In the hour after full-time at the Keepmoat Stadium I received a message via MrW on twitter which read “Can we not just take these Reading games out of the fixture list, give them the six points then do something else on these dates?” After a terrible afternoon spent with the Rovers I could not agree with him more. Reading have now taken 16 points from a possible 18 in Championship matches against Doncaster, and the three they chalked up today were probably the easiest of those they’ve come by.
And it had all started so well. The first quarter of this game was all Doncaster, with Rovers comfortably in control. The ploy of playing Sam Hird just in front of the back four was freeing up space for Joseph Mills and James O’Connor and both were exploiting that to get forward and involved in the attack. John Oster has the game’s first strike on goal, his low effort from just outside the area comfortably fielded by Adam Federici in the Reading net.
Jamie Coppinger was playing a key part in the opening exchanges and his deep cross from the right picked out Billy Sharp who nodded the ball back across goal, agonisingly just out of reach of the late arriving O’Connor. The Rovers right back was to curse the fact his feet were not a couple of inches longer a few minutes later too as Oster chipped a delightful through-ball in behind the Reading defence, but again O’Connor was just short of reaching it.
At the other end Neil Sullivan was appearing somewhat agitated and as one Reading attack petered out he yelled “Get out the f***ing box!” so loudly, not only was it audible at the back of the West Stand, but I’m pretty sure a number of people left their East Stand executive suites in fear. Chief Sullivan agitator was the assistant referee on the West Stand whose two debatable offside calls, the second of which led to Jobi McAnuff firing wide from Jimmy Kebe’s cross, had put him very much on the cusp of an infamous Sullivan straight-arm bollocking.
Instead, it would be Hird who felt Sullivan’s wrath as against the run of play Reading took the lead just before the half hour mark. Kebe on the right lifted the ball over the top of a somewhat snaked Rovers back-line and Shane Long raced onto it to slot past Sullivan. The Rovers keeper could perhaps have left his line a little quicker, but then that’s a much easier call for me to make from my West Stand perch. Sullivan himself seemed to lay the blame on Hird and a few minutes later as Long received treatment he could be seen given the defender a firm piece of his mind and an equally firm shove.
A goal up Reading grew significantly in confidence and were the better side in the quarter of an hour up to the break. Sullivan had to be alert to palm an inswinging Ian Harte corner out of his six-yard box, and from the resulting corner on the other flank Jem Karacan shot wide. Reading’s key threat was the lanky Kebe on the right who seemed to have the left-side of Doncaster’s team running scared each time he picked up the ball. Kebe could have had a goal of his own as he broke into the box, but the covering George Friend, on as a sub for Mills, did enough to put him off.
Rovers did manage one chance on goal of their own before the interval as Sharp headed over from Matt Kilgallon’s cross, but the last opportunity of the half would be the visitor’s. Long working his way in to the area, but unable to keep the bouncing ball down and firing over under pressure from Oster. Rovers early game dominance had deserted them completely and they were now unable to retain the ball effectively, with a significant gap opening up between the holding midfielders of Oster and Mark Wilson and Sharp and James Hayter up front.
Rovers started brighter in the second half, but all they could muster from the opening five minutes was an optimistic long-range effort from Sharp which Federici was comfortably behind. Reading were committing more men forward now and McAnuff almost got himself in on goal on the overlap, but had the ball taken from him by a brilliant last-ditch challenge from O’Connor. Just before the hour mark Rovers had a big penalty appeal waved away. Sharp controlling and shooting on the turn from a Coppinger cross only to see his effort cannon off the hand of Invar Ingimarsson. Yes Ingimarsson could have done little to get out the way, but his hand prevented the ball continuing on its course towards goal and though harsh, it really should have been a penalty.
With half an hour to go Sean O’Driscoll made changes with Steve Brooker and Martin Woods thrown into the mix, but their impact on the pattern of the game would be minimal. Rovers continued to struggle to retain the ball and midway through the half fell further behind. A long ball down the right channel inexplicably brought Sullivan off his line for a pass he was always second favourite to reach and Kebe did what everyone in the ground expected him to, lifting the ball over Sullivan into the empty net.
Just after the goal Brooker threw himself at a Coppinger cross to head wide, but Rovers would not really threaten again and the game petered out as a contest. With Gary Speed in the stands Oster had a chance to work his way back into international contention, but instead simply chose the worse possible afternoon to put in his least impressive performance of the season. His partner in midfield Mark Wilson still took the majority of the flack though, as he always does. Until he scores a thirty yard scissor-kick against Leeds he is always set to be the scape-goat of many a Doncastrian, and even if he did that there’d be those complaining he hadn’t passed to Sharp.
Reading’s third goal, fifteen minutes from time pretty much summed the afternoon up for Rovers. O’Connor managed to get a foot in on Long’s run forward, but the ball ricocheted back into his path, Lockwood too made a tackle, but the ball again took a favourable bounce towards the area where Friend was poised to hoof it clear, only to see his clearance cannon off the shin of McAnuff and into the far corner of the net. A comedy of errors as reflected in O’Connor’s reaction as he slapped himself in the face and shook his head like Oliver Hardy having just watched Stan Laurel trip over whilst carrying a bucket of water.
The rest of the game faded away into apathy like a Keane album track and so by the time Woods fired an effort just wide his strike was met with little more than a sigh of indifference. The only item of note from the final ten minutes was the appearance of Jay Tabb off the bench for Reading. Once christened “The anti-Weeble” by our friend Nick for his penchant to repeatedly hit the turf whilst with Coventry, Tabb set a personal best of eight minutes upright on the Keepmoat pitch.
This was the worst home performance I’ve seen from Rovers in years and so hopefully the game can be stuffed in the pigeon-hole marked ‘bad day at the office’, and we can continue where we left off at Molineux on Tuesday night. Reading were not a great side, but they managed to do the simple things effectively and that coupled with an obvious commitment to work for their team-mates and manager meant they were good value for their win. Next year though, we’ll probably choose this fixture date to clean out the shed.
Man of the Match: Sam Hird, though perhaps a contributing factor in Reading’s opener was otherwise absolutely faultless and often the one calm head on the Rovers side. Very unlucky to be withdrawn tactically on the hour mark, but not featuring in a lacklustre half hour was not going to affect our judgement.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-1-2-1-2); Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Adam Lockwood, Matt Kilgallon, Joseph Mills (George Friend); Sam Hird (Martin Woods); Mark Wilson, John Oster; Jamie Coppinger; James Hayter (Steve Brooker), Billy Sharp
subs not used: Gary Woods, James Chambers, Dennis Souza, Dean Shiels
Reading line-up (4-5-1); Adam Federici; Andy Griffin, Invar Ingimarsson, Alex Pearce, Ian Harte; Jimmy Kebe, Mikele Leigertwood, Jem Karacan (Jay Tabb), Noel Hunt (Simon Church), Joby McAnuff; Shane Long
subs not used: Michail Antonio, Brian Howard, Shaun Cummings, Alex McCarthy, Hal Robson-Kanu