Twice during this game, your humble reporter celebrated a goal for City before the ball had been put in. It’s not something to be recommended. The first time was with nine minutes on the clock when Richard Garcia was presented with a easy pass into a goal vacated by the Doncaster keeper when a scintillating move scythed open the visitors’ defence – Garcia is a fine professional with a cool head, and there was never any chance of him doing anything other than calmly steering the ball home. All hail the prescience of the premature.
The second occasion was towards the end of a game whose result was already known, and mattered only for reasons of goal difference and those who’d wagered on City winning by three goals or more at 6/1. Now, strangling the cry in your own throat is a mildly embarrassing experience as those nearby chuckle softly. However, it’s nowhere near as bad as missing a completely open goal from two yards in front of over twenty thousand people. Aaron Mclean: I feel your pain.
Not that we ought to feel unduly pained by events at the Circle yesterday. City won, and won well, scoring three times at home for the first time this season and capitalising on stumbles elsewhere. Nigel Pearson, steely gamekeeper in his playing days, is now the huntsman. His quarry in Leeds, Nottingham and Bermondsey are showing the wild-eyed desperation of those who fear the worst. The Tigers are coming.
On a warm Spring day in East Yorkshire, we saw three changes to the side that drew impressively at Swansea in midweek – two mooted, one a complete surprise. Following his thrilling cameo in South Wales, a recall for Jay Simpson at the expense of Aaron Mclean seemed probable and duly occurred. James Harper, also on form at Swansea but carrying an injury, was demoted to bench-warming duties in favour of Richard Garcia. Whether this was down to Harper’s less-than-complete fitness, or a desire to attack more, or a combination of the two, isn’t clear. Meanwhile, the unexpected alteration come in goal, where Vito Mannone replaced Matt Duke.
Kicking in the first half towards a North Stand occupied by about 1,500 Doncaster fans were: Mannone; Rosenior, Hobbs, Gerrard, Dawson (c); Chester, Koren, Garcia, Evans; Fryatt, Simpson.
It was an open-looking formation, and it proved an open game throughout. Doncaster made a brisk start, lodging themselves in City’s half and winning an early corner that came to nothing. The first chance went to the home side, when Koren sent a wicked low cross in that corridor of uncertainty (copyright Sir Geoffrey Boycott) between keeper and defence; no-one in black and amber was on hand for a tap in.
Already, the Tigers were looking menacing. Too often in recent times, sprightly starts to home matches have fizzled out into formless sludge on the field and depressing quietude off it. Not so here. Doncaster’s defence is among the division’s worst, and it was cut open beautifully when Dawson found Fryatt on the left – the keeper could only parry his shot to the approaching Garcia, who had time to steady himself and apply a nerveless finish. 1-0 City, and the Circle exulted at this splendid beginning.
Given Doncaster’s obviously hopeless defence and the fact City looked very much on form, we didn’t expect a second goal to be too long arriving. We were half-right; however, it went to the visitors, which surprised them almost as much as us. A ferocious shot from outside the area by Gillett was rather weakly dealt with by Mannone – instead of diverting the ball wide or to one side, the shot (well-struck, admittedly) squirted through his fingers and onto the post. Moussa nipped in ahead of his marker to apply a pretty decent finish with the City keeper grounded, and suddenly we were level again. The early optimism in the stands receded as the oddly unenthusiastic South Yorkshire sorts finally stirred themselves.
Happily, City didn’t seem too perturbed by this setback. Doncaster were still vacating huge areas of space into which Rosenior and Dawson eagerly hared, forcing Doncaster’s wide players back and causing most of the play to take place in the visitors’ half. Their defence overworked, we sensed that a quick reply was possible. It was: with 21 minutes gone, City led 2-1.
It came in decidedly preventable circumstances. City’s build-up play was again too slick and a ball from the right saw Doncaster out of shape in the middle – with Chester seemingly certain to connect with the ball from close range, he was pushed from behind and referee Clattenburg gave a penalty. Martis, the offender, was cautioned and the protests were desultory. Up stepped Matt Fryatt, whose firmly hit kick was too powerful and accurate for Gary Woods. This time, the celebrations were less feverish, more relief.
The quantity of incidents didn’t decline after this and the match was still being played at pleasing pace. Doncaster had a shot blocked on the edge of the area, Koren sent a bobbler narrowly wide, Garcia headed a great Fryatt cross just over, Fryatt sent a superb shot curling narrowly wide, Chester mis-hit an effort desperately when he was urgently seeking a more attack-minded colleague…one fancies that another goal before half-time would have seen City completely run away with the match.
