Doncaster Rovers 1, Bristol Rovers 3: Rovers' frailties exposed as eight-match unbeaten run ends and injury crisis worsens
Darren Ferguson's rueful shake of his head as Joe Wright disappeared down the tunnel pretty much said it all.
For the third successive game Rovers had lost a key centre back to injury and on this occasion their impressive eight match unbeaten run went too.
Attack actually proved to be the best form of defence for Ferguson’s men but, not for the first time this season, missed chances cost them dearly.
And despite the best efforts of a patched up back five - including three centre backs more accustomed to playing at full back - they succumbed to an in-form Bristol Rovers team who rather expertly exposed Doncaster’s worrying injury situation.
Wright’s fractured ribs, which forced him off after 20 minutes, changed the entire course of the game and visibly unsettled the home side.
Craig Alcock, making only his second league start of the season, Niall Mason and Tyler Garratt all tried their best in difficult circumstances.
But Rovers’ defensive frailty was staring everyone in the face and the thought of failing to bring in preferably a tall, experienced centre back before Wednesday’s transfer deadline is enough to send a shiver down the spine.
With Wright on the pitch you would have backed Rovers to finish the job after taking a fourth minute lead through John Marquis, the striker’s first goal in 12 games.
Without him they gave it a good shot and mustered enough chances to at least claim a point, the most gilt-edged falling to Matty Blair when he failed to convert from a few yards out with the goal at his mercy.
But they always looked susceptible at the back and the Pirates took full advantage.
When Rovers analyse the goals they conceded at Cantley Park today it will make awkward viewing for their makeshift back three.
It was a rather hacked clearance from Alcock which led to the first. The ball fell kindly for Chris Lines, whose cross was nodded back across goal by Liam Sercombe to leave Ryan Sweeney with the easiest of tap-ins.
To single out Alcock, though, would be harsh. Rovers were all at sea as a defensive unit from the moment Wright went off.
They recovered and ended the first period well on top but started the second half in sloppy fashion.
Another high ball into the box wasn’t dealt with by Mason and Rory Gaffney got in between two centre halves to put the Pirates ahead.
From that moment the visitors were content to sit back and soak up the waves of Doncaster possession.
They rode their luck as Blair missed a sitter and referee Darren Bond waved away no fewer than four penalty appeals before ruthlessly finishing the game as a contest on the counter attack.
It was a mistake by Alcock on half way which allowed Ellis Harrison to break quickly and plant a low shot past Lawlor. Game over. There was Ferguson’s case for at least one loanee centre back, if not two.
FERGIE PRAISES PERFORMANCE
Ferguson refused to be critical of his players after the game.
He told the local media: “It was a poor result obviously, but not performance.
“I thought some of our play was outstanding and brave.
“We took the ball in tight areas and played the way I wanted the team to play and passed them off the pitch at times.
“We had so many chances and a lot of shots on goal.
“The pivotal moment was when Blairy missed at 2-1. If we go 2-2 then you fancy us to go on and win it.
“Another pivotal moment was the third goal. The lad [Harrison] should not be on the pitch, it should be a red card, the tackle is awful, Craig [Alcock] has a six-inch gash just below his knee. It’s an awful decision.
“We started the game well, went to three at the back and exposed weaknesses in their team. It was great for John to get a goal.
“Joe Wright going off affected us for fifteen minutes. That was their best period. They changed their shape and just thought ‘get the ball in the box’ against the three smallest centre halves you’ll probably see in any league.
“Obviously they scored from one of those balls in the box and scored from another one for the second goal which we should’ve defended better.
“After that we got well on top and did a lot of stuff which was really good.
“I was pleased with the players and not disappointed with the performance.”
tough month ahead
If your glass is half full right now you’re looking at a Rovers team lacking absolutely nothing in spirit and not in the habit of losing games.
If your glass is half empty you’re seeing an injury-ravaged side that have now not won in six games.
A tricky looking February fixture list, including games against play-off challengers Portsmouth, Charlton Athletic and Rotherham United, only highlights the need for swift and decisive action in the transfer window.