Its well known amongst folk of a certain age that you don’t get to play for Accrington Stanley by drinking milk. However, despite this hinderance to selection they’ve assembled a decent group of calcium-deficient lactose-intolerant footballers over on t’other side ut’ Pennines. One that doesn’t give up. One that is cheered on vociferously by a group very liberally known as ultras, having presumably adopted the label ‘ultra’ in the same way that Always did. And one that has just knocked Doncaster Rovers out of the Carling Cup. Who are we? Exactly.
As expected Rovers made changes for tonight’s game. Brian Stock was away on international duty with Wales, Simon Gillett was suspended, but also out were Billy Sharp, Shelton Martis, Martin Woods, Jamie Coppinger and James Hayter all rested by Sean O’Driscoll. In their place came a deserved start for Mustapha Dumbaya, Sam Hird in a midfield role, youngsters Robbie Clark, Waide Fairhurst, a debut for Josh Payne, Dean Shiels and the forgotten man himself; one Steve Brooker for his first competitive match at the Keepmoat Stadium. If the starting line-up had an air of unfamiliarity it had nothing on the substitutes. Youth team quartet Brett Lucas, Bradley Grayson, Aaron Jones and Robbie Oldham were hastily handed squad numbers 35 through to 38 given a carton of squash and a Penguin biscuit each and told to sit quietly on the bench for the evening.
Despite a make-shift line-up Rovers had arguably the better of the game’s first half, but it was “The Stanley” (Tony Bluff, official website) who were first to find the net. Sean Hessey drove a free-kick at goal from twenty-five yards, Neil Sullivan got down to his right to save only for Ray Putterill to turn in the rebound, but the assistant referee was quick to flag. Putterill had strayed offside as Hessey shot and the goal did not stand. Rovers’ first chance came soon after as Fairhurst presented Shiels with an opportunity but his strike was saved by Stanley ‘keeper Alex Cisak.
Rovers continued to exert an element of control on the game as Clark linked well with Dumbaya to get into a shooting position on the right, but his shot could only find the side-netting. Midway through the half the visitors came back into life forcing a couple of decent chances with Craig Linfield firstly shooting over and then Putterill, just before the half hour mark, found himself open inside the area, but could only shank his effort high into the empty red seats of the South Stand. Before the break Shiels threatened again from distance, but his effort came to nothing and the half ended goalless.
Thankfully for all present the second half was to begin much brighter, particularly for Rovers, as the home side took the lead inside two minutes of the restart. Fairhurst worked well down the left and as Stanley failed to clear his low cross the ball came to Payne who shot on the turn just inside the area and his deflected effort completely wrong-footed Cisak to find the net and give the midfielder a goal on his Rovers debut. One to the good Doncaster continued to press and Cisak had to be alert to turn a George Friend cross over his crossbar minutes later. On the hour mark the scoreline was almost doubled by Fairhurst, on the right this time, he managed to get past the Stanley full-back and cut inside but his driven effort was just inches too high.
Accrington were not about to roll over and Putterill certainly kept Sullivan on his toes as he struck a low pot-shot from distance midway through the half that just missed the keeper’s right hand post. Stanley went for broke, bringing on forwards Chris Turner and Andy Parkinson in a double substitution with less than twenty minutes to go and it would ultimately pay dividends. Hessey had already tested Sullivan once, when three minutes from time Phil Edwards header was well saved by the Rovers ‘keeper only for substitute Turner to slot home the rebound from a tight angle.
Late in the game Rovers almost found a winner to prevent the game going to extra-time as they broke forward in numbers. A low ball across the face of the goal from Shiels almost reached Fairhurst but he and the ball were smothered in the six-yard box and though James O’Connor managed to get a fierce shot on the loose ball it too was blocked as another Stanley defender hurled himself in its path. Before the extra half-hour could be reached their was further disappointment for Rovers as James Hayter, himself on as a substitute for Brooker, was forced off with a hamstring injury, leaving a seemingly twelve-year-old Grayson to step forward and earn an unexpected debut.
What had started to go bad for Rovers sadly would get even worse five minutes into extra-time as Doncaster failed to effectively clear an Accrington corner. The ball was fired back into the danger area with a fierce shot from the edge of the box which took a deflection on its way through. Sullivan got down to it, but could only parry and Linfield was quickest to react to turn the ball home and put the visitors ahead. Rovers would have chances to level before the break, as Shiels saw a strike clocked by Edwards with no regard for his own safety and Grayson failed to hit the target, but it was Stanley who led at the interval.
In the second period of extra-time Grayson would have another, and much better chance to make his mark, but he failed to fully connect with his header from a far-post cross and Cisak saved. Though Doncaster gamely pressed forward genuine chances were sparse. Martis fired an effort wide, but by then the game was in injury-time and soon after the final whistle sounded on a hard-fought victory for Stanley.
There were boos at that final whistle from some home supporters, but then some people fail to see the difference between disappointing and disgraceful. This, let us be clear, was the former of those adjectives. It was a disappointing performance and a disappointment to go out of the Cup, but as much as it pains me to say this, ultimately for us, it doesn’t really matter. And besides, as most folk would assume Rovers and Accrington to be in the same division we won’t get anywhere near the press of the many other Championship first round failures. Well done to Stanley, have a glass of milk on us, but don’t tell Ian Rush.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; Mustapha Dumbuya, James O’Connor, Adam Lockwood, George Friend; Robbie Clark, Sam Hird, Josh Payne (Shelton Martis); Waide Fairhurst, Dean Shiels; Steve Brooker (James Hayter) (Bradley Grayson)
booked: Robbie Clark
subs not used: Gary Woods, Brett Lucas, Aaron Jones, Robbie Oldham
Accrington Stanley line-up (4-4-2); Alex Cisak; Johnny Bateson (Chris Turner), Sean Hessey, Dean Winnard, Phil Edwards; Andrew Proctor, Jimmy Ryan, Ray Putterill (Pete Murphy), Sean McConville; Luke Joyce (Andy Parkinson), Craig Linfield
subs not used: Ian Dunbavin, Zak Riley
booked: Sean McConville