“Cracking first half there Blades” said the man on the tannoy as the teams traipsed off at half-time. If he was being sincere then United must have been absolutely woeful under Gary Speed and John Carver. The first forty-five minutes of “the bright new era” (tannoy man again) had not only been devoid of goals, but almost bereft of shots on goal too. Rovers had passed and moved, but the killer final ball had just evaded them. United had huffed and puffed and failed to find anything beyond a third consecutive pass that didn’t constitute a big hoik forward. As bright new eras go, it was up there with the current coalition government.
Sheffield United introduced Mickey Adams to the crowd five minutes before kick-off and though his reception from the home fans was warm it was hardly fervent. The travelling Rovers fans chose to greet Adams their own way, with a chant of “Sacked in the morning” followed by a chorus of today’s chosen hymn “O’Driscoll said “No””. As the game kicked off it was the name of the visiting manager which was being sung emphatically at a muted home support. Blades fans are known in South Yorkshire (and probably beyond) for being brash and perhaps a touch arrogant. That they had been unable to wade in to TheLikesOfDoncaster and cherry pick their next boss had clearly sat uneasily with some. Folk don’t like change round here.
Rovers lined-up with Dennis Souza making his first start for the club alongside Adam Lockwood in the centre off defence and though the Brazilian had looked shaky under a couple of early long balls it was to be he who had the game’s first chance. A Rovers corner swung in from the left was flicked on at the near post and Souza turned it goal-wards only to be denied by a fine Steve Simonsen save. Disappointingly that was to be the only save from either ‘keeper in a first half which it would be optimistic to describe as tentative.
What chances fell United’s way came on the break and to the feet of Welsh forward Ched Evans. Played in to the right channel he was forced wide enough by James O’Connor for his eventual shot to fly the safe side of Neil Sullivan’s near-post. And a few moments later he worked his way into the box from the other flank only to pull his shot wide again. Late in the half United would have a reasonable shout for a penalty as Adam Lockwood used his arms a little too liberally when marking Richard Cresswell from a long-throw. The referee thankfully was less convinced than I was that it was a fol.
Rovers were having the better of the play and moving the ball with now trademark fluidity, but they too were struggling to create a clear sight of goal. Despite working the ball into promising positions the eventual efforts on goal continued to be blocked by the limbs, arses and torsos of committed United defenders. Mark Wilson, John Oster, Dean Shiels, James Hayter and Billy Sharp all saw efforts on goal meet this fate over the course of the first half. Still the footwork was for the most part impressive with Wilson in particular leaving opposition players heading in the wrong direction with a couple of deft flicks of his boot.
The demeanour of the Rovers side as they moved the ball suggested a clear confidence in their own ability; that they knew so long as the ball was on the floor they would have the better of their opponents. Unfortunately at times they were a little over-confident in their capability to work the ball from the back and gave United hope with one pass or one turn too many. This complacency needed Adam Lockwood to make a perfectly timed challenge on the edge of the box after Coppinger had dallied in possession too long, and it also had a hand in the booking for Dennis Souza, cautioned for obstruction as United looked to break off the back of a misplaced pass.
It was still Rovers’ first half though as the better of what chances there were fell their way. Oster came close with a free-kick midway through, his curling strike just evading the top corner to glance the top of Simonsen’s net. Coppinger came even closer in the minutes before half time as a free-kick from the right was flicked towards goal and the midfielder swept it home, but the linesman’s flag was up the instant he made contact and the ‘goal’ was ruled out. United’s fans duly roared and mimicked celebrating at the away end, that their own team had given them no reason to cheer in the first half didn’t seem to faze them
Admittedly that changed a little after the break. Attacking the Kop, United began the second half on the front foot and for most of the opening ten minutes, in Rovers’ half of the field. But pressure was bringing little beyond inaccurate balls into the box until Evans managed to drill a shot towards goal, which Sullivan did well to get down to his left to save.
For the first hour of its existence this match had offered the excitement and atmosphere of a local derby in the same way that a 50p-a-ride mechanical rocket outside a supermarket replicates the feel of space travel. All it took to light the spark was one minute of terrible, terrible football. Sixty seconds which saw both sides miscue and clumsily challenge for the ball with all the co-ordination of a closing time drunk trying to pick-up a dropped five pence and the whole ambience of Bramall Lane changed from exhibition match to full on battle. As the noise level increased so did the on field awkwardness, culminating in Souza clumsily upending his man on the edge of the box and in doing so picking up his second yellow card. Rovers were down to ten men and as the man in the seat next to me so succinctly put it “royally f***ed”.
I shared my neighbour’s view of course, but then what do we supporters know? Rovers shored up the back-line by sacrificing Shiels for the long-awaited return of James Chambers and moving James O’Connor to centre-half. It was a move which worked better than anyone could have expected as within five minutes Doncaster went ahead. Coppinger took the ball to the byline before delivering a low cross which Hayter side-stepped for Billy Sharp inside the six yard box and he calmly rolled the ball into an unguarded corner of the goal to spark unabashed scarf-twirling obscenity-yelling stranger-grabbing pandemonium amongst the Rovers fans behind the goal.
