“Well, I think this could be the season we go down you know,” said Matt as Bristol City took the lead, and at times its difficult to find evidence that doesn’t support his feeling. Rovers, for all they are doing right, are failing at the most crucial of tasks; at the risk of going all Alan Shearer punditry ‘say what you see’ on you, their biggest failing is an inability to take their own multiple chances whilst simultaneously struggling to prevent the opposition finding the net.
Already this season is proving difficult viewing, before the game I chatted to notorious West Stand whinger Geoff who said to me he’d “not seen them play badly this season”, if that’s the case I would hate to be sat near him during a string of poor performances given that at one point in the first half he bellowed “We played better than this in the bloody Conference”. That was nothing to the similarly moany old fella in the row in front who’s howls of derision got him into an argument with a guy two rows in front, prompting the old guy to offer him outside. To the surprise of those around us, he accepted and they disappeared off to the concourse only to return sheepishly and disappointingly sans black-eyes two minutes later, whilst we cursed ourselves for not following them out chanting “scrap, scrap scrap!”
Anyway, back to the football, although there was little of it of note in a turgid opening half an hour. The first opportunity went to City as uncharacteristically Rovers committed their whole side for a set-piece which rebounded clear to leave Nicky Maynard the freedom of the Doncaster half to bear down on Gary Woods’ goal. Belying his form thus far this campaign Maynard though fluffed the opportunity, rolling his shot wide of the post. Rovers’ highlights were few and far between though Tommy Spurr did manage two fairly unique achievements as he hoofed one clearance out the stadium, and then whilst in the visitors’ area fell over, only to barrell-roll a tackle and win the ball back off a City player with his hip.
The first real chance on goal for Doncaster came midway through the first half from a Giles Barnes corner; the midfielders delivery met by Richard Naylor attacking the near post though his header flew over the bar. Just after the half hour mark another corner from the right would bring Rovers even closer; Barnes cross this time flicked goalwards by the boot of John Oster and though he beat David James, Jordan Spence was on the line to hook the effort clear. Oster was having another impressive game in the midfield working hard both on and off the ball, or alternatively “swanning about like he’s on Cantley Park” if you prefer Geoff’s take.
Five minutes before the break the first half came to something approaching life with Mustapha Dumbuya hitting a shot from the corner of the box that James, though he was always behind it, took two attempts to gather. At the other end Albert Adomah drove forward and shot but his effort travelled just wide of Woods’ far post. Rovers were next to threaten as James Hayter’s half-volley had James diving full length to his right to keep out.
A minute before half time though City took the lead as Adomah carried the ball forward, exchanged a neat one-two to work his way into the area, and then hit a low shot past Woods into the far corner. Just before the half-time whistle George Friend stung James’ palms with a long-range effort, but still as the players left the field there were audible boos from some sections of the crowd, matching the theme of moans and groans that had greeted any pass knocked backwards or sideways along the back four in the first forty-five minutes. Losing is disappointing, but Rovers had been the better side in, an admittedly poor contest thus far, and so its hard to justify such catcalls.
Ten minutes into the second half a turning point looked to have been reached as Kyle Bennett cut into the penalty area only to be felled by Cole Skuse, and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Hayter stepped up to take the kick and drove it straight down the middle, right into the body of James, and the chance was gone. As Matt said as he slumped back into his seat “we can’t buy a goal”. On the hour mark O’Driscoll shifted things around, throwing on loanee Milan Lalkovic at the expense of defender Sam Hird and he was to have a notable impact. Seven minutes after entering the game his cross, from a short corner on the right, reached Hayter at the far post and the forward’s header just carried over the line for the equaliser.
The goal lifted Rovers and also changed the library-esque atmosphere of the Keepmoat too, and it would be the home side who pushed forwards for the remaining quarter of the game. Barnes got in a shot on goal, but James saved it well getting down to his left, then a couple of minutes later Lalkovic worked his way across the box before firing just over the bar. The effect the Rovers goal had on the home crowd was also notable; the passes across the back-line to retain and switch possession which had been groaned at when the score was 0-0, were now being applauded at 1-1. Indeed so much improved were Rovers that Geoff didn’t moan for six minutes; we were just about to alert a steward as to his condition, but thankfully a misplaced pass enabled him to splutter back into life with a yell of “What the bloody hell was that?”
