I went to the Ricoh Arena on Boxing Day last year and hated it. As a ground it is everything that I dislike about modern grounds encapsulated in one concrete, steel and plastic edifice. Its a great big out of town bowl, more out of town than most and owing to the gap between attendance and capacity its more bowl like than most too. Plus it has a casino attached to it, and that’s just wrong. Call me old fashioned, but football grounds shouldn’t have roulette wheels in them. And yet despite this hate, I went again this season, and managed to come away even less enamoured than I had been at Christmas. And that’s before we even get to the issue of constantly losing games in this arena of sky blue plastic that we should have taken something from.
I know it’s a stand-up cliché, but I really did have a tricky time getting here tonight. Since the Birmingham clubs elected to partake in a mass migration to the Premier League Coventry is the nearest Championship ground to Viva Towers, and yet its one of the most irritating to get to. I took two trains to reach the city, and discovered that it’s not just the stadium which is far removed from a city centre, the city centre is too. I rarely scorn towns and cities of this country because lets face it our corner of South Yorkshire is no San Francisco, but Coventry is a deeply disappointing place; the Luftwaffe have a lot to answer for. Equally disappointing were the transport links to the Ricoh. The rumoured 101 football bus service didn’t exist. The number 4 bus failed to arrive. Twice. Eventually I stumbled upon the football match special buses by accident, unadvertised and un-signposted and got to the ground at 7:30pm having arrived in Coventry before 6pm. Once at the ground there was the customary half a lap of the stadium to pick up my ticket, from a ticket office outside which the thoughtful Ricoh staff had placed a Blues Mobile blasting out rhythm and blues songs to hype up an upcoming tribute gig. A good promotion, but it meant the girl in the ticket office window could not hear a word I was saying, leading to an exchange featuring such moments as “Whats your first name?” “Glen” “Oh, this one says Glen on it” “Yes that’s me” “Is that you?” Good work Coventry, good work indeed.
The night would be full of these frustrations, starting with Coventry’s opening goal. I’d barely had time to hike up to the top of the away end when the home side took the lead after little more than a minute. Sean O’Driscoll had elected to go for three central defenders to counter Coventry’s aerial bombardment; a sensible move, but as the ball came into the area for what can only have been the second time it seemed instead to be a case of too many cooks. As the ball ricocheted free Shelton Martis left it for Adam Lockwood who left it for Sam Hird who left it for Neil Sullivan who couldn’t get to it because Aaron Gunnarsson had already taken advantage of the chivalry and poked the ball home from close range. 1-0 down before the game had really begun, and already you sensed that most of the following forty-five minutes would be spent waiting for men wearing sky blue to take set-pieces.
Gunnarsson in particular would put himself in this bracket, by meticulously towelling the ball down before each long throw he hurled in the direction of the Rovers penalty area. At one point a ballboy did toss a towel towards Gunnarsson on the pitch leading to a yell from the depths of the Rovers end “Come on lads, nows your chance, they’ve thrown the towel in” It was to be the only bit of light relief in a fraught opening twenty minutes or so for Rovers. The move for extra bodies at the back was countering the long throws and crosses that Coventry were seeking to lift into the Rovers area at every opportunity, but it was leaving Rovers short in numbers when the ball broke loose and desperately short of pace in the middle of defence in the rare moments Coventry attacked on the deck.
Having just about survived the rest of the opening quarter of an hour on the back foot Rovers began to force a few chances of their own; the best coming as they worked the ball down the right flank before Dean Shiels squared it across goal from near the byline. With Keiron Westwood committed one way the ball was cleared straight to Martin Woods on the edge of the box, but though the keeper was prone, Woods could only connect with his shin and shank his effort horribly wide. Woods would have Rovers’ next opportunity too, again from the edge of the area, and again on the half volley, this time he made a better connection, but was again off target, hitting it high and wide. Midway through the half Rovers should have been level as Coventry failed to clear a corner and Martis ushered the ball back into the danger area, it eventually squirmed Jamie Coppinger’s way, but he just couldn’t dig it out of his feet and ultimately just poked it at Westwood from six yards when any effort with more conviction or direction would have found the net.
I mentioned in the match report of the Preston game of how little ‘good football’ it takes to bring applause from opposition fans in compared to us, such is the way we’ve been spoilt under O’Driscoll. That was evident in the first half when Coventry strung six passes together and their fans began to ring out the oles. We wouldn’t even crack a smile til double figures. The move ended with one of their better chances though as Darren Ward, on loan from Bolton, ran down the middle before hitting a long range effort that Neil Sullivan swatted away like an irritating fly. It was at this point that Rovers were forced into a change which seemed to compliment their style better. Martis hobbled off to be replaced by Mustapha Dumbuya, with James O’Connor shifting to the centre of the back three and bring some much needed pace to the middle of the defence, though it took O’Connor a while to find his feet. Faced with his first low cross, he slipped to present the ball straight to Marlon King, but the forward fired just over the bar.
