DONCASTER Rovers may be down but they refuse to go quietly.
Dean Saunders men produced a spirited, dogged display to keep promotion-chasing Middlesbrough at bay. They came with a game plan to get men behind the ball and make life difficult for their more illustrious opponents and executed it to the letter, making Middlesbrough look extremely ordinary at times.
After four successive defeats, it was a welcome point for Rovers and gives them a platform to build on for next season.
With Habib Beye serving the first of a two-match suspension for his controversial sending off at home to Portsmouth, Saunders, looking to tighten up a defence which had not kept a clean sheet in 15 matches, handed starts to Shelton Martis, who had shaken off a calf problem, and Sam Hird. Giles Barnes dropped to the substitutes bench and was joined on it by youngster James Husband, with the left-back expected to play a major role in the 2012/13 campaign.
On loan Lorient winger Fabien Robert, who opened his Rovers account in the dramatic defeat to Portsmouth, was passed fit after recovering from a foot injury.
It took a vital interception from Adam Lockwood in the early skirmishes to prevent the hosts top-scorer Marvin Emnes from having a shot on goal after he had latched on to Julio Arca’s clever pass.
As expected, Hird operated just in front of the back four in a 4-1-4-1 formation as Saunders looked to rectify his leaky rearguard. He made one crunching sliding tackle on Emnes with five minutes on the clock and Rovers worked the ball wide, with James O’Connor putting in an inviting cross which Chris Brown headed over.
Rovers were given a scare in the 12th minute when Tony McMahon’s deep cross picked out Arca unmarked at the back post but the Argentine’s volley hit the post and bounced out for a goal kick.
Scotland international Barry Robson tried to orchestrate the midfield operation for Boro and his goal-bound effort in the 20th minute was superbly headed away by O’Connor. From the resulting corner, taken by Robson, Seb Hines’s header was acrobatically tipped over the bar by Gary Woods.
Moments later, Lukas Jutkiewicz raced on to Stephen McManus’s long punt and he shrugged off the attentions of Lockwood before firing tamely at Woods.
Rovers always offered a threat on the counter attack and had a strong penalty claim turned down just after the half hour mark. A smart turn from Brown saw him drift past Hines, who appeared to upend him in the area but the referee waved play on. On the touchline, Saunders was incensed by the decision and felt another call from a match official had gone against his side.
Growing in confidence and belief, the visitors came close to breaking the deadlock in the 39th minute when James Coppinger fed Simon Gillett on the edge of the area and the hard-working midfielder’s left foot piledriver was beaten away by Jason Steele.
Two minutes later, Emnes slid a pass to Jutkiewicz and the striker’s strike from distance was gathered by Woods at the second attempt.
Injury-prone Martis limped off five minutes into the second period after sustaining a knock in a challenge with McDonald, meaning Saunders gave Husband his first run-out of the season.
But before Rovers had re-organised their backline, Boro, who were booed off at half-time, should have taken the lead but McDonald nodded Justin Hoyte’s delivery off target.
Although Middlesbrough dominated possession, Tony Mowbray’s troops lacked a cutting edge in the final third, with Rovers stifling tactics keeping them at arm’s length. Rovers spurned a great chance to go in front in the 64th minute as John Oster cut inside from the left and unselfishly tried to release Brown when he should have shot, the move breaking down.
Mowbray threw on former Barnsley star Adam Hammill as Middlesbrough looked to up the tempo. Hammills corner was met by McMahon who directed his header into the arms of Woods.
Middlesbrough piled the pressure on in the latter stages and Jutkiewicz blazed over from an acute angle while Hammill had a drive charged down by George Friend. The fans vociferously appealed for a penalty for handball against Friend but the referee was unmoved.
But Rovers fought back and substitute Kyle Bennett jinked his way to the byline before sliding a pass into the path of Oster but his intricate chip barely stretched Steele.
In the dying minutes, Hammill saw his cross-cum-shot hit the crossbar, Curtis Main, the matchwinner against Derby County, fired narrowly wide and Jutkiewicz had a header brilliantly kept out by Woods as Rovers held on.
n BORO: Steele; McMahon, McManus, Hines, Hoyte; Bailey, Arca (Thomson 74), Robson (Main 62), Emnes (Hammill 62); McDonald, Jutkiewicz. Substitutes: Ogbeche, Smallwood.
n ROVERS: Woods; O’Connor, Martis (Husband 50), Lockwood, Friend; Coppinger, Oster, Hird, Gillett, Robert (Bennett 57), Brown. Substitutes: Hayter, Barnes, Dumbuya.
n Bookings: Rovers Bennett
n Referee: Darren Drysdale (Lincolnshire)
n Attendance: 14,967