Doncaster Rovers show they are alive and well with stunning win at Sunderland
As they trudged off the field on Tuesday night to a chorus of boos from those supporters hardy enough to have remained to the final whistle of a 5-0 mauling against their neighbours, all certainly looked lost.
The most soul-sapping, confidence-depleting defeat of the season looked to have marked the start of the last rites being read on their League One status.
But four days on, they picked themselves up off the floor to deliver an incredible performance packed with determination, energy and quality when it mattered the most and spoil an occasion for celebration for Sunderland.
From the campaign’s darkest day, they recovered so spectacularly to show that hope most definitely remains for Doncaster Rovers.
After a tricky opening quarter hour when the hosts looked to have locked in a stranglehold on the game, Rovers were vibrant, confident, relentless and steadfast as they went on to pick up a historic first league win over the Black Cats.
Undoubtedly there was some luck involved. It certainly appeared that a Ross Stewart header in the second half crossed the line despite Jonathan Mitchell’s best efforts to keep it out.
But if ever there was an occasion to bring out the old adage that you make your own luck, this was it.
In the second half in particular, they defended in the same lion-hearted manner that took them to victory at MK Dons two weeks prior. They threw themselves in front of everything and cut out plenty before the danger had even surfaced.
More than a few bodies may have looked tired by the time the final whistle sounded but the performance of the group was tireless in its spirit.
There was no luck however in the fact Rovers found themselves two goals up at half time.
Sunderland had found plenty of success down the Rovers right without really threatening in front of goal - barring a free header which the division’s top scorer Stewart planted wide.
After those early stages, Rovers quickly began to look like the more dangerous side.
It was down to hard work and smarts in the middle of the park, with Matt Smith and Tommy Rowe pressing hard and cutting out passes to get them on the front foot and Josh Martin showing sublime touches and brilliant feet to bring his fellow attackers into play.
Reo Griffiths was the main target, with the spaces he found on the left making him a constant outball and his pace and physicality seeing him seriously trouble his markers.
But there was no one close to him when he raced forward to meet Martin’s stunning ball over the top and lash home a shot with his wrong foot to put Rovers ahead on 22 minutes.
Rovers have not had a forward demonstrate such confidence and quality in front of goal so far this season. In Griffiths, they have a striker with potential to be a gamechanger for this season and beyond.
The Stadium of Light was packed on the afternoon, with almost 40,000 in the stands there to welcome home striker Jermain Defoe, who returned to the club on deadline day.
Having grown frustrated at the changing tide in the game, Sunderland supporters were furious when Griffiths’ shot hit the back of the net.
Their afternoon would get a whole lot more frustrating.
Charlie Seaman struck the post with a 20 yard effort. And just when you thought Rovers may be failing to make their pressure count, the second goal came.
A cleared corner was recycled back into the box by an Ollie Younger header and flicked on by Joseph Olowu for Tommy Rowe to smash a shot high into the goal.
Rowe was peerless on the afternoon, always threatening, always recovering to aid the defensive effort. The stand-in skipper is so incredibly valuable to the Rovers cause.
Coming in first half stoppage time, Rowe’s goal ensured the hosts left the pitch at the break to a chorus of boos from an expectant support.
No one had expected what they had witnessed.
A rally from Sunderland was fully expected after the break and it came - without the unrelenting, backs to the wall pressure it may have brought.
Serious questions were emphatically answered by the Rovers collective but more so by individuals who have come under realy scrutiny.
Mitchell’s debut between the posts against Rotherham was not a good one, with costly mistakes helping to add to the weight of the defeat.
But he was superb in making a second impression, with some excellent stops among a performance where his attention and alertness never waivered.
And Ro-Shaun Williams, who quickly fell into whipping boy status among a section of the support, delivered what was head and shoulders his best performance in a Rovers shirt.
The centre back kept things simple with headers and clearances all afternoon, getting on the end of things to snuff out the danger. His confidence on the day was typified with a barnstorming run out of defence in the second half - though his heavy-legged return to his natural positions afterwards offered the reminder that he has barely kicked a ball in the last three months.
Rovers as a defensive unit combined to keep Sunderland at bay, even after Defoe’s introduction for the final 18 minutes - an event which had hung over everyone all afternoon.
Barring Stewart’s controversial header and Elliot Embleton striking the post with a shot from distance, the Black Cat’s threat did not amount to too much.
That was until Stewart bundled in a rebound after an unsighted Mitchell had pushed away a bobbling shot from Alex Pritchard with a minute of normal time to go.
Rovers held firm in the minutes that followed, securing a win that brought them back to eight points from safety and did a whole lot more for the collective confidence.
In beating Sunderland at the Stadium of Light they produced a result that will have busted plenty of coupons and popped any notions among their relegation rivals that there are only three of four relegation places to be worried about falling into.
And anyone who witnessed the performance will have no doubts that Rovers are alive and well in this survival fight.