I read on a fans’ message-board some time last week that Rovers should be treating this fixture as ‘just a game’, that getting off to a winning start was all that mattered. I disagree. My support is not so blinkered as to ignore the wider significance of days like this. There were two parts to today, yes there was a game to watch and hopefully cheer, but there was also an occassion to savour. So, it seems only fair to do what the national media seemed incapable of doing as they painted Rovers as pantomime villains for the day and separate match from occasion in this report, starting with the latter.
I have been attending football league games regularly for around fourteen years, and in all that time I have never been made to feel as welcome as I was at the Amex. I believe I spoke to, in total, nine members of staff at the Stadium from stewards to the Stadium Operations Manager and each and everyone was smiling and helpful. A characteristic exemplified when we reached the turnstiles and a steward approached my friend Ralph, who duly spread his arms ready to be frisked, only for the steward to burst out laughing at him… he’d only come over to explain how the bar code turnstiles worked. As an experience it was very much the anti-Madejski.
The reason I was able to converse with the aforementioned SOM was because twenty-five minutes from kick-off he was in the away end concourse mingling with Rovers fans and getting their feedback. I asked how the Stadium was progressing and if he was happy with how everything had gone to this point. He confided that his primary concern was that things were going “a little too well if anything”. How we wish that were the only problem our own stadium’s management faced.
As to the stadium itself well it really is an impressive arena. Yes its an odd shape, with a three-tier Main Stand dropping down to just twenty-seven rows behind the goal, but it gives it a sense of individualism all too rare in modern football stadia. I’ve spoken before on this site about how I once watched ten minutes of rugby league on a muted pub television trying to work out which Stadium it was at, until I eventually realised it was being played at Doncaster, well there would be no such troubles for Brighton. The only thing that does concern me about the Amex are the arrangements for getting there, and whilst the heaving crowds at Brighton and Falmer stations and on the train between were mixed and good-natured for ‘the likes of Doncaster’, they surely couldn’t work the same way for a support with a more notable ‘presence’.
What impressed me most about the new stadium though was that you genuinely feel it was designed with supporters in mind, from padded seats (yes, padded f***ing seats!) to images of Rovers players being projected onto the wall in the away end concourse. When we spoke with the SOM he asked us how much we’d paid to attend the match that day, including transport. When we replied, he said “That’s a lot of money you’re spending to come to us, so why should we want to do anything other than show our gratitude by making you feel welcome?” You wonder when its put so simply, why so many just get it wrong.
Anyway, glad-handing, flag waving, and Sussex by the Sea playing out of the way, onto the business of the match report, starting with a rare moment of triumph as Rovers took the field with the same starting eleven as predicted by Viva Rovers in Friday’s preview. Fear not, normal levels of inaccuracy will return soon. Richard Naylor and Tommy Spurr made their debuts in defence, whilst loanee Ryan Mason slotted into midfield with John Oster and Simon Gillett as he had last season. Gary Woods appeared to have aged five years during the close season which is encouraging, and it was great to see Mustapha Dumbuya back at full-back. With no Brian Stock, Adam Lockwood or James O’Connor, George Friend took over the armband, and duly entered the Football League record books as the most attractive captain in history.
Undeterred by the impressive and partizan greeting from the home crowd, Rovers began the game on the front foot, as Spurr got away down the left and delivered a cross, but it was straight into the hands of Casper Ankergren in the home goal. Minutes later Rovers would though have the game’s first effort on target, as Billy Sharp made space for a low shot, but Ankergren was down early to save comfortably. Brighton composed themselves for a spell, but though they forced a succession of corners they failed to really threaten Woods’ goal in the opening quarter of an hour.
Rovers were continuing to move the ball well, and forged a better chance for Sharp twenty minutes in as Oster released Jamie Coppinger on the right. He got to the byline before crossing for the Rovers’ forward who brought the ball down well on the penalty spot, but his shot on the turn flew just wide of the home goal. Doncaster retained the ball well and moved it from back to front succinctly throughout the first half, indeed Ralph to my left, a gate crashing Swansea fan, remarked how impressed he was at the team ethic of the Rovers side, how players were afforded much positional freedom, yet still committed to tracking back.
It was as a result of one of the forwards tracking back that Gus Poyet incurred the wrath of the match official after taking out his frustrations on the water bottles (or, as the archaic official Rovers site puts it: “gave a tremendous kick to the water bucket”). Kazenga LuaLua broke into the Rovers area only for James Hayter to get back and just beat the forward to the ball, before the two hit the deck. A good tackle and a corner, but perplexing the referee decided to book LuaLua for diving. It was no foul, but it was certainly no dive neither. The referee then, showing scant regard for the day’s special occasion sent Poyet to the stands for his aqua-wrecking reaction, and the Uruguayan performed something of a reverse Pat Cash move; appearing toward the back of the lower tier before edging his way through the crowds to familiar faces at the front.
Ten minutes before the break came The Seagulls best chance of the half as Ashley Barnes found himself all alone behind the Rovers defence on the end of a ball headed back into the area. Barnes took his time, but Woods spread himself brilliantly to block the shot and Friend sashayed back to the line, swept his gorgeous black hair to one side, and hoofed the loose ball away from danger. Still pushing Albion got the ball back in the box once more but Craig Mackail-Smith headed the cross over the bar; Mackail-Smith would go on to win man of the match, but this is the only thing I can actually remember him doing all game.
