Here at Viva Rovers we try to avoid clichés like the plague. So it becomes hard to report on matches which so neatly file themselves into the game of two halves’ category. The first forty-five minutes at the Keepmoat were distinct only by their flatness. There was neat football on show from the Rovers, but little in the way of goalmouth excitement as far too often the final ball deserted or simply eluded the home side. After the break thankfully it all began to click and Millwall were defeated with a performance which though not perfect certainly brings encouragement.
There was also encouragement to be taken in the attendance at the Keepmoat Stadium yesterday. A decidedly more full looking home end than that witnessed on national television a fortnight ago as 10,356 turned out for this fixture. It may not seem a lot for the second tier, but sensible expectations for this game would have put that figure around 2,000 lower. Rovers’ cheap ticket initiative (all adult seats were priced at £15) and extended marketing pleasingly paying off and the hope now is that this one success won’t breed complacency.
On the pitch to start with there was little to crow about. Sean O’Driscoll had brought Wayne Thomas back into the starting line-up at the expense of October Player of the Month Mustapha Dumbuya to try and neutralise the obvious height advantage held by a towering Millwall side, however the change in defensive personal brought something of a shaky opening ten minutes and an opening goal for the visitors. Eleven minutes in and James Henry got onto the end of a long ball down field to get in a cross from the right. Liam Trotter, unmarked at the far post, met the delivery and his header seemed to clip Shelton Martis to deceive Neil Sullivan. The Rovers keeper managed to claw the ball back off the line, only for striker Steve Morisson to turn it over the line from close range.
Rovers began to edge back into things as proceedings wore on, but it would be midway through the first half before they registered their first shot on target. David Healy making space for a shot from the edge of the area but it was straight at ‘keeper David Forde. A couple of minutes later and John Oster forced Forde into more notable action as he drove forward and hit a firm strike from twenty-five yards that swerved in the air, causing Forde to parry down in front of himself and smother at the second attempt.
Rovers were now starting to implement their neat football further up the field and Jamie Coppinger was next to threaten. The midfielder tied his marker in knots on the right flank before cutting in field and shooting from a narrow angle, his effort beaten away from the near-post by Forde whilst James O’Connor’s driven follow-up rebounded away off a defender’s thigh presumably subsequently marked with a very red patch and inscribed with the word ‘Mitre’.
In the closing fifteen minutes of the half Rovers play began to desert them. Martis delivered a number of inaccurate long balls to nowhere whilst to a man the home side were inexplicably trying to feed the head rather than feet of Healy. Up against an entire of XI of six-foot players this was never likely to pay-off and so the last telling chance of the first forty-five minutes went the way of Millwall. Morrison fed Trotter breaking into the area and his low effort across goal was well struck, but Sullivan was equal to it, getting down to turn it behind with an outstretched left hand.
Having failed to really threaten the Millwall goal in the first half Rovers more than made up for things after the interval, putting pressure on the visitors from the start. Dean Shiels broke into the area and looked to have been upended by Danny Shittu, but the referee waved play on and the ball ran free to Healy who saw his low shot well saved by Forde. A couple of minutes later came another chance as Brian Stock lifted a free-kick into the area and Martis met it, but could only power his header over the bar.
Ten minutes into the half came the goal that was starting to seem inevitable. A free kick on the right edge of the area was whipped into the six yard box by the left foot of Joseph Mills (refered to as “The Gareth Bale of the North” by infamous back row whingy fan Geoff) and James Hayter met it with a glancing diving header to level the scores. Within two minutes 0-1 had become 2-1 as Rovers struck again. Brian ‘The Enforcer’ Stock won the ball with a meaty challenge on the left, allowing Coppinger to cut back to Shiels, his effort was blocked but Stock was on hand to put himself into the challenge again to divert the rebound away from the inexplicably onrushing Forde and to the feet of Healy. The forward calmly slotting the ball into the now unguarded net for goal number two.
The game now in their favour it was all Rovers, all neat touches and assured lay-offs typified by a beautiful piece of exhibition play from Healy and Coppinger in the South West corner. Healy releasing Coppinger on the flank with a neat back-heel for the midfielder to turn his man with a similar trick and then flick the ball back to the striker who checked his man and curled an effort goalwards that sadly went wide. Had it gone in, I would have been tempted to stand up and leave knowing that things would be unlikely to be as good as that moment ever again.
Though Rovers were in control Millwall were still capable of creating chances out of nothing and it took another Sullivan save to deny Trotter as he got on to a through-ball. With fifteen minutes to go the visitors came even closer to a goal as John Maquis, on as a substitute, got in behind the Rovers defence and flashed a shot across Sullivan’s goal and just wide of the far post. That chance reiterated what everyone in the ground was thinking, Rovers really needed another goal before they could be sure of victory. Coppinger came close to delivering just that as he cut inside along the byline from the right and fired goalward only for Forde to save.
Late in the game as injury time approached Millwall fashioned their best chance of an equaliser and somehow conspired to waste it. A deep cross from the right was nodded back across the face of goal by Morisson for John Marquis, but with the goal at his mercy and surely much of the home crowd resigned to an equaliser, he headed down and central and straight into the arms of Sullivan, when anywhere else on target would have brought a goal.
Rovers would have one last chance of their own, having introduced Steve Brooker for Healy not long before Marquis’ golden chance. The forgotten man showed some neat touches in his eight minute cameo and came close to bringing the house down at the start of injury time as he elected to strike a bouncing through ball first time, firing just wide of Forde’s goal from the edge of the area. Millwall pushed forward in the closing minutes of injury time but failed to deliver a clear cut chance as Sullivan’s alertness off his line snuffed out a last late threat just before the final whistle.
The encouragement to be taken from this game is two-fold. Firstly Rovers have succeeded in imposing their brand of football on a game against a big physical side. Secondly Doncaster can probably play better than this too. The ball retention and movement was there from Rovers throughout, but there were notable lapses, breaks in concentration in defence and in the fifteen minutes up to half-time in particular a tendency to look long or high rather than the much more effective short and low. Rovers were the better team in this match and got what they deserved without delivering their best performance. Iron out these inconsistencies and I’m not exaggerating when I say they would be leading this division.
Man of the Match: Jamie Coppinger. Last season I wrote on this site how great it was to watch Jay Emmanuel-Thomas in a Rovers shirt, he being the showman that we’ve lacked in the last decade or so. JET may no longer be here, but we can delight in the fact that Jamie Coppinger has decided to step forward and undertake the role of entertainer. On more than one occasion today Coppinger’s marker was twisted and turned like a Rubik’s Cube; a genuine joy to watch.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-2-2); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Shelton Martis, Wayne Thomas, Joseph Mills; Brian Stock, John Oster; Jamie Coppinger (Mustapha Dumbuya), Dean Shiels (Mark Wilson); James Hayter, David Healy (Steve Brooker)
subs not used: Gary Woods, Sam Hird, Byron Webster
booked: Wayne Thomas (use of the arm challenging for a header)
Millwall line-up (4-4-2); David Forde; Alan Dunne, Paul Robinson, Danny Shittu, Scott Barron; James Henry (John Marquis), Darren Carter (Danny Schofield), Liam Trotter, Jimmy Abdou; Kevin Lisbie, Steve Morrison
subs not used: Steve Mildenhall, Tony Craig, Darren Ward, Marc Laird, Kiernan Hughes-Mason
booked: Scott Barron, Steve Morrison