“Typical Donny” muttered more than one supporter on their way out of the Keepmoat Stadium today, but Swansea City’s late, late goal does not tell the full picture. Rovers may well have seen three points reduced to one late in injury time, but a draw against this Swansea City side is more than most have achieved this season and the disappointment of conceding so late should not detract from what was a competent display from Rovers which showed they are growing as a team. Facing a very different approach to that endured at Portsmouth last week Rovers adapted effectively and came tantalisingly close to a perfectly executed game plan.
Swansea City came to Doncaster with a glowing reputation coupled with exalting praise from Sean O’Driscoll. Subsequently there will be many a Rovers fan who takes these compliments and adds them to the pattern of play and suggests that Doncaster gave their opponents “too much respect”. There was certainly respect, but the suggestion that Swansea’s possession retention showed a lack of fight from Rovers is nonsense. The Swans may have played keep-ball for much of the first half, but the territory they gained doing so was minimal. The visitors were certainly moving the ball around, but the most common direction was sideways, they were passing it in front of Rovers rather than through them or round them. The threat their game-plan possesses was duly minimised.
Think about how Rovers own season has played out and when our own passing game has been at its most effectiveness. When teams harry Rovers or press them it may put pressure on them to move the ball but it also frees up space behind the opposition. A team whose talent lies in moving the ball is always likely to be able to identify that space and get player and ball into it. That is what we have so often done effectively this season, the first goal at Portsmouth last week being a prime example. By allowing Swansea to move the ball around the centre field freely Rovers were able to get ten men between Swansea and the goal, less space to play the ball duly meant less opportunities to move play into the final and dangerous third. The Swans may have seen a lot of the ball, but tellingly Neil Sullivan did not. And of course the more the Swans draw men forward to make their possession count the more space frees up in their defensive third and the more Rovers are allowed to play. Tactically O’Driscoll got this game absolutely spot on, it’s just a shame fate conspired against him.
Swansea, though not overly threatening, were clearly the best footballing side to face Rovers at the Keepmoat Stadium this season. It was they who fashioned the game’s first chance as Cotterril timed his run down the left flank well to receive the ball and deliver a low near-post cross, but Neil Sullivan was alert to pounce on the delivery. On the opposite wing Nathan Dyer was having a less productive time against Mustpha Dumbuya and the full-back came out on top in their tussle tellingly five minutes in. Dumbuya robbed Dyer of the ball and drove forward towards goal, releasing a neat rolled pass into the path of David Healy who slotted the ball beyond Dorus De Vries and into the net. A rapturous Keepmoat Stadium celebration cut short by the assistant referee’s flag; Healy had just strayed offside.
Within a minute came a great chance for Swansea as Rovers backline were undone by a telling through ball which released Darren Pratley through on goal. One on one with Sullivan Pratley rolled his shot wide of the ‘keeper but also wide of the far post. Chances were at a premium, and the next telling one, on the quarter-hour mark, would bring the game’s opening goal. A corner from the Rovers right just evaded everyone in the middle but Wayne Thomas kept the ball alive and fed John Oster on the corner of the box. The midfielder stood his man up before curling in a right foot cross that was met by the diving head of who else but James Hayter to divert the ball into the bottom corner. That’s five goals in five games for James Hayter, the forward thriving in the absence of Billy Sharp.
After the goal, for the best part of quarter of an hour, all the play was Swansea’s but they were failing to find a way to unpick the Rovers’ defence. Retaining the ball in the centre field they only really succeeded in troubling the Rovers backline when spreading it wide to Cotterril on the left. A couple of Cotterill’s crosses caused some consternation in the area, firstly as Hird and Thomas failed to get a telling boot on the ball and Dumbuya had to dribble it out of trouble and moments later as Mark Wilson had to divert a shot from Gower wide.
Indeed the nearest Swansea came to an equaliser was from the boot of a Rovers player, a cross from the right turned behind by James O’Connor, the ball rolling heart-stoppingly close to the bottom-right corner of Sullivan’s goal. Skipper Ashley Williams did threaten for the visitors as a deflected effort from Dyer spun his way, but the captain’s hook goalwards dropped a few feet wide of Sullivan’s left-hand post. Half-time came with the score still 1-0 to Rovers, Swansea had impressed with their football, but disappointed with their balance, a penchant to hit the deck very easily under the slightest challenge was starting to irritate the sizable Keepmoat Stadium crowd.
That crowd by the way was confirmed early in the second half as 13,614. Just shy of 13,000 of which will have been Doncastrians taking advantage of the cheap ticket offer to see what all the fuss is about. Yorkshire-folk do love a bargain. That crowd figure, the ninth highest for a Rovers game at the Keepmoat Stadium, shows that there are folk out there who want to watch Rovers play. The challenge for the board is finding a way to remain competitive whilst enabling as many of these people as possible to attend Rovers’ fixtures. The football, as great as it is, doesn’t quite seem to be enough for people to skew their domestic budget.
