Towards the end of the first half of this match, with a somewhat shell-shocked Fratton Park uncharacteristically quiet a lone voice from the visitors’ end called out to the neighbouring home fans; “Yes that’s right. All that you’ve read about us is true.” At this point Rovers were two goals to the good and coasting against another side who had promised in the matchday programme not to underestimate us, but appeared noticably surprised by what they encountered. That said Portsmouth probably should have sensed the afternoon was not likely to go all that smoothly for them when one of the World War II veterans taking part in their pre-match Remembrance minute’s silence, having been nudged forwards by a member of club staff, tripped over as he entered the field of play. Once you’ve tripped a war veteran there is really no coming back.
There were changes in the Rovers set-up for this fixture as Dean Shiels a recent staple of the side was omitted from the squad completely. Sam Hird came in to take his place “Oh no, he’s playing five at the back, five at the back” proclaimed the bloke two rows behind me with the intoned woe of the Soothsayer in Julius Caesar. It was not quite as straight forward as that though. On the opening day of last season at Watford we nicknamed Sam Hird ‘Der Kaiser’ for a Franz Beckenbaur-esque passing display from the Rovers back-line and today his role was very much in the Der Kaiser mould. When Rovers were on the back foot Hird slotted into, and often behind, the back-line almost as a sweeper, whilst when Doncaster were in position Hird became a third central midfielder. A key role and one he would go on to execute well throughout the day. The other changes came on the bench, still only six players strong with new signing Simon Whaley afforded Sam Hird’s place and the ever loyal Robbie Clark also amongst the subs.
Fratton Park is a notoriously vociferous ground, a factor which made the well-observed minute silence before the game all the more poignant. So quiet was it I could hear the bloke a couple of rows in front chewing. Portsmouth kicked off and within a matter of seconds were on the attack; James O’Connor left the ball for Shelton Martis whilst Martis similarly left it for O’Connor. Bringing an end to this early chivalry John Utaka stole through the pair of them and broke down the left before crossing for David Nugent to head wide. Rovers looked nervous and Portsmouth had another opportunity within a minute with Nugent this time shooting wide. Rovers early nervousness was characterised by Mustapha Dumbuya, the full-back watching a routine pass slip straight under his foot on the touchline.
Slowly Doncaster came into the game and David Healy was first to threaten for Rovers, the forward cutting in from the right to make space for a shot from distance that flew wide of the far post. Despite that sight of the Fratton End goal it was still the home side who were in control and they came close to an opening goal as Greg Halford left Dumbuya standing to cut in from the right and drive a shot goalwards that flicked off the top of the bar. Dave Kitson was also threatening, first with a strike that went straight at Neil Sullivan and secondly with a more speculative effort that flew high and wide.
Ten minutes in and Rovers were finally starting to look a bit more settled as a corner from the right came to John Oster who fed James Hayter with an excellent outside of the boot pass and the forward controlled before shooting on the turn to bring a fine save from home ‘keeper Jamie Ashdown. Quarter of an hour in, having been on the back foot for most of what had preceded Rovers finally moved the ball about effectively and in doing so scored the first goal. Hayter back on half-way intercepted and flicked the ball over his man before laying off to Brian Stock who found Oster. The midfielder found Healy in space on the right and then broke forward himself as Healy advanced to deliver a low cross which Oster dummied, allowing it to reach Hayter who took one touch to control and another to find the net.
Portsmouth attempted to hit back, but the final ball was avoiding them and Rovers having been out-muscled for much of the opening twenty minutes were starting to hit back. That was epitomised twenty-five minutes in as Rovers struck again with a move that started with Dumbuya putting in a hefty but fair challenge to take the ball off Michael Brown. From that tackle the ball came to Jamie Coppinger who exchanged passes with Oster before doing enough to get the ball beyond Ashdown and into the net to put Rovers two goals ahead. Now in front Rovers looked notably more confident and began to move the ball as well as we know they can. Dumbuya who had looked lost in the first ten minutes now looked assured as anyone as demonstrated as he coolly fended off pressure from Kitson with a neat drag-back and roll.
Though in front and moving the ball around fantastically – the neat close lay-offs and backheels complimented by some incredibly accurate long passing such as the perfect sixty yard pass Coppinger swung out to Healy on the opposite flank – there were still clear signs that this game was far from over. Nugent found the back of the Rovers net as he lifted a bouncing ball over Sullivan but the flag had long gone up for offside. Minutes later Utaka again got to the byline before crossing but Kitson’s header was tame and Sullivan comfortably gathered it. The half ended with Rovers 2-0 up, more than we could have ever expected.
Portsmouth perhaps unsurprisingly made changes at the break as Ricardo Rocha came on to sure things up at the back whilst Joel Ward was added to bring more threat and potency up front. Despite the changes the second half started fairly evenly, though it was the home side who fashioned the first chance as a Dumbuya slip allowed Nugent to receive the ball in space on the right. His low cross went all the way across to Kitson at the far post, but his fierce drive goalward was beaten away by Sullivan. At the other end Rovers fashioned a neat spell of play on the right that culminated with Hayter scooping a shot just over Ashdown’s crossbar.
From the hour mark onwards though it was to be all Portsmouth as Rovers spent time camped out in their own third of the field. Most people will ask the question why Rovers would sit back at this stage given the recent capitulation at Reading, but its not as if this was a move of choice. Portsmouth were throwing bodies forward and Doncaster have to react by marking those bodies, the space in which to play evaporated and even if Rovers had wanted to go on the attack the opportunity to do so effectively simply was not there. Instead, thanks to their effectiveness in front of goal in the first half they were now forced to hang back and for the most they did so very effectively. Wayne Thomas was a towering presence in the air and also on hand to execute a number of key interceptions. Shelton Martis too was impressing, notably as Utaka appeared to be in on goal only for Martis to perfectly time his challenge to not only take the ball off Utaka’s toe but be in a position to calmly stroll away in possession.
