THE second half was about to kick off at yesterday’s FA Cup third-round tie between Doncaster and Wolves, and an elderly chap made his way carefully up the steps, walking stick in left hand. When he reached my seat in the press box, he stopped.
After introducing himself, and telling me a little bit about his past as a local league referee in Doncaster, he proudly declared it was his 91st birthday. “I’m the oldest man in the ground,” he said. I asked him if he was enjoying the game. “You enjoy every game when you get to my age,” he replied.
Fortunately, you didn’t have to be 91 to enjoy the match at the Keepmoat Stadium. By and large, it was fun for all the family. And no family was better represented yesterday than that of Sean O’Driscoll.
Doncaster’s manager, born in Wolverhampton, grew up watching Ron Flowers, Derek Dougan and Co from the South Bank. His career then took him to Fulham and Bournemouth before he arrived at Doncaster four-and-a-bit years ago, but he’s never lost his soft spot for Wolves. They are his family’s team as well, which partly explained why there were 17 of his relatives and friends at the Keepmoat yesterday.
O’Driscoll’s sisters Sheila and Joanna are both Molineux season ticket holders. Along with their respective husbands and children – and a few friends – they took up Doncaster chairman John Ryan’s offer to watch the game from his private box.
There was, at least, some support for O’Driscoll from his own family, thanks to his mum Maureen Butler, her husband Colin and Sean’s two children Hayley and Hanna. Such was the size of the O’Driscoll party at the match, they numbered around one in 500 of the total crowd.
The people of Stevenage and Burton may disagree, but Doncaster’s public vote suggests the FA Cup is not what it was. With Premier League opposition at the Keepmoat, Rovers attracted their second-lowest home crowd of the season. Only a sparsely-attended Carling Cup defeat against Accrington on a Tuesday night in August brought in fewer fans. The first days of January may be where the FA Cup traditionally takes off, but it’s also a time for financial belt-tightening.
Whether those who stayed away didn’t fancy it, couldn’t afford it or just had something more pressing to attend to, they missed a proper cup tie. Mick McCarthy fielded a team not a million miles away from his first-choice side, and they could have been in front inside the first minute, Stephen Ward hooking just wide from Steven Fletcher’s cut-back. Within minutes, Richard Stearman ran at Doncaster’s defence and forced Neil Sullivan to palm aside his shot.
They’re a funny team this season, Wolves. The Premier League’s pantomime villains early on, accused of kicking anything regardless or whether it moved or not, they have settled into a weird inconsistency that, over Christmas, saw them lose at home to Wigan, then win at Liverpool, then lose at West Ham, then beat Chelsea.
Most people who have watched them on a regular basis say that they are far better than their league position suggests. They wouldn’t be the first team to go down despite being too good to go down, though.
Doncaster, having survived those two early scares, began to impose themselves without creating anything that clear cut, although Billy Sharp had a goal ruled out for a push. The match settled into an aesthetically pleasing stalemate – and then Nenad Milijas scored, and all hell broke loose.
The Serbian midfielder collected the ball 25 yards from goal and hammered it into the net. It felt like a goal from nowhere, but two more quickly followed. Unfortunately for Wolves, Doncaster scored them both.
First Sharp turned cleverly away from his marker to drive in an equaliser from the edge of the area, and then James Hayter drilled in a second from John Oster’s header as Wolves failed to clear their lines. Doncaster just about deserved their 2-1 half-time lead.
Wolves, though, edged the second half. After Milijas had tested Sullivan with a free kick, the visitors equalised when Sam Hird fouled Matt Jarvis inside the area, and Stephen Hunt slotted in the penalty. O’Driscoll initially felt the award was harsh, but after viewing a DVD of the incident, acknowledged referee Anthony Taylor got it right.
Kevin Doyle had a header tipped over and the lively Jarvis hit the bar as Wolves pressed for a winner. They may have got it had George Elokobi not been sent off with just under 15 minutes left after clattering into James Coppinger as they both went for a header. Both men looked to be out cold for a moment or two, and Elokobi’s dazed reaction to the red card suggested he thought he was still seeing things.
“If the referee’s sent off Elokobi for violent conduct, it’s harsh,” said O’Driscoll. “If he’s sent him off for a reckless challenge, it’s spot on. Now whether you can send people off for reckless challenges, I’m not sure. I’m not sure whether that was just a yellow card.
“Mick will say he’s built like a heavyweight boxer, but he doesn’t play like one. He’s not gone to hurt James Coppinger deliberately. He’s gone for a ball he had no chance of getting.”
McCarthy, who said the referee had told him the red card was for serious foul play, thought the sending off was the wrong decision, which led to the following exchange with Talksport reporter Grahame Lloyd in the press room afterwards:
McCarthy: Do you think it was harsh?
Lloyd: I thought it was harsh, but my opinion doesn’t really count.
McCarthy: Neither does mine.
Lloyd: I think it counts more than mine.
McCarthy: I think it probably doesn’t. I tell you what, if you were not to ask me, and wrote your report and said it was harsh, it would carry more weight than if I said it. They’d just say it’s another manager with rose-coloured spectacles talking bollocks trying to get his player off a three-match ban. But if you said it, without my opinion, you’d be an independent observer that I could use to help me.
Lloyd: I think we all thought it was harsh, to be honest.
McCarthy (beaming): Brilliant!
OK Mick, I thought it was harsh too, clumsy as Elokobi’s challenge was. But my opinion counts even less than Grahame Lloyd’s. I mean, he’s written for the Rothmans Football Yearbook.
If the red card was perhaps an injustice, the scoreline was about right. Doncaster deserved a second chance. And who knows? With the replay at Molineux, it might give O’Driscoll a chance for an even bigger family get-together.