THE look of dejection on the faces of the Doncaster Rovers’ players as they walked off the pitch at the Modjeska Stadium said it all.
The game had undoubtedly been a low point for a number of Sean O’Driscoll’s men judging by their body language as the final whistle blew.
There had been genuine optimism in the Rovers’ camp going into the game against fellow strugglers Reading that they could record their first league win of the season or at worst avoid coming away empty handed.
Reading may have been unlucky to lose out to Swansea in last season’s Promotion Play-Off final, but their form of recent weeks had left a lot to be desired and their 2-0 defeat against Watford last time out was their fourth in as many games.
The Royals had only scored one goal, and that from a penalty, since selling last season’s top scorer Shane Long to Premier Division West Bromwich Albion for £7.5m last month.
They hadn’t even managed a shot on target in the game against the Hornets so there were grounds for Rovers’ optimism.
O’Driscoll had given the players more of an input during the build-up in a bid to check Rovers’ slide. He also made several changes to the side beaten 2-0 at Cardiff.
Centre-back Shelton Martis came in for his first game since an ankle operation in the summer and did as well as could be expected in the circumstances until tiring in the final quarter.
Veteran keeper Neil Sullivan came in for 20 year-old Gary Woods for the first time this season and did enough to justify his place on the day.
O’Driscoll’s decision to revert to a flat back four resulted in James O’Connor getting the nod over Mustapha Dumbuya, who had shown some good touches operating as a wing-back at Cardiff.
Brian Stock made a welcome return off the bench in the second half.
It was good to see the injury-plagued Rovers’ star back in league action for the first time since a second ankle reconstruction at the end of last season, though like Martis, and to a lesser extent, O’Connor, he will need several games to get up to speed before beginning to exert his influence.
Several Reading players had gone on record during the week calling for the side to rally round and the spirit in the Royals’ camp was there for all to see in the opening minutes as they forced Rovers on to the back foot.
But for a fine save by Sullivan, at the expense of a corner, Jimmy Kebe would have given Reading an early lead with a header from Simon Church’s cross.
Church then picked out fellow striker Noel Hunt at the far post but O’Connor’s pressure resulted in him heading wide.
Reading continued to look the more dangerous side going forward, but with centre-back George Friend, in particular, getting through a lot of work, they were restricted to just a couple more chances.
Sullivan made a routine save to smother an angled shot by Church and Mikele Leigertwood shooting just wide of the far post. Church was denied by a superb block on the stroke of half-time.
Rovers came more into the game as the half wore on but Reading keeper Adam, Frederici was never unduly troubled.
The home side broke the deadlock in controversial circumstances on 52 minutes.
Skipper Jobi McAnuff lobbed the ball into the box from just inside the Doncaster half and Sullivan failed to hold the bouncing ball under pressure from Adam le Fondre and Church went on to net after Friend’s attempted clearance had struck him.
There was some debate after the game in the Rovers’ camp as to whether Sullivan had been fouled, though there were no real protests at the time of the goal.
Former Millers’ favourite le Fondre, who had been relegated to the bench following a less than impressive debut against Watford, boosted his hopes of regaining his place in the starting line-up when heading the Royals into a 2-0 lead from full-back Joe Mills’ curling left-wing cross.
Mills spent much of last season on loan at Rovers and still takes a keen interest in their affairs.
“It’s a different team to when I was there last season.” he said, “Rovers have still got a lot of players out, Billy Sharp being one.
“When you’ve got the likes Billy out you are obviously going to miss him.
“I just think that they are in a sticky period at the moment but when they get all their players back then they’ll have a lot of competition for places, like we have here, and that drives everybody on and make them play better.
“Today was a bottom-of-the-table clash and I know our camp treated it as a massive game.”
To Rovers’ credit, they didn’t let their heads go down after Reading’s second goal. Indeed, they played their best football of the games in the last 20 minutes or so with former Reading favourite John Oster becoming more prominent and James Coppinger proving a bit of a handful for the Reading defence.
Coppinger shot just wide and also clipped the outside of the post, both from outside the box, O’Connor shot over when well placed.
“It was very disappointing; we didn’t really create anything until they went 2-0 up,” said Coppinger.
“You could tell in the first half that both teams have been struggling and it wasn’t a pretty game. They were at home and had the impetus and had the better of the chances.
“We weathered the storm but came out and gave a soft goal away early in the second half.
“The first goal is always crucial, especially when you are not scoring many goals.”
The No2’s View
I DIDN’T think that we played as well as we could do, but it was a battling performance.
I thought that we did well to get to half-time with the score still 0-0.
I would imagine that we were more happy than them with the score at half-time.