Utaka is a fantastic talent nd he was clear and away both Portsmouth’s best player and their key threat. So it came to be as he executed the move that brought the home side’s first goal. The Nigerian advancing to the byline before pulling the ball back across goal where Ward arrived at the back post to power the ball home. A goal in it and with Rovers unable to get the ball to Healy up front for a moment’s respite the game continued to be dominated by the hosts. A couple of corners were just about fended off by a combination of defence and goalkeeper whilst Nugent fired a strike off-target. With twenty-five minutes to go though the equaliser finally came. Utaka whipped in a cross from the left which Sullivan attempted to dive out and gather only to see it slip from his grasp. Nugent nudged it goalwards and as it rolled towards the line Thomas and Dumbuya tried to clear only for Nugent to army roll into its path and force it into the net. Replays suggest it cannoned in off his elbow, but the officials could never have seen it that way at the time and suddenly it was all square.
Back level Rovers fans would have been fearing the worst.“Two nil and you facked it up” sang the home fans predictably. That we may have done, but at least we could take solace in the fact twe can pronounce the word ‘fucked’ correctly. Whilst we had our heads in our hands, especially as Coppinger hoofed a goalbound header off the line, Sean O’Driscoll simply executed a subtle change in personnel that made Rovers a much more potent threat than they had been for the preceding twenty minutes. Off went the holding man Sam Hird and on came the sizable attacking presence of Steve Brooker to give the Rovers forward line some stability. Within a couple of minutes this tactical switch paid off. A ball forwards was flicked on by Brooker to the feet of Healy. Seemingly surrounded the forward took his time to make space before firing an unstoppable shot from twenty yards into the corner of Ashdown’s net. Cue glorious pandemonium amongst the travelling supporters. “Two two and you fucked it up”.
With ten minutes plus a whole heap of stoppage time still to play the game was far from won though, even if Healy’s strike had taken a notable portion of wind from the Pompey sales. Utaka weaved his way into the area but thankfully took on a man too many as he was forced wide and his shot hit the side netting. A number of crosses came into the area and thankfully found either the head of Thomas or O’Connor or the hands of Sullivan. Nugent tried his look from distance, but his strike too was straight into the arms of Sullivan. The frustration of the home side came to a head in the final two minutes as Carl Dickinson made a wild high two footed lunge at James Hayter and received a deserved red card. The challenge produced a twenty-one man melee in front of the home fans as Dickinson tried to literally fight the decision, the only man not involved was Sullivan; standing alone on his goal-line at the other end of the field taking a drink and presumably tutting at the youth of today.
The moment the game restarted Hayden Mullins too wiped out Hayter to get himself in the book and Rovers enjoyed a spell seeing out some time in the corner before Coppinger’s angled drive went straight at Ashdown and moments later the keeper was on hand to save Healy’s far post header with a full-length dive. Portsmouth tried to break but Hayter decided to put a stop to that by neatly executing his own revenge with a subtle trip on Mullins. He received a deserved yellow card that bothered him not a jot. Momentum taken from them and a man poorer Portsmouth failed to properly threaten and their only telling break down the left from Utaka was this time halted by substitute Byron Webster calmly taking the ball off the winger and striding forward with it to kill more time. As the clock on the Fratton End hit 5pm the final whistle finally sounded on a dramatic away win for the Rovers, their first ever at Portsmouth.
But for a very enjoyable spell in the first half Rovers were never really in control of this game, but it should not be interpreted as a smash and grab victory as it was much more than that. Rovers executed some well thought-out tactical changes against the division’s most in form side. The personnel shift was always going to mean Rovers fluid football would not be a s evident as it can be, but in the patched it was shown it really was a joy to watch. Once Rovers found their footing in the first half they were fantastic going forward and despite being outnumbered in the Portsmouth half they were delightfully assured in possession. At the back is where the concerns remain but despite giving away a two goal lead there was encouragement to be taken. Each defender individually performed well, all that is missing is the cohesiveness of a unit and given the defensive shifts Rovers have had to make owing to injuries this season this will always take time. Considering this was only the second time this back-line had played together, I would argue they performed impressively in what was a very enjoyable away day.
Man of the Match: James Hayter is in the midst of probably his best spell at this level. He’s always been a hard-working player and indeed at times in this match he popped up making telling interceptions in the left full-back position. But his industriousness is now being matched by a potency in front of goal. Today’s well executed strike his fourth goal in four games. There are very few Championship forwards in better form than he.
Portsmouth line-up (4-2-3-1): Jamie Ashdown; Greg Halford, Ibrahima Sonko (Ricardo Rocha), Aaron Mokoena, Carl Dickinson; Michael Brown, Hayden Mullins; David Nugent (Nadir Ciftci), Nwanko Kanu (Joel Ward), John Utaka; Dave Kitson
subs not used: Darryl Flahavan, Hermann Hreidarsson, Richard Hughes
booked: David Nugent (foul), Greg Halford (foul on Mustapha Dumbuya), Hayden Mullins (poor challenge on James Hayter)
sent off: Carl Dickinson (terrible wild lunge at James Hayter)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-1-2-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Shelton Martis, Wayne Thomas, Mustapha Dumbuya; Sam Hird (Steve Brooker); Brian Stock, John Oster (Mark Wilson); James Coppinger, James Hayter; David Healy (Byron Webster)
subs not used: Gary Woods, Simon Whaley, Robbie Clark
booked: David Healy (nothing foul on David Nugent), James Hayter (cynical trip on Hayden Mullins)