Forget the World Cup, forget the Olympics, forget the Crystal Maze, yes, even the series hosted by Richard O’Brien. According to the man on the tannoy at the Keepmoat Stadium today, this was “the greatest competition in the world”, and who are we to argue? With that sort of billing you could have forgiven this third round tie had it failed to live up to the promise, but thankfully that was not to be the case. Rovers and Wolves delivered a genuinely enthralling cup tie, which Doncaster can feel genuinely disappointed not to have won.
Sean O’Driscoll made changes to the Rovers line-up with James Chambers making his first start of the season at right-back, James O’Connor moving to the centre and Sam Hird deployed just in front of the back four. It was, over the course of the afternoon, to prove a clever tactical move over the as Hird, sucked ever deeper as the game wore on, put in a solid defensive performance alongside his captain Adam Lockwood who has continued to impress in the absence of Shelton Martis and Wayne Thomas.
That said it was the visitors who created the game’s first chance as a cross from the left found Stephen Ward in space, but could only scuff the ball wide. Rovers first opportunity fell just where you’d hope it would, in the area, at the feet of Billy Sharp, but his shot from Joseph Mills’ cross went well wide. Neil Sullivan was forced to make the game’s first save as he beat away a long range strike from Richard Stearman, and with the two sides seemingly taking it in turns to attack Rovers threatened soon after from a short corner; Jamie Coppinger and John Oster exchanging passes before the former’s cross was met by Hird on the half volley, but his strike just evaded the top corner.
On the quarter hour mark Rovers had the ball in the net from another Mills cross, but though much of the Keepmoat was up on its feet the goal did not stand. Sharp had turned it home, but had given his marker a hefty shove in the back to make space for his shot. Wolves had a half chance as Ward hooked an optimistic overhead volley goal-wards, but it dropped harmlessly wide. End to end in every sense Rovers had the next sight of goal as Oster’s cross from the right flying just centimetres beyond the reach of James Hayter’s head as the forward flung himself through the air. Wolves continued to create chances of their own and Christoph Berra was next to put an effort just the wrong side of Sullivan’s goal as he headed wide from a corner.
The deadlock and basketball-esque back and forth was finally broken 38 minutes in and in spectacular style. Nenad Milijas picked up the ball thirty-five yards from goal, took a step forward and unleashed a thunderous unstoppable shot into that swirled and dipped just under the bar. A fantastic opening goal, which brought applause from myself and many others in our section of the West Stand. At half-time I overheard a guy in the toilets say “I reckon Sullivan were just a couple of yards too far off his line for that goal of theirs”. Some people need to learn to appreciate the game they’re paying to watch.
Milijas’ strike was the sort that can give a side a buzz, but thankfully any good feeling for the Wanderers was to be short-lived. As Rovers moved the ball around on the left our infamous neighbourhood moaner Geoff proclaimed “Ah, what you doing? You’re trying to pass it around too much Rovers” With fantastic timing, thirty seconds later the ball was in the net and Rovers were level. With his back to goal Sharp controlled a chipped pass to him, turned his man and let fly with a twenty yard half volley that perfectly picked out the bottom corner.
And it would get even better for Rovers fans before the break. Five minutes after going behind the home side were in front. Oster nodded down Mills’ cross perfectly for Hayter, who swept the ball home on the volley from twelve yards. The home fans celebrated, well, all bar the one disappointed man two rows in front of us who returned to his seat cradling two cups of coffee cursing “And I bloody missed it”. The half time whistle sounded soon after and Doncaster were good value for their lead. They had passed and moved effectively and caused a strong Wolves side more problems than most Premier League sides have recently.
Disappointingly Rovers would not apply themselves as effectively in the second half as they had the first. Though chances and genuine sights on goal were at a premium the game was being played out in Rovers’ half with the home side struggling to get the ball down and play. Milijas had another chance from distance as he stepped up to take a free-kick twenty-five yards out. Though the Serbian midfielder got his strike up and over the wall Sullivan was comfortably behind it.
