It certainly couldn’t be classed as a return to the scene of the crime, new stadium as the venue and all that, but for those of us who remember only too well that depressing, humiliating, still all too recent League Cup reversal at the hands of Doncaster Rovers Football Club, and the long drive home afterwards, filled with miles spent questioning and debating where, how, and why it had all gone wrong for David O’Learys troops, there were certainly a few nervy looks as we climbed into the car to head off to South Yorkshire and The Keepmoat Stadium on Saturday morning.
Surprisingly, we all seemed pretty confident of a successful outcome though, or so we claimed, three of us predicting victory, while the fourth, normally the most confident of the bunch, went for the draw and a Villa Park replay. All that matters is that we’re in the draw for the fifth round we all agreed, and taking our recent form as a guideline, that was surely well within our capabilities.
Arriving at The Keepmoat Stadium, a much more spectator friendly looking structure than its predecessor Belle Vue, we learned that Martin had named a pretty decent looking starting line-up, and we were all pleased and somewhat relieved to hear that, believing that we would underestimate todays opponents only at our peril.
With the exception of our collection of players injured or suspended, plus of course new signing Emile Heskey, Mart fielded arguably our strongest possible line-up:-
Friedel, Davies, Cuellar, Knight, Shorey, Reo-Coker (Gardner 69min), Sidwell, Petrov, Barry, Milner, Agbonlahor.
Gabby fired wastefully wide early on, when a mix-up in the home defence gave him a reasonable opportunity, then Rovers themselves missed a glorious opening, Roberts shooting wide with the goal at his mercy.
The uneven, muddy surface certainly didn’t suit either side, but even allowing for that, we didn’t look anything like a premiership team with serious aspirations of landing a top four finish, and in the first half we only managed to create one more decent opportunity, the veteran keeper Sullivan coming up with a fine reaction save to deny Gabby from close range, while Woods struck the bar from 20 yards with a left footed shot, after a poor Cuellar back-pass had put unnecessary pressure on Brad to hoof the ball clear.
Throughout the opening forty-five minutes we had really struggled to find any rhythm or tempo, and our below par performance had allowed Rovers to grow in stature as the half wore on.
It was around the hour mark that we started to get our act together, and for the first time in the game, it looked as if we were actually capable of taking control.
Sullivan became the Rovers hero as he denied James Milner twice within a matter of minutes, and then superbly tipped away Zat Knights downward header, a header that had ‘goal’ written all over it.
Both Stevie Sidwell and James Milner had opportunities to at least test Sullivan, but put their headers wide, and then Gabby was sent clear yet scooped his effort onto the bar with the traveling faithfull behind the goal expecting to burst into celebration.
It looked like it was just one of those days, but with the game heading for a Villa Park replay, the home lot came so close to breaking the deadlock and creating the upset of the round.
Woods struck the left-hand post with a curling 25-yard free-kick, that had Brad Friedel completely beaten all ends up.
A collective huge sigh of relief from the visiting Villans. That was mighty close.
So, we’re back to Villa Park, to do it all over again. Doncaster probably deserved their replay, although they, like us, could no doubt have done without the extra game.
Right, my marks out of ten:-
Friedel – 6
Cuellar – 5
Davies – 6
Knight – 6
Shorey – 6
Reo-Coker – 7
Petrov – 7
Sidwell – 5
Barry – 6
Milner – 6
Gabby – 6
Gardner – 5
On for NRC – 70 mins.