DONCASTER ROVERS 0-2 NOTTS COUNTY
Twelve months ago this weekend we were making our last trip up north at this stage of the FA Cup, to face another higher division side who play in red and white, Sunderland. That turned out brilliantly, as we all know, but the trip to Championship strugglers Doncaster felt like an altogether more low key affair. Maybe it's that Rovers are in an artificial league position thanks to the investment of chairman John Ryan, that helped them make the leap from the Conference to the Championship under Dave Penney and then Sean O'Driscoll, maybe it's that the ground is next to or lake or maybe it's that the disparity of Rovers' disinterested home support (summed up by the empty stand opposite us) and Notts' 3,000 strong following made it seem like a home game, but from almost the moment NCM arrived in South Yorkshire yesterday the result almost seemed like a foregone conclusion - the game merely ninety minutes that must be tolerated before we considered the fourth round.
We mocked Doncaster's rise a moment ago, but until a few months ago Rovers were a model child - sustaining Championship football through continuity of management and playing an attractive style of football under Sean O'Driscoll. Then, for some reason unbeknown to us, they decided to sack the quiet but talented O'Driscoll, appoint greasy haired former Wales midfielder Dean Saunders (just a few months after he built the first Wrexham team in his three year tenure that didn't look likely to lose at home to Hayes & Yeading at any given moment) and allow Willie McKay to oversee some sort of bizarre transfer system that was supposed to keep them up through giving a final pay day to the Senegalese 2002 World Cup squad. It's sort of akin to Arsenal sacking Arséne Wenger when they bottle yet another cup this season and replacing him with Lee Clarke as manager and Abel Magwitch as director of football.
McKay is a 'super agent' - a term which sums up the deterioration of the word 'super' as a prefix. The world was once saved by superheros, but we now have to contend with super-injunctions to stop the world finding out who half of the Premier League is having an affair with and super agents who charge you a huge amount of money to broker a short term loan deal for a player you've never heard of. His Wikipedia page makes for depressing reading - the intrudoctive description of a "super agent who lives in Monaco" is hardly a precursor for a shining beacon of humanity, but then we get to the words 'Peter Storrie' and figure that Doncaster might as well jack it all in now. Not that McKay and Saunders are losing faith - our next Wikipedia pitstop was at the Rovers squad list, which shows ageing internationals from Senegal (El-Hadji Diouf, Habib Beye, Lamine Diatta, Habib Bamogo) and Mali (Mamadou Bagayogo), a couple of failed former French youth internationals in Damien Plessis and Heróld Goulon (on loan from Panathinaikos and Blackburn). Plus a couple of loanee goalkeepers from the Premier League in David Button and Carl Ikeme and also Pascal Chimbonda, who has been sulkily playing full back in the Premier League for the best part of a decade. Martin Allen could've been forgiven for thinking we were playing the Harlem Globetrotters' reserve side.
Not that our defence looked particularly familiar, with new boy Damion Stewart partned with the returning Liam Chilvers, who we hoped had remembered how to play football during his loan deal with troubled Port Vale. Otherwise things remained the same as they were for Monday's spirited 2-2 draw against Huddersfield Town at Meadow Lane. This was maybe the only time doubt crept into our minds on a windy afternoon at the Keepmoat Stadium, which is perhaps the only Football League stadium to be situated next to a lake, although this definitely doesn't give it any character. It's almost as if, when the architects drew up their plans, one of them snuck off to Darlington, pointed at their white elephant and proudly said "build me that, chaps". One stand is empty, but the other two are fairly well populated, but to nowhere near the same extent as the away end, which is filled with a sea of black and white from the corner near the newly formed 'Doncaster singing section' (intimidating stuff) to the less excitable home fans on the other side. From the pre-match warm up onwards, the battle of vocals is won by the visitors with embarrassing ease, setting things up nicely for things on the pitch.
With their star man Billy Sharp left out of the squad (presumably so he could sign his allegiance to the Thai constitution and receive his lifetime card for Asian duty free at Leicester Forest East services), the hosts were spearheaded by the lanky Bagayogo, but with the equally huge Stewart marshalling him he struggled to hold the ball up early on and Notts began to work their way into the game. Karl Hawley had the first shot in anger, dragging an effort wide of David Button's far post, whilst Lee Hughes headed Julian Kelly's cross miles (or inches, if you're the BBC) wide of the post. Doncaster's side looked lost without Sharp's movement upfront and increasingly began to become wasteful in possession, which nearly cost them when Welshman Brian Stock was pickpocketed by Alan Judge, who droved forward and flashed a shot just wide. The diminutive Irishman, who has grown into the role of comfortably Notts' key attacking threat, once again went close when he was foiled by Button at the near post, whilst the nomadic Rovers man Giles Barnes, once of Derby, headed into the arms of Stuart Nelson to mark Rovers' first effort of any real note. This shook Notts up sufficiently for them to go up the other end and take the lead, when Alan Sheehan's lazily clipped free kick was missed by the entire Doncaster defence, allowing Jeff Hughes to pinch it at the far post and slam a right footed shot past Button to notch his third FA Cup goal of the season.
Rovers began the second half with more impotus, perhaps after Saunders had told them that they were destined for a lengthier stay at Doncaster if they didn't buck up their ideas, and had their most threatening spell of the match. Kyle Bennett skipped past a couple of players and curled an effort goalwards, that Nelson had to paw away, whilst a James Coppinger cross eluded everyone and would've floated in at the far post but for the sprawling Notts 'keeper. The resulting corner fell to Giles Barnes, who lashed it harmlessly over, ending Doncaster's one spell of any real note. As in the first half, an effort by Barnes was followed by Notts pouring forward and, when Jeff Hughes laid in Sheehan before the full back was needlessly bundled over by Bennett, Notts' top scorer had the chance to put the game to bed. He did so with ease, sending Spurs loanee Button the wrong way, to begin a mass exodus of clearly disillusioned home fans. Although it's hard to believe there are enough Doncaster fans to form anything constituting an 'exodus', considering McKay's first words when joining the club were that they "have no fanbase and everyone in Doncaster supports Leeds, Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday". He has a point, judging by today. There was still time for Doncaster to introduce footballing pantomime villain El-Hadji Diouf, whose one involvement was a pathetic dive in the Notts area - although he did at least feel some injustice in not being booked for it and deemed it necessary to chase the referee and talk his way into a yellow card. A heart warming display of fair play, we think you'll all agree.
Doncaster's cup run was effectively over when the drummer in the 'singing section' upped sticks and left after 87 minutes, although he did miss the five minutes of added time that appeared to have been calculated entirely at random. Notts lapped up the applause at full time and deservedly so, beating a side from a higher division with such ease should always be commended. We suspect that things will be slightly more difficult at Stevenage in the next round, however. That, by the way, is a fourth round draw akin to reaching into a tin of Quality Street, missing all of the green triangles and golden barrels and pulling out one of those horrible orange ones. Happy FA Cup, everyone.