In the second half that sizable home following would have more reason to cheer as Rovers matched their impressive display with much more forward momentum. The visitors were still boasting more of the possession on the whole, but now their spells on the ball were being punctuating with Rovers’ forays forwards in search of a second goal. It was ten minutes before either side really threatened to alter the score though, Swansea winning a free-kick on the edge of the area which Cotterill struck over Sullivan’s crossbar.
On the hour mark came Rovers clearest chance of the game to double their lead. Healy held the ball to feed Oster just behind him who swept it first time into the path of Coppinger breaking in from the left. Coppinger attempted to lift it over De Vries, but the keeper managed to get a hand on the ball to palm it away and Healy following up could only head wide. Ten minutes later came the best chacne yet for Swansea as the ball found its way to Pratley in the Rovers’ area. The forward seemed to have the goal at his mercy, but as he unleashed a shot, Hird appeared from nowhere hurling his body horizontally across Pratley’s path to diver the shot over the bar.
As Swansea pressed for an equaliser Rovers were beginning to find more opportunities on the break though their first was taken from them as Coppinger was barged over by substitute Kemi Agustein and rather thana ward a free-kick the referee signalled advantage for Healy, despite the forward being alone thirty yards from goal with only five Swansea defenders for company. Unsurprisingly the Swans regained possession and when the ball finally went dead Agustein can perhaps feel a bit unlucky to receive a caution as the referee seemed to try to make up for his terrible advantage award.
There were more telling moves forward to come. Coppinger released Oster down the left with a neat back-heel and the latter duly whipped in a great cross towards Healy at the far post whose header was turned over the bar by De Vries. A few minutes later coming inf rom the other flank Oster jinked his way in from the touchline before feeding Hayter who flicked the ball out toward Healy but his shot from the edge of the area flew just wide with De Vries stationary.
Into the final ten minutes and Swansea were throwing everything forward, but were being effectively held at arm’s length. Two corners were whipped into the six-yard box but the first was fisted a good forty yards away by Sullivan, the second headed clear by Hird to commence a key break for Rovers as Stock fed Healy, but the forward checked back and the Swans got bodies back before Hayter eventually fired wide. Another chance for Rovers to put the game to bed went begging as a deep cross came Oster’s way but the midfielder tried to cushion the ball into Mark Wilson’s path rather than going for goal and inadvertently trapped it dead allowing the visitors to clear.
Just as it seemed Rovers had done enough for a telling victory, in the second minute of an unfathomable four minutes of stoppage time Swansea struck an equaliser. A deep ball into the box found Angel Rangel on the right and the full-back controlled it before striking a firm half-volley into the top corner. A sucker punch for Rovers, most notably as a second viewing on television later suggests that Rangel actually controlled the ball with his arm, but it was certainly a fantastic strike.
It’s tempting to call this draw a fair result. It’s tempting because like Rovers Swansea are a team who clearly want to play football and gain progress that way without compromise. However, having gone back over the afternoon in writing this report I don’t think I can subscribe to that. Yes Swansea were good, and yes Swansea retained the ball well, but the majority of the chances, bar the goal and two opportunities for Darren Pratley, were Rovers. The Swans retained the ball admirably, but Doncaster used it more effectively. As such this game was much more of a draw which felt like a defeat, and not just for the supporters. As Mustapha Dumbuya neatly surmised on Twitter late tonight; “Gutted”.
Man of the Match: Message-board dwellers have in recent weeks cast doubts on the ability of Sam Hird at this level, but today, having retained his place in the absence of Shelton Martis, he delivered a performance that should ally any fears. Hird is an intelligent footballer and as such its clear why Sean O’Driscoll was keen to rescue him from Leeds United’s unwanted pile three years ago. He read the game well to make a number of well-timed interceptions and measured passes out of defence and capped his game with that incredible flying block from Darren Pratley late in the second half.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Sam Hird, Shelton Martis, Mustapha Dumbuya; Brian Stock, John Oster (Dean Shiels), Mark Wilson; Jamie Coppinger, James Hayter; David Healy (Steve Brooker)
subs not used: Gary Woods, Adam Lockwood, Dennis Souza, Waide Fairhurst, Billy Sharp
booked: Sam Hird (challenge from behind), Wayne Thomas (nondescript foul)
Swansea City line-up (4-5-1); Dorus de Vries; Angel Rangel, Albert Serran (Kemi Agustein), Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor; Nathan Dyer (Scott Sinclair), Joe Allen, Mark Gower (Stephen Dobbie), Craig Beattie, David Cotterill; Darren Pratley
subs not used: Andrea Orlandi, Cedric Van der Gun, Ashleigh Richards, Yves Ma-Kalambay
booked: Mark Gower (trip on James Hayter), Kemi Agustein (guilt caution for a shoulder barge to make up for poorly thought out advantage)