Into the last five minutes and Rovers continued to press; Hayter’s back-heel giving Lalkovic an opportunity but he fired into the side-netting from a tight angle. Next to threaten was Bennett, shooting on the turn from the edge of the area, but James at full length turned the ball round his left post. Into injury-time and Dumbuya drove forward and shot but his effort was always sailing over, and then in the final minute one last chance as Simon Gillett was fed the ball inside the area, the midfielder getting in a decent shot only to be denied by another great James save at the base of his near post. An encouraging final twenty minutes from Rovers… just a shame that it came after such a turgid opening seventy, and in the presence of an experienced and talented keeper like David James.
There are criticisms to be made of the current side, it’d be foolhardy to suggest there is not when Rovers sit bottom of the table, but too often amongst the Rovers support footballing soundbites are repeated until they become accepted as fact, when they are far from true. “They’re not showing enough passion” as if that’s quantifiable and apparent from the stands, “We play too many backward passes” as if that would be a specific management instruction, rather than say retaining possession for which you will often need to go backwards. Oft repeated is the mantra that Sean O’Driscoll’s tactics are “too negative”, but when the side continues to regularly create more chances on goal than their opposition that can not possibly be true. Yes, it is true that we could be a damned sight better at putting the chances away, but to continually repeat that O’Driscoll is ‘negative’ is as wrong as it is lazy.
Post match many have criticised O’Driscoll’s choice of formation, but given how the same side performed against Leeds in midweek, where they caused their opponents all manner of problems, it would have been hard to have justified any change. Unfortunately, where as on Tuesday Rovers played fluidly as something of a 5-2-2-1, today the same line-up settled themselves in too rigid a 5-4-1 and it was never as productive. Giles Barnes and Kyle Bennett both drifted wide to the flanks which both restricted the space available for Tommy Spurr and Mustapha Dumbuya to get forward, but also left James Hayter increasingly isolated up front and Oster and Gillett lacking outlets in midfield.
The introduction of Milan Lalkovic though, at the expense of defender Sam Hird, did breathe life into the Rovers side when they needed a kick, and it would be encouraging to see him played from the start in Rovers’ next outing. Not necessarily up alongside Hayter, but certainly giving him a closer foyle, perhaps in the centre of the supportive 4-2-3-1, as per the role Jay Emmanuel-Thomas played during his loan spell two season’s ago. Or alternatively O’Driscoll could play a 4-4-2 with proper wingers and hurl himself about his technical area pointing and yelling like a deranged tramp at a bus-stop and demand that every single pass be played in the direction of the opposition goal. Every pass. The latter approach would probably appease most on forums, and Geoff, but I’d be very surprised if it improved Rovers standing.
Man of the Match: A lot of solid performances, but captain George Friend gets our nod for a resilient performance at the back. Had Milan Lalkovic been on longer he’d have challenged him, excellent cameo.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (5-4-1): Gary Woods; Mustapha Dumbuya, Sam Hird (Milan Lalkovic), Richard Naylor (James O’Connor), George Friend, Tommy Spurr; Giles Barnes (Reece Brown), Simon Gillett, John Oster, Kyle Bennett; James Hayter
subs not used: Neil Sullivan, Mark Wilson
Bristol City line-up (4-3-3): David James; Jordan Spence, Jamie McAllister (Martyn Woolford), Nyatanga, James Wilson; Marvin Elliott, Neil Kilkenny (Brett Pitman), Cole Skuse; Jamal Campbell-Ryce, Nicky Maynard (John Stead), Albert Adamoah
subs not used: Dean Gerken, Louis Carey
booked: Albert Adamoah (poor challenge on James Hayter)