However, our momentum was jolted when a change was forced upon the Tigers. Garcia had sustained a painful-looking injury but attempted to play on before for a few minutes. However, this – or some new impact to his knee – eventually proved too much, and he hobbled over the East Stand touchline while the extent was being assessed, Nigel Pearson evidently eager to give the Aussie international every chance of recovering. It wasn’t to be. Jamie Devitt was summoned in his place, and Garcia was stretchered off past the East, South and West Stands, each rather touchingly affording the stricken winger a colossal ovation. We’ve touched upon Garcia’s unheralded worth before, but it was gratifying to see him being fêted in this manner.
The newest player on the pitch was involved in the incident that saw the afternoon’s second caution shortly before the break when he was cynically blocked by Donny captain Brian Stock on the right wing. The game had broken down a little by this stage, and neither side looked like notching up the game’s fourth goal before half-time.
It was a most satisfying interval too, and not only because the East Stand ale queues were uncommonly short. Leeds were drawing. Millwall were drawing. Leicester were losing. Burnley were drawing. Calculations were made and Sky Sports News was consulted, and the thrilling conclusion that City were, notionally, just two points from sixth was made. Crumbs.
Neither side many any changes for the start of the second half, which saw approximately the same pattern as the first – City largely in command, Doncaster occasionally looking threatening on the break. It’s been a while since we’d played one of the division’s lesser lights at home, and maybe we’d forgotten that quite a difference in class does exist between an on-form side chasing the play-offs and an off-form one looking over their shoulder.
That was firmly established just five minutes into the second half when City made it 3-1. Devitt broke free on the right and transferred the ball back to Rosenior, whose chip to the far post sailed over the keeper’s head, where Doncaster had rather unwisely left Fryatt largely unattended. He couldn’t and didn’t miss, the Tigers had scored three times at home for the first time this season, and it felt like a decisive moment.
More could have followed as Doncaster wilted. The lively Simpson had a shot well saved by Woods before a rare Rovers break saw Mannone called upon to beat a Gillett shot to safety. In fact, this saw a miniature burst of activity from the crestfallen visitors, as the shaky-looking City keeper intervened to keep Coppinger’s effort out. Maybe sensing the chance to get back into the game, Sean O’Driscoll brought on Euell for Oster. This resulted in Oster sulkily kicking the ball away, and he traipsed off to the delighted jeering of the Tiger Nation. Not quite in Adel Taarabt’s league, but the sort of thing you cringe at seeing your own players do. One imagines no City player would ever dare do it with Nigel Pearson to answer to.
The game was moving away from City a little at this stage – Doncaster weren’t threatening too often, though the comfortable control we’d previously seen had been loosened. Mannone saved from Hayter when it seemed likelier he’d score. Perhaps that miss was troubling him minutes later when he was cautioned for a foul on James Chester.
City had a great chance to make it 4-1 when a superb move involving Evans and Fryatt saw Koren divert the ball goalwards. It seemed sure to go in, but it struck Simpson almost on the goal-line and the ball rolled wide. Simpson didn’t appear to have made an attempt at knocking the ball in – rather, he looked offside and was trying to get out of the way.
Minutes later, Simpson was withdrawn to a great ovation and Aaron Mclean bounded onto the pitch. With the midfield having broken down almost completely the ball was bouncing from end to end in a way that’d have been quite alarming with just a one-goal lead. However, it did mean more chances to add a fourth arrived – Koren had a shot saved by Woods after wriggling free on the right, then an incisive move completely punctured the ailing Donny defence and send Fryatt free on the right. He could have shot for his hat-trick, but unselfishly swept the ball past the keeper to Mclean…who missed from two yards.
In his very limited defence the ball looked to have bobbled prior to striking his ankle, allowing Woods to get back and collect a ball he must have been expecting to retrieve from the goal. Such was the scale of this miss the crowd was stunned into silence. Mclean looked aghast.
Not a great deal happened after that. Many checked their phones for news from elsewhere, which was uniformly excellent, the departing Doncastrians were goaded, and when Mr Clattenburg (excellent) ended things, fists were shook, applause rained down from the stands and the results from elsewhere were cheered.
And why not? It’s on, more on than it’s ever been. For the first time this season, City’s long, slow ascent up the table has put us within a single set of results of the play-offs. The gap is only two points, or three if we accept that our goal difference is to remain inferior to our adversaries.
However, it’s nothing but positive at the moment. Nigel Pearson’s Tigers are remorselessly chasing down their prey. Forest have stumbled already and look ripe for a swift kill. Meanwhile, sixty miles west the stench of fear is unmistakeable. And we all remember what happened the last time City and Leeds were battling with each other at the end of a season…