There is a theory that bad things happen in threes. With that in mind Rovers fans would have been particularly cautious on their way home from this fixture, each one with the foreboding sense they were about to be mugged. That’s because by this point in their Saturday they had already been robbed twice at the Walkers Stadium. Firstly at the turnstile when they were required to pay £16 more than the home fans, and then secondly in the final minute of the first half when referee James Linnington articulated what no-one else was thinking to award what ultimately would prove a match changing penalty.
It would be wrong however to hang the blame for Rovers defeat solely on Mr Linnington. This defeat was more pointedly down to a second half capitulation involving one of the worst forty-five minutes ever delivered by a Sean O’Driscoll led Rovers. It’s no wonder that the manager kept his team locked in the dressing room long after the final whistle, as the team seemed to abandon all principles after the interval. Cohesion and collectiveness, the cornerstones of Rovers play were notable only by their absence as the team lost their heads and allowed Leicester to canter to a victory as disappointingly easy as it was emphatic.
It had all started so well. In the pub before the game we had debated which of the forward trio, of David Healy, James Hayter and Billy Sharp, O’Driscoll would choose to leave out. The answer was to be a surprising ‘none of the above’ as Rovers began in an ambitious 4-2-1-3 formation with the aforementioned front three given freedom to roam as they saw fit. A fluid approach that caused the home side notable problems and led to odd appearances in the full-back birth for both Hayter and Sharp at points in the first half.
This fluidity of movement brought the game’s first significant chance Rovers way as they moved the ball from left to right and Sharp on the edge of the penalty area fed Hayter. Arriving in the centre the forward got the ball under his foot and scuffed his shot harmlessly wide. Perhaps he should have thrown his head at hit. Within a couple of minutes a similar move would lead to the opening goal. Shelton Martis was enjoying the unfamiliar right back birth handed him – attacking so freely and beating men so confidently that we chose to rechristen him Shelton Arantes do Nasci-Martis – and it was he who slid an excellent through ball for Jamie Coppinger breaking into the area. Coppinger duly chipped the ball into the middle where Billy Sharp volleyed it home from twelve yards. We jumped around. I grazed my shins on the seats in front. I cared not a jot. Life was good.
Leicester were struggling to make an impact on the game and for the first quarter their threat had been limited to optimistic pot-shots from distance. However in a ten minute spell around the half’s midpoint they had the better of the possession and came close to an equaliser from a corner on the right. The deadball was flicked upwards and goalwards by Miguel Vitor and eventually dropped onto the crossbar. This chance aside the home team, though enjoying more possession had failed to create clear sights of goal and they were almost made to pay dearly. A slack back-pass from Curtis Davies was intercepted by Healy and the forward rounded goalkeeper Chris Weale, but took the ball too wide and from a narrow angle could find only the side netting.
So with Rovers doing enough and Leicester struggling to do anything of note the first half seemed to be tumbling abjectly towards its conclusion. Enter Mr Linnington, centre stage. Richie Wellens attempted to flick a one-two into the path of Lloyd Dyer but got too much on the ball allowing James O’Connor to shepherd it back to Neil Sullivan coming off his line to gather. Dyer had given chase, and though he managed to get a foot between O’Connor and Sullivan the keeper still comfortably collected the ball and the two outfield players landed in a heap. It seemed straight forward enough, indeed there was little to no appeal from the home crowd, and yet the air was punctuated by the shrill sound of an Acme Thunderer and all turned aghast to see Mr Linnington give a little skip and a point to the spot.
I’m a qualified referee. I’ve now, before typing this report, watched this clip back several times. Unlike most Rovers fans who have no doubt done the same I actually watched this clip hoping to see a foul. I feel that referees get too much undue criticism from people who don’t understand the rules. I believe they are unfairly judged against multiple angled replays. But sadly, there is no foul there. None whatsoever. There is a greater case for a trip by Dyer on O’Connor than there is a penalty. But either way this was not and should not have been a spot-kick and I cannot see how Linnington has interpreted it as such. If ever you’re not sure about a decision as a referee the reactions of the players nearby is always a good gauge. Watch this footage. Only two people appeal for a foul and one of those is a Rovers player. City’s forwards are already trotting back to halfway. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, Paul Gallagher scored the spot-kick, and the match now had a very different look to it.
Whilst there was every doubt about the penalty decision, there can be none about the second half. Rovers had allowed themselves to become distracted by the events at the end of the first half, Leicester had used them as a starting block. The momentum was now with the home side and they would make it count. Darius Vassell was proving an infuriating opponent, his strength seemingly fluctuating like a countryside phone signal. One minute he was brushing off challenges from Rovers midfield to retain possession, the next he was being sent sprawling by the most minimal of brushes with Wayne Thomas. Vassell’s embrace of gravity as he came shoulder to shoulder with Thomas in the right channel brought the centre-half a yellow-card and the Foxes a free-kick with which Greg Cunningham rattled the crossbar.
By this point it was all Leicester City; Yuki Abe hit a low drive which Sullivan had to shovel round his left hand post and then a minute later the goals started to flow. Wellens was given the centre of the field to himself and he duly strode into it and let fly with a low hard strike which found the bottom corner. A few minutes later Rovers forced a corner to bring hope to the travelling fans, but instead it simply brought a third goal for Leicester. The Foxes broke with pace and Kyle Naughton took advantage of a chance to get forward down the right to slot the ball past Sullivan.
Rovers were a mess. A team that prides itself on organisation and a team ethic was in pieces, coming apart like a Liberal Democrat promise. A fourth goal for the home side duly followed, Dyer’s through ball releasing Vassell through the middle to score. Deep in injury came a frankly humiliating fifth goal. Martin Waghorn played the ball through for Andy King who, as his Welsh team-mate Brian Stock played him onside whilst simultaneously waving at the linesman, was allowed to run clear and finish. King duly hit the post, but unlike Stock, Waghorn had continued his run and he turned the rebound home to ensure that at least 900 folk in the ground had heard enough of Kasabian to last them until the New Year.
A fortnight ago I cheerfully wrote off the defeat at Crystal Palace as a blip. This loss offers more cause for concern, not simply for the greater scoreline, but because of the way it was lost. Leicester are a good side and a competent side, and they deserved to win this game, but they are not a team which is four goals better than the collective in red and white hoops. The key to Championship success, whether you categorise success as staying up or going up, is momentum. Win a few games in a row and you’ll be amongst the contenders, indeed though Rovers now sit 16th, they remain just three points from 7th. But momentum works in two directions, if Rovers cannot show the resolve to overcome a refereeing mistake then should two consecutive defeats become three or four, they will need to pull together much better than they did in today’s second half.
Man of the Match: Today’s abject Rovers performance means that being voted Man of the Match in this game is like being voted the better looking of former strikers Andy and Neil Campbell. Brian Stock was lead candidate until he seemed to give up the ghost with about ten minutes to go so James Hayter’s work ethic gets him the nod.
subs not used: Matty Fryatt, Conrad Logan, Franck Moussa, Jack Hobbs
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-1-3); Neil Sullivan; Shelton Martis, Sam Hird, Wayne Thomas, James O’Connor (Dennis Souza); Brian Stock, John Oster; Jamie Coppinger (Mark Wilson); David Healy (Dean Shiels), James Hayter, Billy Sharp
subs not used: Gary Woods, Steve Brooker, Adam Lockwood, Waide Fairhurst,
booked: Wayne Thomas (running in close proximity to Darius Vassell)