One of the many things that irritate me in the modern world is the notion of forced sentiment; being told how we should feel in the wake of a tragedy or a death. A minute’s silence for example was once a very rare occurrence, a fitting tribute for only a very personal or very national tragedy. However, in the past I have stood in silence ahead of Rovers matches for, amongst others, George Best, Alan Ball and Iraq hostage Ken Bigley. All tragic losses of course, but what have they to do with our town, our club or us? In short, if anyone has cause to ask ‘who’s this for?’ ahead of a minute’s silence, then you shouldn’t be having one.
There was no such danger of that question being raised at the Keepmoat Stadium last night as the two sets of players took their place on either side of the centre circle. A message was then read out, at the request of Billy Sharp, in memory of his son, who was born on Thursday last week and tragically passed away just two days later. As the message finished a heartfelt minute’s applause was observed by the stadium as one; a chant of “Billy, Billy Sharp” echoing from the South Stand. Billy was not just present, he was in his number ten shirt, he was wearing the captain’s arm-band, and he was playing.
Sharp had called Dean Saunders on Monday and asked him to let him start. “He wanted to play,” Saunders told the BBC, “He wanted to score a goal for his son and his family and he was ready to go. When he said that to me I couldn’t really refuse.” After fourteen minutes and from his first real opportunity to do so Sharp delivered that goal; El Hadji Diouf flicking the ball into the air, and Sharp on the corner of the box watched it over his head and connected perfectly with a brilliant left-foot volley that sailed over ‘Boro ‘keeper Jason Steele and into the net.
As the Keepmoat Stadium erupted, Sharp wheeled away towards the West Stand, unveiling a t-shirt that read “That’s for you son” as he was congratulated by every one of his team-mates. If Sharp says he is going to score a goal for you, he will score a goal for you. As the forward celebrated, the reaction of the referee Darren Deadman was also worth noticing and applauding. The moment Sharp veered away, Deadman turned his back on the celebration and made his way back to the half-way line. A blind-eye deftly turned and the letter of the law welcomingly eschewed in favour of the spirit of the game.
Rovers were, as a man, playing for their captain at this stage and within a couple of minutes the lead was almost doubled; Diouf making space for himself in the middle of the field, before a curling shot that flew just beyond the angle of post and bar. Rovers looked impressive, Richard Naylor had headed just wide in the opening minutes from a Ryan Mason delivery. And on the twenty minute mark Pascal Chimbonda also came close as he got himself on the end of a raking George Friend pass.
Disappointingly though Rovers’ spirit would wane and Middlesbrough began to assert themselves, particularly in midfield, where the presence of just one natural central midfielder was leaving Doncaster exposed. A cross from Tony McMahon picked out Rhys Williams, but his header was saved by Neil Sullivan. On the half hour mark though ‘Boro were level. Scott McDonald tried to break but was scythed down by Naylor, however with Barry Robson picking up the loose ball, the referee waved play on and the visitors profited from an excellent advantage as Robson drove a low shot from the edge of the area past Sullivan.
Middlesbrough were now in control of the game and McDonald was next to threaten with a shot from distance which flew wide. Rovers though were not out of it, and a neat exchange of passes between James Hayter, Diouf and Sharp gave space for Mason to shoot from the edge of the area, but his shot was always flying over. Just before half-time Middlesbrough completed the turnaround as Faris Haroun got away down the right and delivered a low cross to the near-post to which Marvin Emnes just beat Sullivan and the ball squeezed beneath the ‘keeper and just over the line to make it 2-1 to ‘Boro at half-time.
The visitors, encouraged by a large and vocal support would control the second half from start to finish. Both Williams and Nicky Bailey forced Sullivan to save with long-range efforts in the opening few minutes, and in the 55th minute there was a let off for Rovers as ‘Boro worked the ball into the area before Herita Ilunga blocked a close range effort from Bailey and the ball was then fired twice across the face of goal without anyone applying the touch that would have brought a third goal.
