not being met by an increase in genuine chances on the field as a number of crosses either evaded their target or in one case, were expertly claimed by a diving Sullivan.
Rovers had their keeper to thank again with quarter of an hour to play as a cross from the byline on the Preston right was turned towards goal by Hayes, but Sullivan did brilliantly to get down to his near post and turn the ball behind for a corner, which the keeper also punched clear. Having been under pressure Rovers then created a rare chance of their own as Sharp attempted to chip the ball back across goal from a tight angle, forcing Lonergen to tip it over his crossbar. Having weathered something of a storm in their defensive third Rovers were at last given some respite as they managed to get the ball in possession again.
Unfortunately though the closing minutes were not to be an easy ride with Preston given a second wind as Rovers went down to ten men. Gillett, having already been booked, went clumsily into a challenge and though he protested his innocence he was inevitably dismissed with a second yellow-card leaving Rovers a man short for the final ten minutes. Less numbers did not instantly hinder Doncaster though as it was they who created the next chance with Dean Shiels, on for Coppinger as sub, curling an effort wide.
The final few minutes saw a Preston push as the complacency we alluded to in the opening paragraphs of this report set in amongst the Rovers defence. Sullivan had to be alert to get off his line to smother at the feet of Davidson as the home side began to create opportunities with the ball over the top. Having only joined Preston on loan at the end of this week Joshua King was not listed in the matchday programme, and given his woeful miss two minutes from time he should be glad of that anonymity. Played through on goal King only had Sullivan to beat from close range, but with the goal gaping he scuffed a shot straight at the Rovers keeper.
Preston’s poor luck in front of goal continued into injury time as from a right wing cross Brown fluffed a close range header, glancing the ball wide, whilst Paul Coutts put an ambitious drive safely into the away end. One big moment for Rovers in the closing minutes as Steve Brooker made his first appearance since signing for the club twenty months ago. The eternally injured striker came on for James Hayter with two minutes of injury-time remaining and received a considerable ovation from the Rovers’ fans.
And so the opening day brings a satisfactory win for Rovers, one which puts them fifth in the Championship. And yes we know the tables are irrelevant at this stage of the season, but its just nice to see that written in print. Let us not get too carried away however as though the first half football in particular was superb at times this was not a complete performance. The second half lapses in defense and general trait of sitting back could well have been punished by a more cohesive side than Preston, and Sean O’Driscoll being the perfectionist he is, will no doubt make that known to his players. Still though a win is a win, and what is satisfying is that unlike Derby two years ago this was not smash and grab, but simply a regular away league victory of which there should be more to follow.
Man of the Match: Whilst there were impressive performances further up the field (indeed this would have been won by Simon Gillett had he not been sent off), we are giving the nod to Neil Sullivan. A commanding performance in goal from Sullivan who made a number of notable stops and interceptions as well as showing some nice interaction with the Rovers crowd at the start of the second half (when asked the score by the away end, he responded by giving them two fingers). Sullivan’s experience is often touted as a valuable asset, but his genuine ability should never be overlooked.
Preston North End line-up (4-4-2); Andy Lonergen; David Gray, Craig Morgan, Billy Jones, Callum Davidson; Danny Mayor, Matty James, Darel Russell (Paul Coutts), Keith Treacey; Paul Hayes (Joshua King), Chris Brown
subs not used: Adam Barton, Paul Parry, Andreas Arestidou, Conor McLaughlin, Bailey Wright
booked: David Gray, Darel Russell, Callum Davidson, Chris Brown (all for terrible lunging challenges)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Shelton Martis, Adam Lockwood, George Friend; Brian Stock, Simon Gillett, Martin Woods; Jamie Coppinger (Dean Shiels), James Hayter (Steve Brooker); Billy Sharp (Sam Hird)
subs not used: Gary Woods, Mustapha Dumbaya, Waide Fairhurst, Josh Payne
booked: Shelton Martis (clumsy foul) Brian Stock (dissent)
sent-off: Simon Gillett (two deserved bookings)