How’s your heart? OK? Ticking by normally? Yes? Then you weren’t at this match. Ninety minutes of fraught, end to end football, which if either side had any sort of competence in front of goal would have finished at least 5-5. But then, if either side were more prolific then they wouldn’t be in the concerning position they are now and wouldn’t have churned out as much involuntary entertainment. The match played out like the potential relegation battle it had been billed as; an admirable amount of effort bringing a similar amount of errors.
Matt in the seat next to me described the first half as being “enthusiastic but ultimately hapless” and he wasn’t wrong. Rovers had tried to play the ball around, but faced with a Preston side that moved around the pitch in desperate swarms when not in possession it wasn’t long before mistakes crept in. Thankfully for Rovers the pressure on the visitors meant they too were about as sure-footed as Heather Mills on a high-wire. This was best illustrated late in the first half when Rovers construed to give possession to Preston; Eddie Johnson tried to advance only to miscontrol the ball straight to Simon Gillett and as he tried to advance he managed to stand on the ball and face plant the turf. How a man of Gillett’s stature can tread on top of the ball mid-stride is a mystery in itself… it’s a height he’d surely have to jump to.
Rovers had started encouragingly and created the first chance as Franck Moussa played in George Friend on the overlap and the full-back cut inside before hitting a deflected shot which Iain Turner did well to turn over the bar. The game would swing from end to end throughout and Preston looked destined to break the deadlock minutes later as Iain Hume’s neat through ball released Chris Brown clean through, one-on-one. Whingy Geoff in the seats next to us had already covered his face with his cap fearing the worst when Gary Woods came off his line and made an excellent stop.
Rovers already looked the more competent in possession and were creating genuine chances, as John Oster fired over at the end of a neat Rovers move. At the other end Rovers back four were perplexingly vacant at times, missing in action without any explanation as to why they were on the wing and not at home at centre half, giving North End hope on the counter-attack. Indeed the visitors enjoyed a spell on the front foot with Johnson’s long range strike forcing Woods into a good save low at his left hand post, and then a miscue from Hume flew high and wide.
Next it was Rovers turn to threaten as a corner from the left was met by a towering Shelton Martis header; his downward nod was blocked close to the goal-line, the ball bobbled free to Moussa, but he could only flash the rebound wide. Moussa was working well on the left and would have the next Rovers chance at his feet too. Cutting in from the left the midfielder hit a firm drive which was blocked inadvertently by James Hayter, and then volleyed the rebound just wide. Jamie Coppinger too fired off target when Hayter laid it off to him minutes later.
For all Rovers good work in attack at the other end their defending was at times heart-attack inducing, a failure to clear the high ball had already given Hume the chance to volley straight at Woods and then Darren Carter got the better of James O’Connor in the corner (“he even failed to foul him properly” – Matt) to deliver a cross. The delivery reached Keith Treacey who struck a firm volley at goal only to see it brilliantly saved by Woods, the rebound falling to the feet of Brown who’s already been flagged offside.
Attack weathered Rovers broke as O’Connor cut into the area from the right, surrounded by Preston defenders the full-back hit the deck, but the referee decided to book O’Connor for diving rather than award a penalty. Whilst it probably was not a penalty O’Connor was clearly off-balance as he tried to turn, so to call it as a clear dive rather than a stumble was a bold move from the official. Still Rovers pushed to the interval as a firm Hayter strike from distance was well saved by Turner, and then an O’Connor cross just evaded Gillett. At the other end Preston had one last opportunity before the break as Treacey got to the by-line to deliver a low cross, but Woods did excellently to dive on the ball and hold on before it could reach Hume.
Somehow goalless at the interval, the half-time break proved to be the eye in the storm as the second half began in similarly frantic manner to the first. The Preston supporters were in fine form as they sang, bounced and roared their side toward the goal in front of them. Treacey almost rewarded their support too as his cross from the left dropped onto the top of the bar with Woods beaten.
John Oster seems to be attracting a lot of criticism from Rovers fans at the moment, and whilst he is not the all conquering player he was last season, he’s hardly playing badly. His patience to wait for the right ball, rather than play the urgent ball Rovers fans demand appears to be the main source of frustration, but that’s always been his way. It was a great Oster pass which almost saw Rovers go in front; out on the right he whipped a great cross in behind the Preston defence but Gillett, stretching at the far post could not quite stretch enough and poked it wide.
