DONCASTER Rovers’ hopes of completing their first double of the season were dashed as their mini-revival came to a grinding halt in their last Championship game of the season against Ipswich Town at the Keepmoat Stadium.
After picking up four points from their last two games, and keeping back-to-back clean sheets in the process, hopes had been high in the Rovers’ camp that they could go out on a high and provide hope of better things to come in League One next season.
But it didn’t work out that way as Ipswich won on the road for the first time in over two months to put paid to any prospect of their lowest finish in the Football League for over 50 years.
Rovers’ performance highlighted the some of the reasons why they have spent most of the season in the bottom three prior to their relegation being confirmed a fortnight earlier.
Their short-comings were not lost on manager Dean Saunders as he embarks on the job of rebuilding a side capable of making an impact in League One next season.
“I thought we got bullied a little bit,” he said. “They were a big strong team and most of their players were over six foot.
“I know what is needed; I’ve watched the players in training every day (as well as in games).
“You’ve got to have players with a bit of steel and a bit of (controlled) aggression.
“I’ve got to sign four or five players so that if our football is not working for us, we don’t get bullied and we can compete (physically) with anybody and (like today) when the wind is blowing the wrong way and the pitch is bad, we can still win.
“At the moment, unless our football is running perfect, we are losing too many challenges all across the pitch.”
Saunders stressed, however, that he isn’t looking to build a ‘route one side’ and that he still wants Rovers to play football.
Rovers started brightly with James Coppinger, thought to be a possible target for the Portman Road side during the close season, shooting just wide.
Coppinger and young Frenchman Fabien Robert proved to be Rovers’ best attacking threat throughout the game.
Ipswich soon got into their stride, however, and started to dominate in midfield.
Paul Jewell’s men forced a succession of corners and took a deserved lead on 10 minutes when defender Tommy Smith headed home from one.
Smith was denied by the crossbar from another corner three minutes later.
With Rovers, who were playing into the blustery wind, struggling to keep hold of the ball at times on a lively pitch, the visitors continued to make the running and keeper Gary Woods was kept busy.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, however, and lone striker James Hayter fluffed a chance to level the scores on 21 minutes - volleying over after good work by Coppinger and Robert in the build-up.
Town continued to take advantage of the following wind to launch a series of long-range shots on goal, and it was from one such effort that they doubled their lead on with an angled 25-yard strike by midfielder Ryan Stevenson which, the assistant referee on the West Stand side adjudged had crossed the line after hitting the underside of the crossbar.
Rovers hauled themselves back into the game on 34 minutes.
Ever-present midfielder Simon Gillett, who had taken time to get into the game, picked out Robert in the box with a left-wing cross and he calmly placed his shot wide of keeper Arran Lee-Barrett for his second goal in Doncaster colours.
Having been second best for long periods of the first half, Rovers could consider themselves fortunate to still be in contention at half-time.
Ipswich boss Paul Jewell certainly thought so.
“I was annoyed because 2-0 up we should have been out of sight,” he claimed. “We had chances to go three or four up before they scored. You’ve got to kill teams off.”
Jewell would have been even more frustrated had Habib Beye’s close-range shot from Coppinger’s 47th minute free-kick squeezed inside the left-hand post instead of just by it.
Hayter at his best would have at least hit the target instead of putting the ball wide of the far post from Robert’s cross.
The result remained in the balance until Beye brought down substitute Jason Scotland inside the box on 78 minutes.
Unlike the penalty he conceded in the last home game against Portsmouth, which only the referee thought was one, the centre-back could have no complaints.
You could understand Saunders’ frustration on the touchline, for there was no need to try and stop the big striker - who drilled the resulting spot kick past Woods - because there were several other defenders well placed to stop Scotland.
There never looked any way back for Rovers after that and Beye’s 91st minute goal - a neat finish from Coppinger’s free-kick - came too late to affect the result and Town held on to claim their first win in six games.