Someone get Chas & Dave on the phone, I’ve got their next hit right here. Altogether; “Its laaacky for Rovers when the day is a one, they first beat Scunthorpe when the year had just begun.” OK, maybe not. For a start ‘one’ and ‘begun’ don’t rhyme this side of Baldock services. But the point I am skirting around does remain; Rovers three wins thus far in 2011 – against Scunthorpe, Burnley and now Derby – have each come on the first day of the month.
In the post-match glow of an away victory it can be all too easy to be swept up in the euphoria. But even allowing for that, and my current grinning at strangers on the train persona, this was a hugely significant win for the Rovers. In the past seven days the heart and the head may have said Rovers have turned a corner, but in the league table they were still heading south. There’s still some way to go, but this victory tonight, over a team immediately above them, could prove the difference for Rovers between turning a corner and changing direction.
Doncaster may have chalked up points in their two games prior to tonight, but the deluge of injuries has in no way ceased, a factor reiterated tonight as Jason Euell, so impressive on Saturday, was ruled out with knee trouble. Ryan Burge may have edged his way back to the bench, but with Euell out the injured contingent remained at a round twelve men, the hurty dozen.
Dean Shiels took Euell’s place in the starting line-up, and with the side still quite easily labelled as threadbare it can be no surprise that Rovers began the game somewhat gingerly. Derby on the other hand started on the front foot and had the game’s first chance ten minutes in; Ben Davies’ low cross, swept just past Gary Woods’ far post by Steve Davies. From a softly given free-kick on the Rovers right Jamie Ward would be next to threaten, the initial delivery headed out to him by Wayne Thomas and the Derby player hit it on the volley, just over the crossbar.
Once or twice in the opening twenty minutes Rovers had moved the ball well enough to advance into the Derby area but deigned to shoot. As such there was satisfaction amongst the away fans when George Friend sensed an opportunity to stride forward into a gap and take a pot shot from distance. No matter that it flew well wide, it may have at least encouraged his team-mates to try their luck.
Up front for Derby Theo Robinson was proving a handful for the Rovers back line and Woods had to be off his line quickly to gather a through ball before the County striker. Woods collected the bouncing ball with a foot thrust in Robinson’s direction. Somewhere in the stands Neil Sullivan nodded sagely. Woods would be in more impressive action minutes later as a deep cross from the left found Ben Davies who controlled and got a shot off from close range, but the Rovers keeper spread himself well to save at his feet.
Derby would continue t threaten and took advantage of Thomas’ being off the field for treatment to have another crack at goal. With the referee helpfully insisting the centre half stay off until County’s attack had come to fruition Steve Davies fired high and wide. The Rams forced a trio of corners soon after, but a wayward Robinson header was all they could muster and they’d be made to pay the price soon after.
Four minutes before half-time, out of nothing, Rovers took the lead. A long ball downfield got beyond the Derby back-four and Billy Sharp latched onto it. The striker took one touch to nudge it into his path and a second to hit a firm low angled drive into the bottom corner of the net and put Rovers 1-0 up. Though Doncaster had worked hard and defended doggedly, they had lacked composure on the ball for much of the game, and the lead was probably undeserved given that Derby had been the better side thus far.
If they were to secure the points they now held Doncaster needed to up their game after the break and thankfully that’s exactly what they did, as within three minutes of the restart they’d doubled their advantage. Rovers worked the ball out to the right where Dean Shiels and John Oster took it in turns to jink past two hapless Derby defenders to the byline, before the latter lofted a cross to the far post. Inevitably that’s exactly where Sharp was waiting to squeeze a header between Fielding and the upright.
Two goals down, Derby were getting desperate. Theo Robinson had offered Derby’s most significant threat in the first half. In the 51st minute Nigel Clough took him off. Boos rang round Pride Park, and up in the press box a whole row of journalists typed the word ‘beleaguered’. You have to feel for Clough. His father’s shadow looms so large over the club, they’ve had the floodlights on since the day Nigel was appointed. He’ll never replicate Clough senior’s achievements here, and he’ll never be given the chance to.