Rovers were struggling to amass anything approaching possession, and indeed the only player seemingly able to bring the ball under any sort of control was Diouf. I’m no fan of the Diouf the man, but have to concede that I was impressed by Diouf the footballer. His touch and movement were a cut above anyone else on the field, but unfortunately his individual talent was not galvanising the team. “Take someone off and get someone on who can play football,” yelled Geoff in the seats next to us and it was hard to disagree. Saunders duly introduced Jamie Coppinger and Kyle Bennett and though the former in particular linked well with Diouf it brought Rovers little reward.
Midway through the half ‘Boro would wrap up the game with a third goal. Sullivan made an excellent double save to deny a long range effort from Robson and McDonald following in, but within seconds of the saves Chimbonda upended Emnes and the referee had no option but to point to the spot. Robson took the penalty, and fired past Sullivan for 3-1.
Saunders shuffled his pack a little; Friend traded his left-back role for Ilunga’s holding midfield birth, and it brought Friend a trio of half chances from the edge of the box, one which was comfortably saved and two others that flew harmlessly wide. Kyle Bennett too fired off target from the corner of the box, whilst substitute Giles Barnes, on for Diouf, skewed a shot so wide it looked like it might end up behind him. Late in the game Shelton Martis headed just wide from a cross, but the game had long been won by the visitors, what little threat Rovers possessed after the half hour mark had been diminished further by the removal of Diouf, and a tiring Sharp who had run himself into the ground for the opening hour.
In the wake of the game, Sharp’s name was trending, both nationally and globally, on the social network site Twitter. A scroll through the comments saw many juxtaposing Sharp’s bravery in playing to Carlos Tevez situation at Manchester City. With all respect, fuck Tevez. This was not about him or anyone else. This was no statement from Sharp to the world of football, nor was it a marker for unrivalled professionalism. And though there were many ready to call Sharp a ‘hero’, nor was it an act of heroism as such. It was instead simply an incredibly brave man wanting to make a very personal tribute in the manner he knew best.
Billy Sharp wanted to play tonight. He wanted to score a goal. And he wanted to dedicate it to his son. Such was his determination I suspect that the idea his t-shirt tribute would never get chance to be seen never even crossed his mind. In the last month and a half of upheaval at Rovers we have often been told that “football is a business”, and that there is “no room in the game for sentiment”. Well, we can take solace that at least one of those arguments has been blown out of the water, because last night it was all about sentiment finding room for the game.
Man of the Match: Billy Sharp got the official nod just before full-time, an announcement greeted by applause from both sets of supporters. Even removing sentiment from the occasion Sharp would have been the most likely candidate for Rovers, his excellent goal coming in a first half where he set out to cover every part of the field, often tracking deep to left back to help prevent ‘Boro counter attacks.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-1-4-1): Neil Sullivan; Pascal Chimbonda, Richard Naylor, Shelton Martis, George Friend; Herita Ilunga; El Hadji Diouf (Giles Barnes), Ryan Mason (Jamie Coppinger), Simon Gillett, James Hayter (Kyle Bennett); Billy Sharp
subs not used: Jonathan Maxsted, James O’Connor
booked: Richard Naylor (clumsy foul in build up to Middlesborough’s opening goal), George Friend (ludicrous lunge for a ball he was never going to get), Pascal Chimbonda (generic pushing and shoving in the area before a set-piece)
Middlesbrough line-up (4-4-2): Jason Steele; Tony McMahon, Matthew Bates, Stephen McManus, Justin Hoyte (Faris Haroun); Barry Robson, Nicky Bailey (Julio Arca), Rhys Williams, Joe Bennett; Marvin Emnes (Merouane Zemmama), Scott McDonald
subs not used: Tarmo Kink, Bart Ogbeche,
booked: Stephen McManus (poor challenge straight through the back of Sharp), Nicky Bailey (see Pascal Chimbonda)