Within a couple of minutes Rovers were level. John Oster angled a neat lofted ball into the area to pick out the run from Billy Sharp. The forward looked to have taken it to wide, but he was able to bring it under control and pick out the far bottom corner of the goal right in front of the travelling Rovers fans. Cue the loudest chant of the night thus far as “Billy, Billy Sharp” rang out from the South West corner of the ground. Rovers were level with just a couple of minutes to go before the break, but Sharp’s involvement in the half was not quite over yet. The forward was booked for delaying the game at a Coventry free-kick, the referee seemingly oblivious to the forty minutes of unnecessary towelling and clumsiness that the home side had undertaken.
The first half had been even and pretty stop start, but the opening thirty minutes of the second half were to be much livelier and decidedly all Rovers, not just on the pitch but in the stands too. After an often silent first half a surprise bout of atmosphere broke out in the second, led by a constant chorus of “Sean O’Driscoll’s Barmy Army” from the away end. The noise was serving to spur on the Rovers and they were having all the possession and chances. The new life in the team performance was characterised by the nippy and decidedly keen Dumbuya and his devil may care break across the top of the box brought the first chance as Woods volleyed inches wide.
Rovers kept up their possession football and a decent spell where they worked the ball in from the right ended with a chance for George Friend; the full-back hitting a strike just over the bar via a deflection. Coventry were now firmly on the back foot and from the second in a succession of corners Rovers almost took the lead as Hird’s header looked destined for the top corner until a brilliant one handed stop from Westwood.
Both sides took the opportunity for a slight reshuffle midway through the half as Coventry introduced Gary McSheffrey and Rovers brought on Brian Stock for Dean Shiels. The Welsh international was straight into the action and almost scored a stunning goal from Doncaster’s often attempted corner to the edge of the area routine. Stock connected brilliantly with the volley, and his low strike was just deflected wide of the far post via a desperate defensive boot. Rovers were in control in all areas now, as shown by Dumbuya with the diminutive full-back winning his third towering header of the night and then making a perfectly executed challenge to prevent a couple of Coventry breakaways and keep the ball in the home team’s half. City by now, as they have done so many times in the past, were relying on the excellence of Westwood to remain in the game, the keeper coming to their rescue once again to deny Friend from point blank range following a Rovers corner.
Friend was getting himself involved at both ends of the pitch and desperate clearance from him in front of Rovers goal from a Coventry break saw him come together with Sullivan and leave the Rovers keeper prone on the floor and needing three or four minutes of treatment to a facial injury. With friends like these… Coventry were edging back into the game finally as we moved into the final ten minutes and had a great chance as the ball reached McSheffrey at the far post only for the substitute to fluff his chance and effectively roll the ball straight to Sullivan. Next time Rovers wouldn’t be as lucky. Lucas Jutkiewicz broke down right, Lockwood committed himself far too soon and Jutkiewicz got round him and on to the byline from where he delivered a low cross to the far post for the unmarked McSheffrey to meet it with a diving header that found the bottom corner.
Rovers put the pressure on Coventry in the closing minutes, but McSheffrey’s goal was sucker punch that completely winded Doncaster and there was not to be a late saving goal as there had been at Vicarage Road. The word disappointing doesn’t really do this game justice, as Rovers had controlled large periods of the game and created many more chances than the hosts only to come away with nothing. Again.
Man of the Match: James O’Connor just edges it from Mustapha Dumbuya as he showed how much of an asset he is to the centre of the Rovers defence. O’Connor is a better right-back than he is a centre-half, but he it’s generally better for the team if he’s in the middle of the defence.
Coventry City line-up (4-4-2); Keiran Westwood; RichardKeogh, Richard Wood, Ben Turner, Martin Cranie; Aron Gunnarsson, Lee Carsley, Sammy Clingan, Danny Ward (Gary McSheffrey); Marlon King (Lucas Jutkiewicz), Clive Platt
subs not used: Danny Ireland, Michael Doyle, Carl Baker, Michael McIndoe, Nathan Cameron
Doncaster Rovers line-up (5-2-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Shelton Martis (Mustapha Dumbuya), Sam Hird, Adam Lockwood, George Friend; John Oster (Mark Wilson), Martin Woods; Jamie Coppinger, Dean Shiels (Brian Stock); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Gary Woods, Byron Webster, Simon Gillett, James Hayter
booked: Billy Sharp (delaying the game, without use of a towel)