What I like about selling the fanzine on matchday is that during the hour and a half spent outside the ground you get a sense of the prevailing pre-match mood amongst Rovers fans. Had I been asked at 2:55pm to sum up the mood of Doncaster supporters in a single word then I would have probably chosen ‘foreboding’. The most optimistic supporters clung to a “you never know”, but for the most part we felt we did, and we weren’t looking forward to seeing it unfold.
As it was all premonitions proved unfounded as Southampton’s reputation preceded them, and whilst it arrived, their actual ability was presumably stuck in traffic. Top scorer Richie Lambert was ruled out of the Saints side, and the league leaders, the team that had scored more and won more than any other side in the Championship seemed at a loss as to how to cope with his absence.
Perhaps encouraged by the fact that the visitors’ attack was, whilst not toothless, certainly unable to bite as effectively Rovers started the brighter, and had the games first chance inside the opening five minutes. Brian Stock turned well under pressure in midfield and nudged the ball into the path of Simon Gillett, who took it on before hitting a firm strike from the edge of the area which Kelvin Davis saved well diving to his right.
Southampton began to steady themselves and had much of the possession, but were struggling to break Rovers down inside the final third, and when they did have the chance to put Rovers under pressure they generally squandered it, not least from the corner kicks of Daniel Fox. Twice the full-back curled dead-balls from the South West corner over the heads of everyone and out of play at the far side. Adam Lallana relieved him of duty to put in a better delivery, but come the next dead-ball Fox stepped up again, to the cheers of the Rovers fans. This time his delivery was better, but still clawed away by Carl Ikeme. Fox trudged back to position, a shout of “Never mind, tha’s getting nearer” from the depths of the West Stand following him on his way.
Though Southampton were boasting more possession Rovers continued to look a threat on the break. Billy Sharp had already pulled one half-chance across the face of goal, when Rovers broke again after twenty-five minutes. James O’Connor advanced down the right flank, checked his run and fed Stock on the edge of the box, the midfielder hitting a low shot first time which glanced wide off the base off the post.
Play was starting to swing from end to end and just after the half hour mark came a chance for the visitors to take the lead. A ball out from the back was impressively swept into the path of Morgan Schneiderlin with a single touch from Guly de Prado; clean through, the midfielder looked destined to score, but his second touch stuttered his run and broke his concentration, before his eventual shot from close range was beaten behind impressively by Ikeme. From the corner Rovers broke again with Jamie Coppinger free in the right channel; rather than shoot he decided to play the ball across the box for Sharp, but his effort was blocked by a covering defender.
From the corner Rovers came close to a goal once again as Stock’s deep delivery picked out Herita Ilunga, but his nod back across goal was cleared off the line by Jose Fonte. Southampton pushed again, and had the Rovers defence scrambling in the wake of Fox’s first decent delivery of the day from a free-kick on the right; a telling block from Sam Hird preventing the Saints forcing the loose ball home. The last chance of a very watchable first half would go to the visitors; De Prado making space from himself on the left corner of the area and hitting a firm strike at goal, but Ikeme read its path to turn it over the bar.
At half-time Herold Goulon, whose main contribution had been to give away soft free-kicks, was replaced by Giles Barnes, but it would be difficult for the new man to assert himself as the second half failed to live up to the enthralling nature of the first; the only effort of the first quarter of an hour being a wayward Adam Lallana strike.
But on the hour Rovers fashioned a chance out of nothing and found themselves 1-0 up. Stock lifted a long ball into the path of Marc-Antoine Fortune down the right; the forward looked to have taken it too far, but from the byline delivered an excellent pull-back toward Billy Sharp, who came off the far-post and swept the ball beneath Davies with a well-placed first-time shot. It was Sharp’s first clear-cut chance of the game. It’s all he needs.
Southampton would surely be expected to retaliate, but rather than stir the beast it seemed Rovers had actually stunned it. What chances emerged in the fifteen minutes following the goal went Doncaster’s way; Stock touching off a free-kick for Barnes to drive just wide via a deflection. Fortune firing wide from the edge of the area. Barnes breaking into space to hit an outside of the boot shot which was saved and held by Davis.
It was only in the final ten minutes that the Saints began to up the pressure yet despite having Rovers on the back foot, they again failed to threaten Ikeme’s goal. De Prado headed wide from a corner (Fox having finally found his range), whilst substitute Lee Holmes fired a shot high into the North Stand. That would be as close as they came. Indeed Rovers almost had the perfect opportunity to double their advantage on a rare late foray forward. O’Connor’s ball toward the corner of the box was nudged on by Fortune for Coppinger who was felled by his marker. The referee looked to be pointing to the spot, but his assistant referee had already raised his flag for offside against Coppinger, and instead of a spot-kick to Rovers it was a free-kick for the Saints, the right decision, but a let-off for Southampton.
Ultimately it mattered not as Rovers held out the agonisingly slow moving additional minutes to secure an unexpected victory. This was an improved performance from Rovers, particularly impressive across the back, the benefits of a keeper high on confidence and a back four playing a third straight game together showing fruition. Rovers moved the ball better than in recent weeks too, but prolonged spells of possession are noticeably rare. Going forward there is still a lack of a determinable style, there is little pattern to the play, a sense that the chances are presenting themselves rather than being orchestrated. It was an improvement yes, but Southampton were noticeably underwhelming, and so whilst enjoying the victory, it pays not to be complacent, especially with two tough games ahead.
Man of the Match: Sam Hird; a solid and effective performance from Hird, compounding his critics for the second week running he read the game well at the back, and lived up to our billing of him as Doncaster’s own ‘der Kaiser’ with a couple of pin-point passes. Even more impressive considering I was sat behind him in Bawtry Road traffic just an hour and a half before kick-off.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1): Carl Ikeme; James O’Connor, Sam Hird, Habib Beye, Herita Ilunga; Simon Gillett, Brian Stock, Herold Goulon (Giles Barnes); Jamie Coppinger, Marc-Antoine Fortune (George Friend); Billy Sharp (James Hayter)
subs not used: Neil Sullivan, Kyle Bennett
booked: Sam Hird (kicking the ball away)
Southampton line-up (4-5-1): Kelvin Davis; Frazer Richardson, Jose Fonte, Jos Hooiveld, Daniel Fox; Steve de Ridder (Lee Holmes), Morgan Schneiderlin, Dean Hammond, Jack Cork (Lee Barnard), Adam Lallana; Guly De Prado
subs not used: Bartosz Bialkowski, Dan Harding, Aaron Martin
booked: Frazer Richardson (pull-back on Giles Barnes), Jose Fonte (foul on James Hayter)