Though that free-kick was their only telling effort on goal in the opening ten minutes of the half Wolves’ equaliser had looked on the cards and would eventually come from the penalty spot. Stephen Hunt just beat Hird to the ball in the area and the referee pointed to the spot. Hunt took the kick himself and though Sullivan went the right way, he made it 2-2. Within a couple of minutes the visitors came close to going in front as a cross from the left was only headed partially away by Lockwood, but the captain was on hand to fling himself in front of the follow-up shot from Ward and make a telling block.
The visitors continued to pile on the pressure with a succession of corners, though Sullivan was standing firm. Punching away one and then making a decent save from the next. Matt Jarvis cut inside from the left to curl an effort just over the angle of post and bar, and George Elokobi headed just over from another left-wing corner. Elokobi’s next involvement in the game would make much more of an impact, both on the match, and on the vertebrae of the poor Jamie Coppinger.
If I lined up all professional footballers in order of those I’d prefer to fly full force into the back of me Elokobi would only have Adebayo Akinfenwa standing behind him; a view I suspect now shared by Coppinger after he was effectively run over by the former quarter of an hour from the end. The Rovers midfielder had leapt to meet a chipped ball forward only to be pole-axed by the full weight of Elokobi launched ludicrously into the back of him when he had no hope of making the ball.
Both players lay flat out on the turf with medics on to check on Coppinger before the ball had stopped bouncing. The suspicion was Elokobi was simply trying to delay the inevitable as he lay spread-eagled like a cartoon character who’d just fallen off a cliff. Eventually the full-back rose and was duly greeted by the sight of a red card from the referee. As he walked off down the tunnel, incredibly a pocket of the Wolves fans could be heard chanting Elokobi’s name. Morons to a man.
Thankfully Coppiner returned to his feet and to form too. Determined to prove a point Copps had his marker beaten inside out for the remainder of the game, turning Stearman in a knot to make one cross which was unfortunately straight at Marcus Hanhemann and then minutes later more trickery from Coppinger led to a chance for Oster, but his shot from the edge of the area flew just wide.
With a man advantage the final ten minutes saw Rovers firmly on top and as injury time approached they threw on Steve Brooker to try and force a winner. It was Wolves who nearly nicked it though as Kevin Doyle got in a low drive, which Sullivan saved well, but couldn’t hold and had to scramble it behind at the expense of a corner. The final chance went Rovers way; Sharp backheeling for Brooker who in turn back-heeled it into the path of Oster, but his shot was sadly blocked. The full-time whistle sounded soon after on a great afternoon’s entertainment. All back to Molineux for the after party.
Man of the Match: For the second game running Mark Wilson impressed though again misses out on our man of the match award. Instead that goes to Sam Hird, who yet again acquitted himself perfectly in that extra-defensive role which he has made his own.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-1-2-2-1); Neil Sullivan; James Chambers (George Friend), James O’Connor, Adam Lockwood, Joseph Mills; Sam Hird; John Oster, Mark Wilson; Jamie Coppinger, James Hayter (Steve Brooker); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Gary Woods, Byron Webster, Martin Woods, Waide Fairhurst
booked: John Oster (foul), Neil Sullivan (one straight-arm bollocking too many)
Wolverhampton Wanderers line-up (4-4-2); Marcus Hahnemann; Matthew Doherty, Richard Stearman, Christoph Berra, George Elokobi; Matt Jarvis, David Edwards (David Jones), Nenad Milijas, Stephen Hunt; Stephen Ward, Steve Fletcher (Kevin Doyle)
subs not used: Wayne Hennessey, Danny Batth, Sam Wimwall, David Davis, Geoffrey Muganji-Bia
booked: Nenad Milijas (foul)
sent-off: George Elokobi (charging into Jamie Coppinger like a cop in prohibition era Chicago trying to knock down the door of a suspected underground distillery)