Rovers were now comfortably in control, but the match wasn’t won just yet, and it took a brilliant save from Woods to keep the score at 2-0. Ward in space on the left crossing to pick our Ben Davies unmarked in the box, but his effort on goal was saved at point-blank range by the Rovers keeper. The next quarter of an hour though would be all Rovers as a dazed looking Derby failed to retain possession and Doncaster by contrast used it to great effect.
Moussa was having an excellent second half and had already hit a shot wide himself before he released Sharp into the area with the striker pulling his shot just wide of the far post. The two would combine again five minutes later as Moussa, released by Brian Stock on the right put in a fantastic near post cross. Sharp met it with a diving header, but Fielding got down to his right well to save and hold on. Things were clearly going well for Rovers, Sean O’Driscoll even responded to the away following’s request for a wave. Heady days.
All that was missing from Rovers second half display was a third goal, and that duly arrived in the 70th minute. Joseph Mills combined with Dean Shiels and Billy Sharp on the left, before the striker played the full-back in, Mills rode one challenge on the edge of the box before thumping a low left foot drive that Fielding got a hand to, but couldn’t stop hitting the net. Rovers were enjoying themselves so much at this point, I’m convinced Mills was grinning as he struck it too.
Sharp and Stock were withdrawn soon after the goal to allow them to rest before Saturday’s trip to Leeds. With no forwards on the bench Matt Kilgallon trumped Simon Gillet’s rock with his paper to get a run up front, and came closer than anyone to scoring a fourth goal for Rovers; turning George Freind’s knock-back goal-wards from a corner, only to be denied by a goal-line clearance. The resulting corner was delivered to the edge of the box for Oster to strike and his first time half-volley was only inches wide.
The only disappointment for Rovers was that they could not cap their performance with a clean sheet, as Derby struck a consolation goal in the final minute. Steve Davies turned the ball home from close range from Tomasz Cywka’s cross, but there were few home fans in the stadium left to see it. The final whistle sounded soon after on a great and much-needed away win for Rovers that moves them into a much more secure looking 16th place.
After the game Derby fans were already milling outside the main entrance to the ground and delivering a chorus of “Sack the board”, whilst those walking past yelled similar sentiments concerning the manager. If I were a Derby fan, I’d be looking warily at the remaining games right now. Even when on top in the first half their team played with an underlying nervousness. They look terrified of being dragged into a relegation battle and probably with good reason. On tonight’s performance if they are dragged into the mire there’s little chance of them surfacing again.
Man of the Match: Credit to Gary Woods who made a couple of crucial saves when the score was still capable of swinging away from Rovers, but Viva Rovers’ man of the match is Wayne Thomas. The centre half was in a thou shalt not pass mood tonight and hurled himself in front of countless Derby efforts, blocking shots with most parts of his anatomy over the course of the night. He’s probably still in the Pride Park car-park now, throwing his body in the path of Derby County players’ cars.
Derby County line-up (4-4-2); Frank Fielding; Paul Green, Miles Addison (Stephen Pearson), Daniel Ayala, Shaun Barker; Ben Davies (Tomasz Cywka), Robbie Savage, Stephen Davies, John Brayford; Theo Robinson (Alberto Bueno), Jamie Ward
subs not used: Ross Atkins, Jake Buxton, Conor Doyle, Chris Porter
booked: Shaun Barker (hauling down Billy Sharp in desperation), Daniel Ayala (trip on Franck Moussa), Stephen Davies (overly exuberant lunge at Joseph Mills)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-2-3-1); Gary Woods; Sam Hird, Wayne Thomas, George Friend, Joseph Mills; Paul Keegan, Brian Stock (Mark Wilson); John Oster, Dean Shiels, Franck Moussa (Simon Gillet); Billy Sharp (Matt Kilgallon)
subs not used: Jordan Bradshaw, Dennis Souza, Byron Webster, Ryan Burge