Saturday football at the Keepmoat Stadium for the first time in a month. The sun was shining and Jamie Coppinger was back from injury, sporting a new hairstyle too, a slicked side-parting which made him look like Nicholas Lyndhurst in Goodnight Sweetheart, only further away. All was going swimmingly, until Portsmouth won the toss, and elected to change ends. Rovers attacking the South Stand in the first half? It could never work. And, ultimately it didn’t.
The match would pan out to be a scrappy and picky affair, and we probably should have seen that coming when the first incident of note saw Billy Sharp go down in a heap after an off the ball incident with Ricardo Rocha. What happened no-one really seemed to know, the folk in the West Stand around me were as baffled as the match officials and eventually Sharp hurled himself up to his feet and play resumed.
The game’s first chance went the way of Portsmouth as Greg Halford hurled a throw-in into the box which may have cleared the East Stand had it not met a Portsmouth head. The ball broke free to Liam Lawrence on the right and the former Mansfield irritant managed to get in a shot on goal but Gary Woods did well to get down and save with his body.
It was quarter of an hour in before Rovers had a meaningful sight of goal. Coppinger pulled off a neat turn midway into the Portsmouth half to put himself on a path to goal and after riding one challenge he tried his luck from just outside the box, but his low left foot strike flew just past the post. Doncaster’s next effort would meet a similar fate as a cross from the right was headed clear by the Pompey defence but dropped invitingly for Sam Hird thirty yards out, his first time volley flying just inches wide.
Portsmouth taking a very physical approach to the game, with a succession of niggly off-the-ball shoves and nudges, not to mention some hefty challenges going unpunished by the match referee, indeed at one point it took three consecutive fouls before the official finally saw fit to award a free-kick. Five minutes before the break and another chance for Rovers as George Friend played Coppinger in on the left side of the penalty area. In near slow-motion the midfielder managed to bundle his way in from the left and poke the ball goalwards, but Jamie Ashdown stood firm to save with his legs.
Although Rovers had looked the better side for the first half they would disappointingly go into the break a goal down as just before half-time Portsmouth took the lead. Rovers were struggling to clear the ball from a right-wing corner and the head tennis ended as the ball dropped to Hayden Mullins on the edge of the box. His shot squeezed through the crowd to hit Woods’ left post and Dave Kitson was first to react and head the rebound into the net. With tedious predictability, from that point on every single Portsmouth set-piece duly took an age to be completed.
Early in the second half Portsmouth doubled their advantage as Joel Ward took advantage of some hesitant Rovers defending to win the race to a long ball downfield. The Pompey midfielder ghosting in behind the back-line to lift the bouncing ball over Woods and into the net. The possibility of a come-back had looked an uphill struggle at half-time – for a team short on confidence and options, it now looked a towering impossibility.
On the hour mark Sean O’Driscoll tried to bring some life and pace into the Rovers attack and brought on Ryan Mason and Dean Shiels for Brian Stock and Sam Hird. The former having very much had an off day, whilst the latter could count himself unfortunate to be withdrawn tactically after another solid performance. Whilst the subs did nothing wrong chances remained at a premium, with efforts from Paul Keegan and John Oster flying high, wide and not at all handsome as good as it got.
Since doubling the lead Potsmouth’s supporters had been superb, singing and dancing non-stop. Sadly the Pompey team were not as endearing, as they took time-wasting to new levels, attempting to delay the passing of time more fervently than the society wife of an LA Millionaire. Yet despite all their staged clumsiness they somehow escaped with just a single caution for delaying the game as the referee allowed them to strangle every last drop of life and momentum from the game.
Into the final ten minutes and Rovers did have a rare sight of goal as a neatly placed and weighted through-ball found James Chambers on the overlap from the right to present the full-back with a great chance to bring Rovers back into the game, but just as he was about to pull the trigger a Portsmouth defender appeared from nowhere to put in an excellent sliding challenge and effectively secure the points for his side.
Rovers were struggling to offer any significant threat to Pompey’s lead with Sharp looking increasingly isolated up front, against a towering Portsmouth defence. O’Driscoll sought to rectify the issue by throwing Byron Webster on up top in a hope of giving Sharp something to feed off. Unfortunately the gamble didn’t pay-off as whilst Webster may be tall, a Championship centre forward he is not and his only significant contribution to the game was a caution for a clumsy challenge in midfield.
Late in the game a second booking for Jonathan Hogg saw him dismissed but it made little difference to proceedings. In injury time Ryan Mason let fly from distance with a shot which Ashdown saw late but still held and with that the game was effectively over. The supporters confidence in a late comeback was perhaps reflected by Nick on our row in the West Stand who spent the additional minutes seeing if he could balance his weight on a couple of coffee cups. Those around watched as he offered more in entertainment value that what was happening on the pitch, though about the same potential for pain.
The second half of this game had indeed been painful to watch. Against a big imposing and physical Portsmouth side Doncaster allowed themselves to be bullied out of the match. Rovers were Popeye at the point in the cartoon where he’s not eaten his spinach and Bluto is holding him at arm’s length, with a finger on the forehead, laughing. The home team just did not impose themselves in any area. The midfield stopped and started and failed to find the fluidity which makes them effective whilst what Sharp gave in bite and petulance throughout the afternoon he sadly lacked in a first touch.
Supporters will vent their concerns after this fixture, and perhaps rightly so. But results like this need to be put into context. The current Rovers injury list, when inclusive of the not yet fully fit, is still in double figures, and the manager has not been able to name a settled side since November. The misfortune that our biggest injury crisis in years should hit us in the midst of a foreboding run of two games a week, every week is a cruel additional blow. We will be OK, and remain a Championship side for next season and there is no shame in that whether we do so in 12th or 20th.
Man of the Match: On a day where most Rovers players were out of sorts George Friend gets the nod from Viva Rovers. Admittedly a couple of his clearances were a bit wayward, but he continues to grow as a player and his shaky early Rovers performances are now a thing of the past.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-1-3-1-1): Gary Woods; James Chambers, James O’Connor, Matt Kilgallon, George Friend; Sam Hird (Ryan Mason); Brian Stock (Dean Shiels), Paul Keegan, John Oster; Jamie Coppinger (Byron Webster); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Jordan Bradshaw, Dennis Souza, Joseph Mills, Mark Wilson
booked: Byron Webster (clumsy challenge in midfield), Paul Keegan (satisfying foul on Liam Lawrence)
Portsmouth line-up (4-4-1-1): Jamie Ashdown; Ritchie De Laet, Greg Halford, Ricardo Rocha, Herman Hreidarsson; Liam Lawrence, Hayden Mullins, Jonathan Hogg, Joel Ward; Kevin Nugent; David Kitson (Carl Dickinson)
subs not used: Daryl Flahavan, Nadir Clifti, Ibrahim Sonko, Tom Kilbey, Nwanko Kanu
booked: Herman Hreidarsson (foul)
sent-off: Jonathan Hogg (two cautions, the first for time-wasting, the second for handball)