DONCASTER Rovers have every reason to head into 2013 with a new sense of hope and optimism - but there was a feeling of deja-vu as the Blades battled to back to steal a point at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Two years ago, almost to the day, these sides drew 2-2 at Bramall Lane after Doncaster led 2-0. And history repeated itself in the cruellest way imaginable for a Rovers side who deserved more from a controversial derby clash.
For it was Dave Kitson, public enemy number one at the Keepmoat for his ‘handball’ goal for Portsmouth that effectively relegated Rovers in April, who rescued an unlikely draw for the Blades with another last gasp strike.
Billy Paynter, who was later sent off, and David Syers had given Rovers a comfortable lead for which they were full value.
But the game turned in the final ten minutes as Nick Blackman halved the deficit with a penalty, Paytner was then dismissed for an off-the-ball clash with Tony McMahon, before Kitson rifled home a dramatic leveller.
Kitson’s last appearance at the Keepmoat had Rovers chairman John Ryan raging about the need for technology in the game.
And this intense derby clash thrust yet more question marks on the officials after referee David Coote chose to send off Paynter moments before Kitson pounced.
Blades keeper George Long, however, escaped with a yellow card despite being the last man when he brought down Syers, allowing Paynter to open the scoring from the spot. Saunders was positive in his team selection as he preferred the more forward-thinking Syers in midfield to anchorman James Harper, while Iain Hume returned up front to partner Billy Paynter.
It was a selection that paid instant dividends as Syers showed his willingness to get forward by breaking beyond the strikers and latching onto Hume’s clever ball over the top before being clattered by the onrushing Long.
Referee Coote had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, the only issue up for debate was whether Long’s foul deserved more than the yellow card that was brandished.
Paynter kept his cool to score the resultant penalty in front of the massed banks of travelling Blades fans, sending Long the wrong way, and the goal led to Rovers’ best spell of an otherwise timid first half.
Jamie McCombe and Hume both saw shots blocked when the Blades’ reshuffled defence failed to clear Cotterill’s free kick from out wide.
Cotterill’s set pieces were proving to be a thorn in United’s side, another delicious in-swinging delivery had to be diverted wide of the post by Matt Hill.
Hill was then booked for wrestling Rob Jones to the ground, trying to prevent the former Wednesday defender from making a late run at another Cotterill corner. Jones’ angry reaction to Hill’s hands-on marking also earned him a booking.
Rovers were linking play in the final third better than their rivals as Paynter, with Hume buzzing around him, made the ball stick more than United’s lone striker Kitson.
But the best chances of a fairly tame first half came from set pieces at both ends.
Blades’ only attempt on goal, in fact, came from Tony McMahon’s curling free kick, which had to be smartly tipped over the bar by a confident Gary Woods.
Things looked like opening up after the break when, immediately from the kick off, Hume was given the freedom of the Keepmoat and rattled the post from 20 yards, while Cotterill’s follow-up effort was saved by Long.
Long then had to deny Hume from point blank range when Bennett’s centre reached the hard-working forward at the back post. Rovers were not to be denied a second, however, and it was no surprise that it came from a Cotterill set piece.
This time the Welshman sent in another inch perfect in-swinging cross which was glanced into the net by Syers.
While the hosts were galvanised, there was no hint of the comeback that was about to stun the Keepmoat.
But United were granted a way back into the game when Griffin was adjudged to have fouled Joe Ironside and Blackman held his nerve from the spot.
Paynter was then dismissed for allegedly kicking out at McMahon after the ball had gone - and the momentum of the game suddenly swung in favour of the visitors. And in a horrible flashback to the moment Kitson found the net in April, the same striker again found himself in the right place at the right time as the ball bobbled around the Rovers area, Hill struck the post with a left footed drive before Kitson lashed home.
* ROVERS: Woods 7, Quinn 7 (Griffin 65, 6), McCombe 6, Jones 7, Spurr 6, Cotterill 7, Keegan 6, Syers 8, Bennett 7 (Coppinger 77, 6), Hume 7 (Martis 83, 5), Paynter 7. Not used: Maxted, Husband, Ball, Martis, Harper.
* UNITED: Long 8, McMahon 6, Kennedy 6, Higginbotham 6, Hill 7, Blackman 6, McDonald 6, Doyle 6, Whitehouse 6 (Cofie 53, 6), Flynn 6 (Ironside 74, 6), Kitson 7. Not used: Westlake, McAllister, Cresswell, Williams, Coyne.
* Yellow cards: Rovers: Jones. United: Whitehouse, Hill, Long, Kitson.
* Red cards: Paynter
Referee David Coote. His decision to award the Blades a penalty and send off Billy Paynter, while not sending off George Long, had Dean Saunders raging and blaming the official for two points dropped - two points that could prove costly at the end of the season. However, United will have been happy with the helping hand.
The way this game mirrored the one at the Lane in January 2011 is spooky to say the least. But Rovers again showed during this hard fought derby that they have more than enough about them to bounce back and not let it affect their push for promotion.
ROVERS NEXT 4:
05.01.13 Colchester (H)
12.01.13 Stevenage (A)
19.01.13 Leyton Orient (H)
26.01.13 MK Dons (H)
BLADES NEXT 4:
05.01.13 Oxford FAC3 (H)
12.01.13 Yeovil (H)
19.01.13 Notts County (A)
22.01.13 Bury (A)