Doncaster Rovers did not need any extra incentive to go and win League Two but they certainly have it now.
After Plymouth Argyle waved their Indian sign over Doncaster at the Keepmoat Stadium yesterday, closing the gap at the summit to three points and ending Rovers’ proud unbeaten home record in the process, Darren Ferguson’s men will be desperate not to now also surrender top spot to the Pilgrims.
Rovers felt they deserved more when these sides met at Home Park in December and the home team played like an away team to win in acrimonious circumstances.
And it was more the same this time around as Derek Adams set his team up to first and foremost defend solidly, while Darren Ferguson’s team forced the issue for long periods.
Doncaster played well and on another day, against less well-drilled sides and with some better finishing, would have taken another giant step back to League One.
More than enough goalscoring chances came and went as Rovers lost at home in the league for the first time in 23 games and failed to score in a league game at the Keepmoat for the first time this season.
To add to their frustration, Plymouth’s hero was their goalkeeper Luke McCormick, the villain in the reverse fixture for his role in the controversial sending off of James Coppinger.
But there was a significant positive in the accomplished return of Luke McCullough following his eight-month absence.
And there was comfort in the knowledge that Rovers could seal promotion this weekend and still have the title very much in their own hands, regardless of what the Pilgrims do.
STORY OF THE MATCH
Rovers would have fully expected Plymouth, boasting the division’s best away record, to sit back and defend deep.
And right from the outset the challenge of finding space and unlocking the well organised Pilgrims became obvious as the visitors set out to make life difficult for the hosts and look to spring on the counter.
The early stages saw little incident other than a penalty shout from Tommy Rowe but television replays proved that referee Oliver Langford was right to ignore the midfielder’s claims that he had been tripped in the box.
Plymouth were happy for Rovers to have the ball in non-dangerous areas, forcing ball-playing centre half Mathieu Baudry to go long more often than usual, but when Ferguson’s men got it wide they looked a threat.
John Marquis robbed left back Oscar Threlkeld but his cross from the right just evaded the incoming Alfie May at the near post.
Rowe then did well on the left and his teasing cross to the back post picked out Marquis but the striker was unable to direct his header on target.
Plymouth’s only threat of the half came when Matthew Kennedy was allowed to run and drill a low effort wide of Ian Lawlor’s right-hand post.
But, despite that lack of cutting edge or intent, Adams will have been relatively satisfied that his team were keeping free-scoring Doncaster at arm’s length.
That was until the 39th minute when Rovers stepped it up a gear and Marquis must have thought he had put his side ahead.
Again the chance emanated from out wide, this time marauding right back Matty Blair bursting forward and delivering a perfect cross for Marquis to guide a header towards the far corner - only for McCormick to produce a wonderful reflex save to keep it out.
Conor Grant then kept McCormick honest with an attempted lob from the edge of the box.
And Plymouth, in the end, were grateful to hear the half time whistle as, moments before the break, Rowe played in Coppinger whose effort was blocked almost on the line by Sonny Bradley.
Argyle’s lack of ambition was quite startling but, on 50 minutes, their gameplan sprung into life when they snatched the opening goal of the game from a set piece.
Graham Carey’s floated corner picked out Bradley at the far post and the centre back planted a powerful header into the roof of the net.
Now the visitors had something to hold onto. Now the onus was really on Rovers to find an answer.
The goal temporarily knocked Doncaster out of their stride and Carey and Jake Jervis might both have made more of decent chances on the break.
But the game returned to a familiar pattern around the hour mark with Rovers carving out openings only to be denied by a combination of McCormick, last ditch defending or poor finishing.
When a Conor Grant freekick was only half cleared and it fell to Coppinger the Rovers man should have hit the target rather than sending his effort sailing over the bar.
A minute later, after good work from May, Coppinger struck a shot into the ground and it took another excellent save from McCormick to prevent it bouncing in.
The momentum waned at that point as Rovers appeared to run out of ideas, resorting in the closing stages to throwing Andy Butler and Baudry up front.
From a Butler knockdown, Rowe was denied by a last ditch block before Coppinger volleyed Gary McSheffrey’s cross just wide. It was not to be Doncaster’s day.
ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END
Against your main title rivals, live on the television, this was not the ideal time to lose the unbeaten home record which stretched back virtually a year.
But all good things must come to an end.
The sequence had to end at some point and the way it happened could have been a lot worse.
It was not a case of Rovers being put to the sword, outclassed or embarrassed - it just wasn’t their day.
It wasn’t pretty, but Plymouth deserve some credit for the way they went about it.
They did a number on Rovers.
But more performances of this ilk over the final seven games will get Doncaster over the finish line in good time and should also see them go up as champions.