Doncaster Rovers have built their impressive post-Christmas revival in the Championship on the back of a skilfully constructed passing game but they dealt a setback to Bristol City’s top-six ambitions last night more by graft than craft.
Sean O’Driscoll’s team still found time for some moments of quality after Paul Heffernan’s early goal gave them a flying start, but the match was more a test of their new-found resilience and City’s first league defeat in two months was a triumph for Doncaster’s defensive talents, with the centre-backs Matt Mills and Sam Hird putting in outstanding performances.
Bottom of the table at Christmas, Doncaster seemed to be finding their promotion to the Championship a step too far. Yet O’Driscoll kept to his principles, insisting Rovers could play their way out of the trouble and after seven wins in eight matches there is growing confidence that he will be proved right.
“We’re not really playing any differently,” assistant manager Richard O’Kelly said afterwards. “But we have learnt a bit about the character you need to win games at this level and it was a real team effort tonight.”
A lack of goals, particularly at home, has been a problem for Rovers, who could not give their new signing Dean Shiels his anticipated debut after the Northern Ireland was injured on international duty. Yet last night they took less then four minutes to make what proved to be the decisive breakthrough, when City’s Louis Carey could not cut out Martin Woods’ through ball and Heffernan swept them in front.
Against opponents stronger physically than themselves, Rovers had to work hard to protect their advantage, the veteran goalkeeper Neil Sullivan saving well before half-time from Stern John and Gavin Williams, who had the ball in the net only for the referee Clive Oliver to spot a foul.
Rovers, for whom Woods was denied by Adriano Basso late in the first half, needed the cushion of a second goal. Their pace on the break looked to offer the best chance to extend their lead but they missed an opportunity from a set-piece early in the second half when Mills missed the target with a strong header.
City replaced John with John Akinde at half-time and sent on Ivan Sproule, who came off the bench to score last Saturday, as they pressed for an equaliser with conviction. They were up against a defence equally determined to resist, however. “The pitch cut up and we had to go route one but there was not enough quality and we could have had 15 men on the field and not found a way through,” said the Bristol manager, Gary Johnson. “It is an opportunity missed but I’m still confident we can finish in the top six.”
Doncaster Rovers: (4-4-1-1) Sullivan; O’Connor, Mills, Hird, Chambers; Spicer (Roberts, 90), Wellens, Stock, Woods; Coppinger ( Byfield, 86); Heffernan (Lockwood, 81). Substitutes not used: Guy, Price.
Bristol City: (4-4-2) Basso; Orr (Iriekpen, 78), Carey, Fontaine, McAllister; Williams (Sproule, 65), Johnson, Skuse, McIndoe; John (Akinde, ht), Maynard. Substitutes not used: Henderson, Murray.
Referee: C Oliver (Northumberland).