Having prevented them taking the lead Rovers duly went up the other end and let even more air out of the Albion party balloons, by going in front themselves. Mason carried the ball forward, before hitting a shot from just outside the box; his effort was deflected but straight to Sharp who reacted quickly to turn it goal-wards and the ball squeezed beneath Ankergren and in off the post for a 1-0 Rovers’ lead. Sharp proving true to his tweeted word as to notch the Stadium’s first competitive goal, and Doncaster went in at half-time deservedly ahead and with Sharp’s name ringing round the concourse of the away end.
Unfortunately the next time Sharp’s name would be sung from the away end would be as he was carried off on a stretcher. With the ball played into his feet, Sharp was lunged at from behind by Dunk and the Brighton player’s studs made hefty contact with the ankle of the Rovers forward. A very poor challenge and one which looks set to leave Doncaster without the service of their star forward for some time. Depending on which source you choose to believe Sharp’s injury varies in seriousness, apparently S*y Sp**ts “understands” that he’s broken it in as many as three places. But then they’ve also understood Sean O’Driscoll to be Burnley manager so if I can’t trust them with facts, I’m not going to start trusting them with medical science any time soon. Whilst Sharp was down many Brighton fans let themselves down for the only time of the afternoon, booing a player who was clearly in pain. But as a counter balance there were the disappointingly predictable and cringeworthy homophobia based chants from a small group of the travelling support. If only they’d gone with my chant of “two piers, and you f***ed it up”.
Rovers brought on Giles Barnes for the departing Sharp, but the injury to the latter had clearly changed the Rovers as much psychologically as it had physically and Brighton enjoyed a protracted spell of possession as Rovers struggled to keep hold of the ball. Within this spell the Albion should have equalised as the ball broke free for Mackail-Smith in space, but with only Woods to beat he fired wide. Gradually Rovers did find their game again and begin to retain the ball once more, but Brighton were now forging the better chances, and Woods was called on to save a low shot across goal, before Dumbuya hooked away the loose ball.
With home momentum and support rising Albion finally found the equaliser with seven minutes of normal time remaining. A cross from the left was headed out of the Rovers area, but it fell to the feet of Will Buckley and he connected superbly on the half-volley striking the ball low and hard, through the legs of Naylor and beyond the grasp of Woods to level the score. At one all Rovers seemed to settle once again and carried the ball forward well once more; Coppinger feeding Gillett but his low shot from the edge of the area was comfortably saved by Ankergren. At the other end substitute Craig Noone tried his look from outside the box, but Woods was always behind it.
Just as it seemed Rovers might assert themselves back into the game, their luck not only ran out, but stayed out and took an overnight bag for good measure. Spurr’s cross from the left was nodded back across the Brighton penalty area by Naylor and both Hayter and Friend went for it, the ball flew into the away end and Hayter lay very still on the floor. Brighton’s shiny new stretcher got its second outing of the afternoon and Rovers, having made their third substitution just a minute before would play out the seven minutes injury time – the conservative figure added on for the injuries to Sharp and Hayter (it could have easily been double figures) – with just ten men.
The inevitable took just five of the seven to occur. Noone’s excellent through ball was taken in his stride by Buckley as he got in behind the Rovers’ defence and slotted the ball past Woods to win the game for a bouncing, joyful, flag-happy home crowd. Defeat is always disappointing, and sometimes getting beat really, really hurts, but today wasn’t one of those occasions. As we trudged out the ground I turned and looked back at the Brighton fans still celebrating and was in all honesty genuinely happy for them. Today meant everything for Albion and those who have watched them for the nomadic last fourteen years, and you didn’t need all the back story and the special edition flags and t-shirts to appreciate that, it was there in the clear and childlike excitement held by every Albion fan I spoke to pre-match. In their celebrations I saw the tears of joy of the old bloke sat behind me at the League One play-off final, felt the sweltering, heaving away terrace at Orient, and heard the echo of “Are you watching Richardson?” after Franny Tierney’s golden goal. We’ve crashed enough parties in the last ten years, Brighton’s fans deserved to enjoy this one.
So what for Rovers? Well, ten minutes from full-time I heard a fella on the row behind us say “if we can just hold on here, then its just another 37 points and we’re safe“. That will always be Rovers’ objective in the second tier, and this game taught us nothing we did not already know. When we have a full-strength team out, we’re a very strong side, indeed few other sides would have quelled the atmosphere of the Amex the way Rovers did first half. But, when we’re not at full-strength – and the injuries to Sharp and Hayter suggest we won’t now be so for some time – there is a concern that we look nervy and afraid. I still think Rovers will stay up, but how they react psychologically to the absence of Sharp could well make the difference between whether I’m right or the Bookies are.
Man of the Match: New signing Tommy Spurr had a very solid game at left-back, but he’s just pipped for the award by the calm assured and down right gorgeous performance of captain George Friend. He’s so dreamy.
Brighton & Hove Albion line-up (4-4-2): Casper Ankergren; Inigo Calderon, Lewis Dunk, Gordon Greer, Marcus Painter; Kazenga LuaLua (Craig Noone), Liam Bridcutt, Matt Sparrow (Will Buckley), Gary Dicker; Ashley Barnes, Craig Mackail-Smith
subs not used: Peter Brezovan, Alan Navarro, Romain Vincelot
booked: Kaznega LuaLua (simulation…apparently), Lewis Dunk (making an enemy for life out of Billy Sharp)
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Gary Woods; Mustapha Dumbuya, Richard Naylor, George Friend, Tommy Spurr; John Oster, Simon Gillett, Ryan Mason (Kyle Bennett); Jamie Coppinger (Sam Hird), James Hayter; Billy Sharp (Giles Barnes)
subs not used: Neil Sullivan, Chris Brown
booked: Richard Naylor (poor challenge), Tommy Spurr (late challenge on LuaLua), John Oster (trip on Mackail-Smith)