Rovers match report: Doncaster Rovers 0 Notts County 1

Rovers' James Coppinger in action against Notts County.
Rovers' James Coppinger in action against Notts County.
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Fine margins. They’re going to end up making a very big difference in the League One promotion race.

Doncaster have played poorly and nicked a win on several occasions this season.

That would have done very nicely indeed on Saturday. Instead, Rovers just played poorly, left to wonder what might have been.

If only they had ground out another three points somewhere along the line.

But for Joss Labadie’s stunning first half free kick - or the missed chances that went begging at the other end - Rovers might now be celebrating promotion to the Championship.

Maybe, just maybe, it is more fitting for the team with the best away record in England to seal the deal away from the Keepmoat Stadium.

Ifs, buts and maybes.

That just about sums up the last week or so at Rovers. You’ve needed a degree in maths just to get your head round one all the permutations in one of the closest ever promotion races.

The calculators can be put away now. It all boils down to an end of season cup final at Brentford. Winner takes all.

And Rovers can’t afford to dwell on an edgy and disjointed display against the Magpies, one that typified their less than perfect home record.

Just like Carlisle did a fortnight ago, the visitors played with freedom and without pressure.

For Doncaster the complete opposite was true. And it was evident almost from start to finish on a thoroughly frustrating afternoon.

Whether it was down to stage fright, in front of an expectant and vocal 12,000-plus crowd, anxiety, nerves, or something else, the simple fact of the matter is that Rovers did not play well on their big day.

In fact, Brian Flynn later admitted his side had saved their worst performance of his reign for arguably the most important 45 minutes of his tenure.

Rovers were off the pace and generally off colour during a very disappointing first half, and they were made to pay for it too.

Make no bones about it either, if Rovers show the same hesitancy on the ball or lack of conviction in the final third at Brentford on Saturday, they will find themselves in the position that no one wants to be in - as that third-placed team who have dropped into the play-offs rather than heading off on their summer holidays.

From the outset Rovers looked like a team with a big weight on their shoulders.

Passes went astray, first touches went where they were not intended to go and there was little sign of a composed final ball from the home side all afternoon long. Too many times Rovers were happy to hump it anywhere.

County took full advantage. Indeed there were signs that Chris Kiwomya’s side were not about to roll out the red carpet for Rovers during the initial exchanges.

Jamal Campbell-Ryce, up against an unusually tentative Tommy Spurr, had some joy down the right in the first few minutes. Dean Leacock then prodded a chance just over the bar from a corner. Doncaster just could not settle and on 14 minutes they were behind and with it all to do.

There had been warning signs, but there was no predicting the sheer quality of the strike that would ultimately prove decisive.

It was a moment of brilliant precision and technique that was totally out of character with the rest of the game.

Rob Jones upended Alan Judge with a late challenge and it proved to be a costly foul; Judge tapping the resultant free kick to his right for Labadie to strike a sensational effort into the top corner flush from 30 yards.

Previously far from at ease, the goal rocked Rovers even more so. Their noisy supporters were temporarily muted.

To Doncaster’s credit they responded to the setback in the best possible way and, as the half wore on, put Fabian Spiess in the Notts County goal under more pressure.

In fact Rovers soon had the ball in the net. James Coppinger’s inswinging cross from the left was headed back across the face by Billy Paynter but Dean Furman, who nodded it past Spiess, was adjudged to be offside. Fine margins again.

Coppinger, who tried his best to be the missing creative spark, saw a shot blocked after a neat one two with Paynter on the edge of the box.

He then saw a close range effort cleared off the line, Chris Brown’s header from the rebound was saved, while Spiess also had to be alert to tip over John Lundstram’s powerful half volley.

Rovers had improved but they still lacked any sort of control against a free spirited County and flattered to deceive in the final third. They simply had to improve after the break.

They did, and Paynter should have done better within minutes of the restart when he got on the end of Coppinger’s clever hooked cross but headed over with the goal at his mercy.

The two-goal hero at Crewe later saw an effort cleared off the line after he rounded Spiess, while substitute Iain Hume went close with a drilled volley across the face of goal.

When Jones, a late emergency striker, headed James Husband’s cross the wrong side of the post in stoppage time you knew Doncaster’s game was up. Thankfully their promotion fate still rests very much in their own hands.

It could yet come down to one goal, one mistake, or one moment of brilliance at Brentford next weekend. Fine margins indeed.