United tried to hit back in the only manner they seemed to know how, by hoiking the ball in the direction of the Rovers’ penalty area, but all they managed to achieve was an offside flag against Ched Evans. With the home side lagging Doncaster struck again, the ball was chipped into the corner of the area where Jamie Coppinger got himself between it and the covering Robert Kozluk and was duly nudged to the ground. A soft foul perhaps, but a penalty none the less. Sharp took it and, via the underside of Simonsen, Sharp scored it. The ten men of Rovers were now 2-0 in front.
As Rovers’ fans celebrated and Sharp’s name reverberated around the ground, their players were straight back on defensive duty. Captain Lockwood managed to get his head onto three successive deliveries into the area to prevent the Blades fashioning an immediate reply, whilst Nick Montgomery in space on the left was denied only by a heroic flying block from Chambers. The hosts were still struggling to make headway and despite being a man light Rovers were still able to retain possession for spells, a minute or so of keep ball bringing a bout of “Olé” from the travelling fans. With eight minutes to go Doncaster even came with inches of finding a spectacular and game-clinching third goal as Hayter moved onto a bouncing ball and struck it on the half-volley from thirty yards; his shot brushing the side-netting on its way behind a relieved Simonsen.
From that point on it was a red and white onslaught with ball after ball pumped into the Rovers area. Sullivan was called upon to deal with at least two testing balls, impressively swatting one Evans delivery away from inside the far post. However with five minutes of normal time to play United struck. A long throw, a bit of head tennis and Daniel Bogdanovic was in the right place to find the net and drastically alter the mood of the Rovers fans from buoyant to tense.
With no let up in the Blades’ aerial bombardment O’Driscoll sent on reinforcements; Coppinger giving way to Byron Webster with Rovers now camped in their own third. The match hinged on how much injury time there would be. Four minutes some hoped. Five was the guess of the realists. The actual answer was seven minutes and United stirred again. Mark Yeates forced a save from Sullivan. Montgomery blazed wide. Sullivan saved again this time from a flicked header from Leon Britton. Rovers looked to have done just enough.
But they had not. Finally, as the game moved into the seventh minute of injury time United found their equaliser. A long diagonal ball into the area saw a number of players challenge for it. Lockwood looked to have been levelled by one United player as he tried to head clear, but with bodies sprawled the ball dropped to the feet of Kozluk and he swept it into the corner of the net. As is customary in these situations the home supporters duly danced like pillocks to Tom Hark, whilst the Rovers fans deflated as one. A minute later, as the final whistle sounded United fans celebrated a 2-2 draw against ten men as if it was a win. That probably sums this game up.
I realise there is a bitterness to United evident in this article’s tone so I feel I should point out this isn’t about local pride. I am happy to concede that Sheffield is cooler and more urbane than Doncaster. They gave the world Pulp whilst we offered Jive Bunny. The cultural defence will always rest there. But on the football field it is a different story. When Doncaster won at Bramall Lane two seasons back, I noted on this site how the styles of respective clubs were very much ying and yang. Rovers made every effort to ying the ball around the midfield, whilst United were happy to yang it forward at every opportunity. From Blackwell to Speed to Carver to Adams nothing has changed. O’Driscoll wouldn’t have stood a chance with this crowd, and so as to reiterate the point every United long ball in the first half was greeted by a yell of “Hoooof!” from the away end.
On the face of today United have got the manager they wanted and the one which they deserved. Before kick-off Mickey Adams came onto the field and waved a red and white scarf about. During the match he pointed a lot and shouted a lot. This is what folk who ring up phone-ins and write on messageboards herald as ‘showing passion’, and it’ll probably keep most Blades fans happy. For now.
Man of the Match: Adam Lockwood. The stand-in skipper just edges out Mark Wilson to get the nod from Viva Rovers. Lockwood marshalled his defence well and led by example against a one-dimensional approach which was tough to deal with especially once a man light. Commanding in the air and showed some neat touches on the ground too, still a valuable asset to the club.
Sheffield United line-up (4-4-2); Steve Simonsen; Eilan Parrino, Jonny Ertl, Kyle Bartley, Robert Kozluk; Mark Yeates, Nick Montgomery, Lee Williamson (Matt Harriott), Richard Creswell (Daniel Bogdanovic); Jamie Ward (Leon Britton), Ched Evans
subs not used: Jean Calve, George Long, Kingsley James, Jordan Slew
booked: Robert Kozluk (late challenge)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Adam Lockwood, Dennis Souza, Joseph Mills; John Oster, Mark Wilson, Dean Shiels (James Chambers); Jamie Coppinger (Byron Webster), James Hayter; Billy Sharp (David Healy)
subs not used: Gary Woods, Simon Gillett, Waide Fairhurst, Steve Brooker
sent off: Dennis Souza (two clumsy cautions)