The feeling at the end of the final home game of the season is always an odd one. Time to bid goodbyes to those I’ve spent every other Saturday with for the last nine months, people I won’t see again til the back-end of the summer. At least after today I know that the next time I see them it will be the same time, the same place and thankfully the same division. To quote the twitter feed of full-back James O’Connor; “Finally! Horrible season.”
That horrible season looked likely to extend to another week the way the match begun with Leicester having the better of the game’s opening quarter of an hour. The first opportunity of the game went the visitors’ way as Darius Vassell cut across the top of the box from the right and fed Paul Gallagher in space on the left, but the midfielder drove his shot wide of the far post. City looked particularly sprightly on the left flank early on and they attacked from that side again as Gallagher cut the ball back into the middle, but despite the ball landing at the feet of first Vassell and then Aiyegbeni Yakubu a couple of desperate committed lunges from Rovers defenders did enough to smother the opportunity.
Fifteen minutes in a bloke wearing a shirt with ‘Sully’ on the back got up from our row and disappeared down the gangway. “I bet when he pisses it flies well wide of the urinal” offered Nick, that it was the highlight of the game’s first quarter says much of the cautiousness with which both sides began this game. Chances, for Rovers particularly, were fleeting; Ryan Mason exchanged passes with Jamie Coppinger before firing high and wide from outside the area. Midway through the half Rovers’ best bit of football interplay so far ended with Coppinger receiving the ball on the edge of the area, but he curled his shot well beyond the top corner.
Still, at this stage, if any side was to open the scoring (and that in itself remained a long shot) it looked likely to be Leicester. Andy King managed to find space in the area to get a shot off, but Neil Sullivan was down well to hold it, as he was with a long-range free-kick from Gallagher. Towards the end of the half Rovers began to threaten more and flashed two dangerous balls across the Leicester goal; the first from Mason just eluded Jason Euell in the centre and then in the final minute of the half James Hayter won the ball on the byline, but his low centre was agonisingly out of reach of Mason at the far-post to leave it goalless at the break.
First to emerge for the second half was Steve Brooker, out in full kit warming up ahead of his team-mates. He’s keen, we murmured, but this was not to be misplaced ambition. The board went up and Brooker was on in the place of Jason Euell. The man who had started just one League game in two and a half seasons with the club spent almost entirely in the treatment room how had the task of ensuring second tier survival. Incredibly he did just that with one of his first touches. A long ball down field from Sullivan dropped loose between the forward and his marker twenty-five yards out and he hit it first time. The bouncing ball struck with a sweet, rising, never likely to be saved shot that nestled in the far corner of the net with the comfort of a cat bedding down for a nap.
The delight on Brooker’s face as he made an arcing run to the bench in celebration will probably be one of my favourite memories from this season. The club has kept faith with a player who’s managed to stay fit for less than five hours of playing time since November 2008 and the reward was to be enjoyed by all. Indeed, not since our first season at this level have I seen the players and subs celebrate a goal so keenly. You can imagine the half-time conversation; O’Driscoll: “Steve, you’ve got forty-five minutes to earn yourself a new contract”. Brooker: “I’ll do it in three boss”.
Brooker’s strike not only galvanised Rovers, but seemed to tear at the heart of any confidence Leicester City had. A team which had looked as likely to concede a goal as they had break into song up to the interval began to defend as if Piers Morgan’s life depended on it; casually and generously. The visitors seemed unable to keep possession in their own half and Rovers regularly intercepted the ball over the following twenty minutes. However, the fact that Rovers were unable to convert great swathes of possession in the City third into anything more than an overhit cross says much about why we sit 21st in the table. A more ruthless side could and would have taken advantage of Leicester’s carelessness in possession and finished them off.
As it was, even in this spell the better chances went the way of Leicester; substitute Diomansy Kamara looked perfectly positioned to level the scores as the ball reached him unmarked on the corner of the six yard box, but he drove his shot high into the City support. In Rovers’ period of post-goal confidence both Mustapha Dumbuya and George Friend had taken the opportunity to make Yakubu look foolish with some neat footwork, but the striker’s time was to come fifteen minutes from the end. Leicester strung together their best move of the half as they swept the ball in from the right flank and Yakubu was on hand to roll in a frustratingly well crafted equaliser.
Still there were chances for Rovers to nick the win, a first for two months. Mason came closest to doing so, striking a thirty-yard half-volley with such power that it squeezed through the grasp of Chris Weale, flying on just over the bar, to both the luck and the bemusement of the keeper. Despite a few late corners it was as close as either side would come to take more than a point in a second half annoyingly imposed upon by repeated booming requests from the tannoy for fans not to invade the pitch. So irritating were the announcements that their fifth voicing brought a deserving chorus of “On the pitch” from both sets of supporters, now collectively more inclined to go on the field in spite than they had ever likely to be in celebration.
Of course the pillock on the tannoy still has someway to go to outdo serial West Stand moaner Geoff who was on sparkling form throughout. Geoff ran through his full repertoire of whinges with such gusto in the first half that we suspected he was being scouted. Sensing his chance to be the voice of dissent at a higher level next season he stuck to his task mercilessly, berating every “back’ards” pass and at one point haranguing John Oster for “waiting for the ball to come down” when the only way he could’ve got to it sooner were if he’d borrowed a stool.
Though not wanting to make the point with as much vitriol as Geoff today was not Oster’s day as he looked hesitant to go toward the ball throughout. The midfielder has been edging gingerly into the scapegoat position for many Rovers fans as late, and its easy to see why; a frustration born on knowledge of just what he is capable of. The Oster we had driving us forward last season is sadly some way removed from the one in our current midfield.
Though we go to Middlesbrough for one big we-avoided-the-drop group hug next week the season was effectively ended by the final whistle today. Arguably the worst Rovers season a lot of our current fan-base has ever endured its one which drew a lot of comparisons with the 1999-2000 campaign as one which promised a lot, but ultimately saw us looking nervously downwards rather than upwards. How Rovers regroup and adapt in the summer will be interesting; the investment coming into this division continues to increase each year we are in it and the strength in depth affordable to even those in mid-table, such as Leicester, means that we will no doubt begin next season as favourites for the drop. Thank God for that. Rovers have long been much better at surpassing expectations than living up to hype.
Man of the Match: There were encouraging performances right across the back line but it’s hard not to agree with the sponsor’s choice of Ryan Mason. The midfielder looked keen and bright in possession and worked tirelessly throughout to help win the ball back too. If his services turn out to beyond us in the summer, then expect him to start featuring for parent club Tottenham next season; a very promising footballer.
Doncaster Rovers line-up(4-3-2-1); Neil Sullivan; Mustapha Dumbuya, Wayne Thomas, George Friend, James O’Connor; Simon Gillett (Brian Stock), John Oster, Ryan Mason (Sam Hird); Jamie Coppinger, James Hayter; Jason Euell (Steve Brooker)
subs not used: Jonathan Maxtead, Matt Kilgallon, Mark Wilson, Dean Shiels
booked: Wayne Thomas (dangerous challenge on Yakubu)
Leicester City line-up (4-4-2); Chris Weale; Kyle Naughton, Miguel Vitor, Jeff Bruma, Ben Mee (Bruno Berner); Yuke Abe (Steve Howard), Richie Wellens, Andy King, Paul Gallagher (Diomansy Kamara); Darius Vassell, Aiyegbeni Yakubu
subs not used: Adam Smith, Aleksander Tunchev, Joao Teixera, Lloyd Dyer
booked: Aiyegbeni Yakubu (clumsy challenge on Ryan Mason)