A “fresh pair of eyes”, a “winning mentality”, a determination to “fight our way out of the situation we’re in”, and “knock the stuffing out of teams”, are just a few of the things Dean Saunders had suggested he’d bring to Doncaster Rovers in the whirlwind twenty-four hours since his appointment as manager. In the end, the one key thing that did roll in the door with him, enabling Rovers to pick up a first victory since the opening day of March, was something he could not have planned to deliver; an awful lot of luck.
On another day, specifically any one of the 19 days of football which had preceded this one, John Oster’s low drive from distance would have continued along its trajectory toward the South Stand advertising hoardings. Or George Friend’s shove into the back of Glen Murray as the Palace man broke into the Rovers box would have been spotted and given way to a penalty to the visitors and a red card to Doncaster’s most important defender. As it was Oster’s effort clipped the heel of a Palace defender arcing it in the other direction, spinning beyond Julian Speroni into the Palace net and Friend’s nudge though painfully obvious to us at the West Stand – to the extent there was an audible intake of breath – somehow went unseen. C’est la vie, or so we’re told.
The new manager was warmly greeted by the home fans as the teams came out and he took his seat in the dugout alongside the immortal Mickey Walker. Whatever, your thoughts on Sean O’Driscoll’s departure, and for all the pre-match messageboard rumours about protests and boos, that is how it should be. His line-up was probably no different to what his predecessor would have gone with in the circumstances, the incoming John Parkin allowing James Hayter to drop to his more comfortable supporting role, and the returning Brian Stock taking position in a central midfield three with Simon Gillett and John Oster. The side started with the energy you would expect from one trying to impress a new manager; Parkin winning possession and pushing forwards in the opening seconds, but beyond that the first half was painfully uninspiring, even by the standards of the previous nineteen matches.
It was seven minutes before the first effort on goal, a speculative long-range half-volley from Murray which dropped closer to the top of the net than Neil Sullivan’s nonchalance suggested it would. After twenty minutes came the aforementioned huge slice of luck as Palace broke from a Rovers’ corner; Murray sent tumbling by last-man Friend just inside the box and very unfortunate not to receive a penalty, which would almost certainly been partnered with the dismissal of the Rovers captain. Doncaster almost rubbed salt into the wound a couple of minutes later as they broke themselves; Simon Gillett releasing Oster who though clean through chose to wait for support and square for the onrushing Parkin who lost his balance and pulled his shot wide.
That was to be Rovers’ only real meaningful effort of a lacklustre opening forty-five minutes, their only other sights of goal being a header by Parkin from a Gillett cross which was always going over, and another effort from the big forward, this time a shot on the turn from the edge of the box that rolled apologetically to Speroni’s hands. At the other end Darren Ambrose had hit a speculative free-kick into the South Stand and Dean Moxey had faired similarly with a long-range effort. Palace’s best chance to take the lead came just before the break with Murray played in the right channel, but his low shot across goal was comfortably saved and held by Sullivan, diving low to his right.
The second half began as the first ended, with Sullivan producing a decent save to deny Murray. A deep corner from Ambrose picking out the forward at the far post, but his header was clawed away from the top corner and over the bar by the veteran Rovers keeper. The opening twelve minutes of the second period, with the visitors predominantly on the attack, brought Rovers fans little to be cheerful about, but all that changed approaching the hour mark when one William Sharp stood up in the technical area and put on a shirt. Forget any change in manager, I’ve not seen any one man lift a collective mood as effectively as the roar that greeted the introduction of Rovers most effective goalscorer.
For all the team ethic and collective approach shown by Doncaster in the past five years, we are simply a more formidable prospect with Sharp involved in the action. I mentioned on this site, way back on the opening day of the season, how the mood, amongst players and fans alike visibly dropped when Sharp was helped off the pitch at the Amex Stadium. Today, we saw a mirror image of that, his introduction bringing a much more positive vibe to both the supporters and the players on the field, their belief magnified by the prospect of someone in the box who can turn half-chances into goals, rather than the full-chances into goal-kicks we’ve endured for the last month and a half. And amidst all this excitement as Sharp trudged onto the field to a standing ovation, I just couldn’t help but feel sorry for O’Driscoll. The return of Sharp and full ninety minutes from his talisman Stock, were really all he was away from retaining his position.
The vibe of Sharp coming off the bench was married by the simultaneous introduction of the industrious Milan Lalkovic, their energy bringing a couple of corners to keep the home crowd on their feet, however the match was still open and Palace threatened on the hour mark as Mile Jedinak volleyed over. Yet, in the 65th minute came Rovers second big break. Shelton Martis rolled the ball to the feet of Oster who took a touch forward before hitting a low shot that ricocheted off the heel of Patrick McCarthy to leave Speroni with no chance. Fortunate yes, but the luck was long due for Rovers’ supporters.
Buoyed, Rovers continued to push; Lalkovic linking with Oster to set up Hayter, but his effort was off target. Stock too had an effort from distance, but his shot flew wide. The push forward was leaving gaps at the back though and Palace had another big appeal for a penalty as Jermaine Easter went down in the area; Richard Naylor just getting a foot on the ball to dissuade the referee from following the appeals. A few minutes later from a short corner the Slovakian cut back to the corner of the area and curled an effort just beyond Speroni’s far post.
Palace were still creating chances with both Jedinak and Murray firing just off target, but Rovers could and perhaps should have made the points safe five minutes from time. Sharp winning the ball on the byline and squaring for Hayter, who beat his man but could only fire his shot into the Rovers fans behind the goal. Palace continued to push, their momentum in the final minutes only interrupted when Speroni sportingly ignored the yells of his team-mates to keep the ball moving and instead put it into touch so Gillett could receive treatment. As it was Rovers, Sullivan and Martis in particular, did enough to control their area and hold on for the win.
Saunders and Mickey Walker embraced in their technical area at full-time, whilst the Football League Show’s Clem buzzed around them unnecessarily in his one mauve jumper. A win was needed and delivered and that, at this stage is about as much analysis as you can give a manager when he’s only known his players for a day. If there is to be any great shift in style and tactics we didn’t see it today, this was understandably an interim ‘do the basics’ performance and one that thankfully turned out to be successful. It’ll be at least a month before we offer any judgement on the new man, he did have a nice suit on though. Nick reckoned it might have been Burtons. Flash, these ex-pros.
Man of the Match: Captain George Friend reverted to his supposedly natural left-back position with Tommy Spurr out injured and thankfully took his centre-back form with him. A measured performance up against one of the division’s hottest prospects in Wilfried Zaha, the Rovers man making up for what he gave away in pace, with a combination of composure and intuitiveness.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Neil Sullivan; James O’Connor, Richard Naylor, Shelton Martis, George Friend; Simon Gillett, Brian Stock, John Oster; James Coppinger (Milan Lalkovic), James Hayter; Jon Parkin (Billy Sharp)
subs not used: Gary Woods, Sam Hird, Kyle Bennett
Crystal Palace line-up (4-4-2): Julian Speroni; Peter Ramage, Patrick McCarthy, Aleksandar Tunchev, Dean Moxey; Darren Ambrose, Mile Jedinak, David Wright (Jonathan Williams), Wilfred Zaha; Glenn Murray, Sean Scannell (Jermaine Easter)
subs not used: Lewis Price, Jonathan Parr, Anthony Gardner