Rochdale 2 Doncaster Rovers 2: Time for lady luck to shine on Rovers
It is hard not to think that the universe is against Doncaster Rovers.
Their most battling, full-blooded performance for some time was rewarded with only a single point after a third dose of late heartbreak in the last four games.
It was late devastation courtesy of a Rochdale equaliser seven minutes into five minutes added time, a period which also saw Craig Alcock controversially sent off for two bookable offences.
A Rovers side previously bereft of confidence had worked its collective socks off, controlled the game for much of the second half and were fully deserving of three points.
Instead they were left with a single point after another sledgehammer blow to the stomach. Ultimately, it was a result that did little to aid their survival attempt and was a 16th consecutive game without victory.
But the manner they went about their business at Spotland increased the belief they have the battling qualities needed to at least make a go of preserving League One status.
It was a performance that deserved three points. And it was a performance that needed to find three points at its conclusion.
Had that happened, Rovers would have something tangible to take into next weekend’s eminently winnable game at inconsistent Bury.
It would then have been easy to see validity in Darren Ferguson’s claims one win would reignite that spark that existed in his side before 2016 was rung in.
But the Rovers boss will today welcome his players back into training, attempt to pick them up off the floor again and convince them repeating the performance will reap greater reward over the next six games.
Thankfully, Ferguson does not have to start from close to scratch as he works towards his side’s next must-win clash.
Luke McCullough came back into the side following his international duty, deployed in a defensive midfield role as Ferguson opted to switch to a 4-4-2 diamond system.
McCullough was superb in the role and was a major reason behind Rochdale’s failure to dominate the midfield, which they hinted at early in the game.
Deep-lying midfielders Michael Rose and in particular skipper Jamie Allen were real live wires during the first half and sparked much of Rochdale’s swift attacking play.
But McCullough’s close attention on the attack-minded Callum Camps coupled wire tireless play from the rest of the Rovers midfield saw the hosts increasingly nullified as the game wore on.
Key to Rovers impressing was a remarkable work ethic. It started on the touchline with a manager who kicked every ball and seeped into every player in red and white hoops. They never stopped harassing and chasing, delivering a major morale-booster with six cup finals to come.
Rochdale started the brighter and should have been ahead early. Donal McDermott tested Remi Matthews early while Nathaniel Mendex-Laing rattled the post.
But Rovers wrestled their way into the game and Andy Williams could not have wished for two better chances to put them in front.
McCullough sent him one-on-one with a fine through ball but he was blocked off by the on-rushing Josh Lillis.
And again put through, Williams blasted his shot straight at the Rochdale keeper.
If ever a striker needed a goal by any means necessary, it is Williams.
It really did not look like being Rovers’ day when they fell behind just before the break courtesy of a piece of head-scratching goalkeeping from Remi Matthews.
He wandered way off his line as he anticipated Ashley Eastham’s free kick would bounce through to him, meaning the on-loan keeper could only watch in horror as Camps superbly brought down the ball and poked it into an empty net.
Rovers showed excellent resolve in the manner in which they dealt with the blow so late in the first half as they started the second period with real intent.
After seeing a Gary McSheffrey strike rightly ruled out for offside, they were soon level. McSheffrey got his corner into a dangerous position at the second attempt, sparking a goalmouth scramble which saw Mitchell Lund acrobatically force the ball home.
With the bit between their teeth, Rovers set about turning the game on its head. The momentum was with them and 11 minutes after the equaliser they were in front.
McSheffrey clipped a free kick into no man’s land between the last line of defence and the goalkeeper with Andy Butler smartly nipping in to lift the ball over Lillis’ head.
From there, Rovers looked rather comfortable in the battle on a firm Spotland surface. But the warning signs came as the half wore on.
Alcock received his first booking after clattering into substitute Peter Vincenti who saw yellow himself after landing heavily on the Rovers defender. In truth, referee Darren Bond seemed to have little idea over who was really at fault in the incident.
There was little doubt over Alcock’s second booking when he needlessly tripped Vincenti as the game entered injury time.
Even after dropping down to ten men, there seemed little threat to Rovers’ lead until the dying moments of the game.
Substitute Joe Bunney went close in a late scramble before Rochdale did deliver the knife into Rovers’ hearts with staff and supporters alike begging for the final whistle.
McDermott chipped in a cross, the ball was nodded down and Canavan hooked a shot home via a wicked bounce.
The final whistle saw each and every Rovers player drop to his knees as the devastation proved too much.
Yet, while their task just got a little harder, they proved there is still life in the downtrodden dog.
If only lady luck would come on side.
Rochdale: Lillis 7, Rafferty 6 (Lund 84), Eastham 7, Canavan 7, McNulty 6, Allen 8, Rose 7 (Bunney 71 6), McDermott 6, Camps 6, Mendez-Laing 6 (Vincenti 71), Holt 6. Subs not used: Collis, Lancashire, Cannon, Syers.
Rovers: Matthews 6, Lund 7 (Middleton 75 6), Alcock 6, Butler 7, Taylor-Sinclair 6, Coppinger 7, McCullough 8, Rowe 7, Calder 7 (Chaplow 74 6), McSheffrey 6 (Tyson 78), Williams 7. Subs not used: Stuckmann, Evina, Stewart, Mandeville.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire)