Doncaster Rovers 2, Barnsley 0
By Andrew Lodge
Having a small squad when you are playing two matches in three days is not usually regarded as a recipe for success. Especially when that squad is also right down to the bare bones because of injuries.
And so it proved for a below-par and bone-tired Barnsley at the Keepmoat Stadium on Monday.
Forty-eight hours earlier, a vibrant, hungry, fit-and-firing Oakwell outfit had put Leeds to the sword in scintillating style. On the same afternoon Doncaster received a walloping at Watford.
But when Rovers and the Reds met up it was a different story. Doncaster were able to make four changes and looked a much fresher and fitter team than Keith Hill’s leg-weary troops.
The saying goes, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. Not here there wasn’t.
You could not point the finger and say that Barnsley lacked commitment or willingness, but they simply didn’t have the energy required to combat a determined Doncaster side, who duly hauled themselves off the bottom of the Championship with a worthy win.
Barnsley slipped three places to 16th, but, in terms of points, they still remain closer to the play-off places than the bottom three. It is still a half-pint full scenario rather than half-empty.
But because of injuries to Danny Drinkwater, Nile Ranger, Jacob Butterfield and Jim O’Brien – and the fact that Danny Haynes is so clearly out-of-favour – Hill’s hands were tied when it came to choosing a team to tackle their neighbours. Sixteen-years-old Academy ace Paul Digby, with one senior substitute appearance to his name, was on the bench.
Hill made just one change to the team that had started against Leeds, hat-trick hero Ricardo Vaz Te replacing the injured Butterfield, but Barnsley were second best in most departments, which was disappointing for a terrific away following of 3,094.
After being so mercurial against Leeds, Vaz Te was peripheral here. Craig Davies was poor up front. David Perkins and Miles Addison, re-signed on an emergency 28-day loan from Derby in time to play, were bossed by their Doncaster counterparts Brian Stock and Simon Gillett. The latter pair had been anonymous in November’s meeting at Oakwell and were out to make amends.
The Reds badly missed Butterfield’s ability to ‘pick a pass’.
Only the excellence of Luke Steele, and the encouraging second half performance of substitute Reuben Noble-Lazarus, lifted Barnsley spirits.
Hill will be looking to rmake new signings in time for the FA Cup clash with Swansea – and to perhaps give some of the players a breather.
Tactically he made a number of switches as the match wore on, and in the closing stages had four attacking players strung out across the pitch, but it was the low energy levels that proved to be his side’s undoing. That and the home team’s high pressing game, particularly in the first half, which saw them gain the initiative and never really let it go.
Doncaster started brightly, and only a superb stop by Steele, with his legs, prevented the £2.5m-rated Billy Sharp from putting the hosts ahead as early as the third minute. The resulting corner from the outstanding Stock then clipped the top of the Barnsley bar.
Rovers did receive a blow on nine minutes, when defender George Friend limped off with ligament damage, but substitute Adam Lockwood slipped seamlessly into the back four.
With Davies struggling to impose himself up front for the Reds – indeed both he and Vaz Te had the annoying habit of shooting from everywhere and anywhere when team-mates were better placed – the visitors were on the back foot, and when they switched off in the 14th minute, following a free-kick deep inside the Doncaster half, they were duly punished.
Stock’s quick-thinking, and accurate ball down the line, saw Sharp escape the attentions of both Stephen Foster and Jimmy McNulty. The nippy little striker burst to the Barnsley byline and beautifully pulled the ball back for his striking sidekick James Hayter to sweep home superbly from 12 yards.
The Reds attempted to shake off their lethargy, and Vaz Te did bring a low save from Doncaster’s debutant ‘keeper David Button, before Davies, leaning back, blasted high over the top from just inside the penalty area.
Stock was yellow-carded by Northumberland referee Michael Oliver for a lunge at Vaz Te, but the Portuguese player dusted himself down to have Barnsley’s next two efforts at goal.
First he produced an acrobatic, well-timed volley that flew just over the top, but it was his second shot, 10 minutes before the break, that should have levelled things up. Yes, Vaz Te had to stretch to reach Matty Done’s pass, but he still should have got the effort on target. Instead his shot flashed inches wide of Button’s right-hand upright.
On the stroke of half-time only a terrific save from Steele prevented Simon Gillett from putting Rovers two-up. Had that gone in then the contest would have been over there and then.
As it was Hill made a surprising tactical change for the start of the second period. He brought Scott Wiseman over to the left of midfield, put Done wide on the right, and asked Vaz Te to operate just behind Davies.
Yet in the 53rd minute the Reds chief decided to send on Noble-Lazarus for Done – and the Barnsley teenager, making his first appearance since August because of a troublesome ankle injury, certainly caught the eye with his direct running.
However, Doncaster remained an attacking threat, and only another top class save from Steele prevented the lively Kyle Bennett from finding the back of the net from 22 yards.
Wiseman, despite being asked to play wide left, then popped up on the opposite flank to make a wonderful run to the byline. His cross, sent into the heart of the six-yard box, just asked to be knocked in, but Davies was back on his heels and Vaz Te could not get up in time.
The game became more open, free-flowing and entertaining as the half wore on.
Andy Gray was introduced at the expense of Addison, and Hill changed things again; moving Bobby Hassell into central midfield slongside David Perkins; putting Wiseman at right-back; asking Vaz Te to play wide on the left, with Noble-Lazarus on the right; and pairing Gray and Davies up front.
It was a positive move, in an attempt to salvage something from the game, and Noble-Lazarus was not far away with a 20 yard daisy-cutter, while a Vaz Te shot flashed just wide, Davies was not too far away with a curling 25 yard free-kick, and then Button saved superbly from Wiseman.
At the other end Steele saved twice in quick succession from Bennett, and then thwarted James Coppinger.
But time was ticking away, and Barnsley’s frustrations grew, especially among the away fans banked behind the goal their team was attacking. When Jay McEveley sent a corner straight out of play the 3,000-plus Reds’ faithful groaned as one!
And Doncaster duly put the game to bed in the dying moments.
Steele had just denied Coppinger with a world class save but in the 89th minute he could do little with a beauty from Bennett which curled into the far corner.
Barnsley have now gone 12 years without a win on New Year’s Day.
But more importantly, in the here and now, they have now gone eight matches without a clean sheet. And as Hill regularly points out, ‘clean sheets are king’.
Doncaster Rovers (4-4-2): Button; Hird, Friend (Lockwood, nine minutes), Illunga; Coppinger, Gillett, Stock, Bennett; Sharp, Hayter. Unused substitutes: Woods, Dumbuya, Barnes, Diatta. Shots on target: 10. Shots off target: 4. Corners: 8. Bookings: Stock, Lockwood. Goals: Hayter (14 mins), Bennett (89 mins).
Barnsley (4-2-3-1): Steele (mark out of 10: 9); Hassell 7, Foster 6, McNulty 6, McEveley 6; Addison 6 (Gray, 65 mins 7), Perkins 6; Wiseman 6, Done 6 (Noble-Lazarus, 53 mins 8), Vaz Te 6; Davies 5. Unused substitutes: Preece, Edwards, Digby. Shots on target: 7. Shots off target: 7. Corners: 6. Booking: Addison.
Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).
Attendance: 11,446 (3,094 from Barnsley).
Barnsley’s man of the match: Luke Steele.