Preston continued to look lively on the break and had a sight of goal as Treacey fired a shot wide. Minutes later Hume broke down the right and cut inside before hitting a shot that was deflected up and over the bar via a desperate defending leg. Rovers’ effort didn’t look likely to be rewarded with a goal a factor perhaps enforced as their best chance thus far came from a Preston defender; Barry Nicholson diverting an O’Connor cross toward his own goal, only for Turner to pull off a fantastic one-handed save.
Phil Brown is a curious figure, even from our position at the back of the West Stand his teeth dazzled, even against the backdrop of a floodlit Keepmoat Stadium they stood out like cats-eyes on a midnight road. He persists with this Bluetooth earpiece get up, an item used only by he, taxi operators and central European businessmen in blue pin-stripe suits, yet no-one knows who he’s talking too. Indeed at one point in the first half he appeared to be holding an in-depth discussion with his coat.
Brown’s finest hour came as Preston felt they should have had a penalty quarter of an hour from time. Johnson had broken down the right and cut into the box, in close proximity to two Rovers defenders he slipped and lost his footing. Before he hit the deck the Preston fans, bench and team were screaming for a penalty. Even from our end of the field it didn’t look like one, but then we’re not as close to the foot of the table as Preston. Phil Brown was incensed he was a couple of yards on the pitch berating the referee when play next reached halfway, so angry was he that he’d turned, er, a kind of brown, with rage. Shouting, snarling, pacing the technical area with coat flapping; he’d nailed the GCSE Drama requirement for portrayal of ‘anger’.
Back to the other end of the field and neat Rovers play in from the right saw the ball reach Moussa who hit a fantastic dipping volley from twenty-five yards, which beat Turner only to strike the underside of the bar and bounce out. Finally, with twelve minutes to go, the goal came. Rovers again in possession on the right and Gillett’s lay-off rolled into the space on the edge of the box toward which Brian Stock was motoring. “Hit it” yelled Matt and Stock duly did a fantastic right foot strike which found the top corner and took the roof off the Keepmoat Stadium. Joy unbound in three of the four stands, but sadly the fourth would be up cheering just minutes later.
Preston won a corner on the left flank, the initial delivery into a crowded box was headed onto the bar by Bonago Khumalo, Brown nodded it back towards goal and Paul Hayes bundled it in from a yard out and we were all square again. Despite much charging about from both sides the final ten minutes would bring nothing in the way of a major chance; with Sean O’Driscoll having replaced John Oster with another defender Wayne Thomas and Coppinger having gone off with a knock, Rovers lacked the outlet to really push the visitors and instead held out for a point.
On the way out of the ground I overheard a bloke in front of me saying “O’Driscoll bottled it, going five at the back”, but that simply was not the case. The lessons learnt from Saturday’s push for a winner should point to that way of thinking, but in the grand scheme of Championship survival this game was for Rovers not so much ‘must win’ as ‘must not lose’. I too was confused by the substitution of Oster for Thomas at the time, but in retrospect it was a very intelligent one. The eight point cushion above the drop zone has been maintained, whilst Rovers aren’t setting the world alight points wise, there is clearly belief in the side, and those in the mire are running out of matches to catch us.
Man of the Match: Gary Woods, the official nod went to Simon Gillett, but without Woods Rovers could have easily have lost this game. The way in which the young keeper has grown in confidence and stature in the past two months is remarkable and tonight he made four or five very good saves. His distribution may be off at times, but he’s not in the sides for his assists; he did the job he’s chiefly employed for excellently.
Doncaster Rovers line-up: (4-3-2-1); Gary Woods; James O’Connor, Shelton Martis, Matt Kilgallon, George Friend; Brian Stock, Simon Gillett, John Oster (Wayne Thomas); Jamie Coppinger (Dean Shiels), Franck Moussa; James Hayter (Jason Euell)
subs not used: Neil Sullivan, Sam Hird, Mark Wilson, Ryan Mason
booked: James O’Connor (diving… apparently), Jason Euell (lurking around in front of Iain Turner long enough for the keeper to leather the ball at him)
Preston North End line-up (4-4-2); Iain Turner; Barry Nicholson, Craig Morgan, Bongani Khumalo, Billy Jones; Eddie Johnson (Paul Hayes), Ian Ashbee, Darren Carter, Keith Treacey (Nathan Ellington); Ian Hume (Jamie Proctor), Chris Brown
subs not used: Andy Lonergen, Paul Coutts, Adam Barton, Bailey Wright