If you want an indication of how undeserved this defeat was for Rovers then the post-match reaction of my Cardiff supporting friends is probably good ground to go by. Upon meeting me outside the stadium their response was neither to goad nor gloat, but to apologise. City had somehow managed to score three goals and take three points from a game they were never in, and a section of their support (albeit probably through politeness to me) actually felt guilty for it.
Right from kick-off Rovers were on the front foot with Brian Stock firing a long range effort over the bar just three minutes in. On the next attack Jamie Coppinger would go even closer receiving the ball on the left flank from his initial corner; he cut inwards from the by-line and flashed a low shot across the face of the Cardiff goal. The best chance in the opening ten minutes would fall at the feet of Franck Moussa as James Hayter played him in just behind the City defence, but twelve yards from goal he chose to poke it goal wards with his right foot when the left seemed a more obvious option and Tom Heaton did well to turn it round his near-post.
Rovers continued to take the game to Cardiff throughout the first fifteen minutes. The football was neat and effective in possession and without the ball they harassed and harried City effectively to win it back. Watching this start made you wonder what might have been this season had it not been for the chronic injury luck. And just as daydreams of a play-off push were entering my head Cardiff broke and, inevitably given our luck, scored. Bothroyd carried the ball infield from the right, held it up in the area and then dragged it back into the path of Chris Burke on the overlap and the winger drove his shot beneath Gary Woods. One shot, one goal, one nil.
Rovers’ task had not changed from before Burke’s strike, they needed to score just as they had before and play resumed once again mostly in the City half of the field. Hayter linked with Coppinger to enable the latter to get in a shot from the edge of the area, but unfortunately he dragged it wide. Even more concerning than Copps’ shank was Joseph Mills, who had pulled up in the build-up to the chance. Now on the sideline he was attempting to run before giving a shake of the head that signalled it was all over for him. Matt Kilgallon came on to replace him with George Friend moving to left back.
The return of Simon Gillett to the Rovers midfield has made a notable difference to Rovers play and his determination brought him a chance on goal on the half hour mark. Gillet dispossessed Cardiff’s Dekel Keinan and broke in the right channel before hitting a powerful low shot at goal only for Heaton to somehow get down to his right and turn the ball away with a great one-handed save.
Even given my location on the back row of the West Stand, Gary Woods had been further from the action than me for the majority of the first half though City did get a rare sight of the Rovers’ keeper’s goal five minutes before half-time. Burke hit the deck remarkably easily on the right flank and from the resulting free-kick Peter Whittingham’s delivery just evaded the mass of players in the middle when a touch of any kind would have certainly taken it in.
In a half which they had controlled everything but the score it was perhaps fitting that the final chance of the opening forty-five minutes would go Rovers’ way. A corner from the right finding the head of Martis, but the defender’s nod goal wards dropped the wrong side of Heaton’s right hand post. And so half-time came with the visitors somehow leading 1-0 in a match which had for long periods resembled an attack against defence training exercise with they very much playing the role of defence.
The second half began a bit more evenly with chances for both teams inside the opening ten minutes. For Rovers a firm Moussa shot from distance looked threatening, but Heaton was behind it all the way. At the other end Paul Quinn on the City right lifted over a cross that just evaded Woods’ goal.
In comparison to his Cardiff debut against Rovers Craig Bellamy had been somewhat subdued in this fixture, perhaps weighed down by the embarrassment of turning up in the same lurid orange boots as his marker Mustapha Dumbuya. I’m a big fan of Bellamy but one of the most satisfying moments of the game came as the Welshman tried to nonchalantly flick the ball past Coppinger on the touchline; the Rovers midfielder not only read and intercepted Bellamy’s trick, but duly nutmegged him for good measure as he came away with the ball.
Coppinger was having another good game in what has arguably been his best season for Rovers and he threatened again twenty minutes in as he let fly from twenty-five yards but his shot flew past Heaton’s near-post. Despite their seeming control on the game Rovers had Woods to thank as he prevented Cardiff from doubling their advantage. Bellamy playing in Whittingham inside the Rovers area, but Woods was out well to smother not just the City player’s effort, but also the body of Dumbuya who was covering.
