HE did it again today. And only three of us were there to see it.
Six months ago, Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll garnered more media attention than he probably wanted after taking the unusual step of answering a question at a press conference with his hands.
O’Driscoll had just seen his injury-hit squad thrashed 6-0 at home by Ipswich (something I’m pretty confident won’t happen this season). “Go on, someone ask me a stupid question,” he said on entering the press room. He was asked how disappointed he was.
“I’m this disappointed,” he said, stretching his arms a couple of feet apart. Then he got up and walked out.
Today, after seeing his Doncaster side collect their first point of the Championship season with a 1-1 draw at home to Bristol City, O’Driscoll faced a question about James Hayter, recently back from a knee injury, who scored their equaliser.
“How important is it to have Hayter back in the squad and fully fit?” asked one of the three reporters present at his post-match press conference.
O’Driscoll held his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart and said: “It’s that important.”
The moral of this story is clear: If you’re going to ask Doncaster’s manager a ‘how much’ question, be prepared to have your sense of spatial awareness tested.
Actually, it’s tempting to wonder if, in another life, he might have made a good Father Ted. I’m sure he’d have had no problem explaining to Dougal the difference between the cows that were small and the ones that were far away.
The difference this time was that O’Driscoll stuck around for the follow-up questions about Hayter, to which he did give considered answers. He appears in a better mood these days than when I last saw him, gloomy after a 5-2 defeat at Leeds in early March.
To the casual observer, that might seem puzzling. After all, that defeat at Elland Road was the first of 17 successive league games without victory, three short of the club record, set during their staggeringly hopeless 1997/98 campaign, which ended with relegation to the Conference.
Having lost their first four league games of this season, they went into today’s game bottom of the Championship with no points, and without last season’s top scorer Billy Sharp, who damaged ankle ligaments on the opening day at Brighton and is at least a month away from a comeback. Not much scope for optimism there, you might think.
And yet Donny are playing reasonably well. They were, by all accounts, dominant during the first half-hour of Tuesday’s Carling Cup tie at home to Leeds, only to concede an equaliser out of nowhere and go on to lose a game they should have won.
Today, against Bristol City, they looked edgy and short of confidence for much of the first half, but were easily the better side after the break, and would have won but for David James. I’ve seen six Championship teams live this season, and I don’t think Doncaster are among the division’s worst three sides. (They are, to my mind, better than both Coventry and Watford, two sides who were strong on effort but desperately short on quality when I saw them draw 0-0 last weekend.)
James turned 41 at the start of the month, and would probably play on past 50 if you let him. Bristol City manager Keith Millen hasn’t been so sure of late, dropping the former England goalkeeper after two defeats – and six goals against – and replacing him with Dean Gerken.
However, Gerken picked up a groin injury during Wednesday night’s Carling Cup embarrassment at home to League Two Swindon, so James was back in.
Nothing’s changed. In fact, today’s 90 minutes served as a microcosm of James’ entire career – brilliant when he had lots to do, wobbly when called upon after long periods of inactivity. He spilled two long-range shots in the first half – one from Mustapha Dumbuya, the other from George Friend – that came at a stage when Doncaster were struggling to create clear openings. After half-time, he was inspired, making a series of important saves.
It was as well for Bristol City that he did, as their game plan rather fell apart in the second half. Millen set them up to play 4-5-1, with playmaker Neil Kilkenny supplemented in central midfield by two ball-winners, Cole Skuse and Marvin Elliott. In the first half, it worked. Doncaster struggled to play their way through and ended up playing an awful lot of aimless long balls in the general direction of Hayter.
City didn’t create masses of chances themselves, but looked solid. Nicky Maynard, who may yet leave Ashton Gate before Wednesday’s transfer deadline, missed a chance when clean through in the third minute, before Albert Adomah scored right on half-time.
Adomah, a winger who was once sponsored by BBC commentator John Motson during his Barnet days, is having an interesting season. He was due to make his international debut for Ghana in a friendly against Nigeria at Vicarage Road a couple of weeks ago, only for the game to be called off as a safety measure due to the London riots.
He was called up for international duty again a couple of days ago, and will be in the Ghana squad to face Swaziland in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier on Friday, before they play Brazil in a friendly at Craven Cottage a week on Tuesday.
“He would have played some part against Nigeria if the game hadn’t been called off,” Millen said afterwards. “But he’s buzzing at the prospect of playing for his country. The Brazil game would be a dream start for him if he gets involved in that.”
He certainly looked sharp enough to play a part when he exchanged passes with Elliott and slotted a shot into the far corner of the net in the last minute of the first half. But Adomah wasn’t so clever 11 minutes after the break in giving the ball away to Kyle Bennett, whose run into the penalty area was halted by Skuse’s foul. Referee Graham Scott awarded a penalty, Hayter stepped up to take it – and James pushed it out.
According to Millen, that penalty changed the game, because it lifted both Doncaster’s players and their fans. But he wasn’t helped either by the loss of Jamie McAllister to a dead leg at half-time, leaving him without a specialist left-back for the second half. And the decision after an hour to replace the admittedly ineffective Kilkenny with a striker, Brett Pitman, seemed to leave City short-handed in midfield.
Anyway, the equaliser was coming. It arrived when Giles Barnes played a short corner to on-loan Chelsea teenager Milan Lalkovic, whose cross was headed past James by Hayter.
James made another two excellent late stops to deny Bennett and Simon Gillett as Rovers pushed for a late winner. It didn’t come, but at least they are off the mark for the season.
So how pleased was O’Driscoll afterwards? About this much.
“I thought we were excellent,” he said. “The biggest plus was that we faced the disappointment of Tuesday’s defeat, of the negativity of some of the crowd, the fact that we went a goal down and missed a penalty, and we bounced back from all of that and showed a great deal of character.
“We’re a club that probably shouldn’t be in the Championship, and we know it’s going to be a struggle, so we know we’ve got to do things with enthusiasm.
“We play a certain way that takes a lot of bravery, and when we don’t get it right, then we’ll face the negativity that surrounds football, and we’ve just got to bounce back from it.”
As one of the three journalists suggested to O’Driscoll at the end of the press conference, today’s one point would be the first of many. “Fifty-one to go,” came the reply. Perspective, sometimes, is everything.