With twenty minutes remaining came a sign that Rovers were determined to get something from the game as John Oster made way for Jason Euell. The presence of the substitute made a notable difference to the Rovers and for the next few minutes the attack just did not let up. Coppinger hit another low drive from the edge of the area but Heaton got down to his left well t save and hold the effort. Next to threaten was Moussa as he got onto the end of an excellent cross from Dumbuya, but could only head over.
Finally, with twelve minutes remaining, finally Rovers found the net. Euell found Hayter in the middle and he rolled the ball on for Coppinger who drove a fierce low shot beyond Heaton into the far corner of the goal. It had been a long time coming, but a goal has rarely been more deserving of an individual or a team than this. And with the attacking momentum clearly with them at this point it seemed as if the only winner would be the home side.
Roared on Rovers continued to push and forced another chance as Moussa again got his head onto a cross into the box, but Heaton was on hand again, getting down to his right to smother the header. Rovers attacking impetus was only interrupted by a couple of confusing refereeing decisions, firstly as Heaton lost his bearings chasing a cross and ran into the back of Jason Euell only to receive a free-kick, and secondly as a succession of three fouls on Rovers players somehow ended with a free-kick to the visitors.
And then came the killer blow as City were awarded a further free-kick just under thirty yards from the Rovers goal. It looked soft from my viewpoint as Kilgallon appeared to get a toe firmly on the ball, but in fairness I was sat a good 75 yards away. Jason Koumas, just on as a substitute, struck the dead-ball and curled a great free-kick into the right hand corner of Woods’ goal. It was a great strike, but it brought a score-line that was, on the balance of play, thoroughly undeserved.
Rovers pushed for another equaliser and a deep Coppinger cross was headed over by Euell in the final minute, then as Rovers pushed everyone forward for a late corner Cardiff broke forward. Mark Wilson, isolated in his own half against Bellamy and Koumas inexplicably played the ball against Bellamy when he should really have rolled it back to Woods and the two City players duly took turns to flick the ball over the hapless midfielder before Koumas slotted the ball home, albeit with the aid of a significant deflection of the covering Dumbuya. The final whistle sounded just seconds later on an unfathomable 3-1 defeat.
The nature of this defeat probably sums up Rovers shortcomings of late; Doncaster matched and bettered Cardiff, one of the division’s top sides, in all departments with the exception of the most important; getting the ball in the net. Not even brand new red and white stripy nets could entice us to put the ball in. There will be criticisms about Sean O’Driscoll’s decision to bring Mark Wilson on for Simon Gillett eight minutes from time, and whilst Wilson was certainly at fault for the third goal, the game had effectively been lost by them. A fairer question would be ‘why make a change of any kind?’ as the stoppage and switch in personnel took away much of the momentum in Rovers’ push for a winner.
However, O’Driscoll stands by the fact that if the performance is right then the results will come, and if this is the case we should be confident going into the remaining six games. We have a seven point cushion, two wins should ensure Championship survival and if Rovers put in two more performances like this one then those wins are sure to come. Tuesday night’s game against Preston is now key – a win increases the gap and a draw maintains it. Let’s not think about what defeat could mean for now.
Man of the Match: Jamie Coppinger got the official nod and that’s probably the correct decision; another effective game from Copps and an excellent finish for his goal. Just holds off Franck Moussa, Simon Gillett and George Friend to get our vote too.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1); Gary Woods; Mustapha Dumbuya, Shelton Martis, George Friend, Joseph Mills (Matt Kilgallon); Brian Stock, Simon Gillett (Mark Wilson) John Oster (Jason Euell); Jamie Coppinger, Franck Moussa; James Hayter
subs not used: Neil Sullivan, Wayne Thomas, Ryan Mason, Dean Shiels
Cardiff City line-up (4-3-3): Tom Heaton; Paul Quinn, Kevin McNaughton, Devlin Keinan, Jay Lloyd Samuel (Lee Naylor); Seli Olofinjana, Steve McPhail, Peter Whittingham; Chris Burke (Jason Koumas), Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy
subs not used: Jason Brown, Gavin Rae, Gabor Gypes, Darcy Blake, Adam Matthews