5-1... but did Doncaster deserve defeat?
The ball ran harmlessly through to the goalkeeper. At least, that what it first appeared was happening. The full-back was shepherding. The goalkeeper was collecting. Then one of the quickest players in the division appeared, as if from nowhere, and suddenly Doncaster Rovers had a penalty to defend and a bizarre refereeing decision to attack.
Lloyd Dyer raced to close Neil Sullivan down and the decision, bafflingly enough, was that the goalkeeper took Dyer out without getting a touch on the ball. Television replays provided damning evidence to the contrary.
The question here is how much James Linington’s verdict contributed to the resulting rout inflicted upon Doncaster by Leicester City. At the time of the penalty award, Leicester were trailing to Billy Sharp’s early opener. But by the time Linington blew the final whistle, the home side had struck five times and Sharp’s goal was still the only one registered by the visitors.
Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll was quick to sort the post-match focus into two distinctly different piles – his and that of the media. O’Driscoll decreed that Doncaster would be concentrating on their disappointing second-half display, which saw the hosts score four times without reply and it could have been even more.
If this had been a Premier League game, though, there would have been a rather intense spotlight thrust on Linington’s controversial decision. So it merits a mention here instead.
The Doncaster players delayed the taking of the penalty for well over a minute, arguing with the referee and refusing to leave the penalty area. This was an understandable attempt to unsettle Paul Gallagher. As you can see, it had no effect whatsoever.
Personally, perhaps surprisingly, I think this behaviour is entirely acceptable. Many football fans would probably disagree. The referee’s decision is final and all that. But referees have so much power. It is only natural that a player may seek to redress the balance if he feels his team has been wronged.
While referees cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual players, they can influence the path of a game and often this is done with very little regard for any deserving causes.
Should the men in black think about whether a team “deserves” a penalty or not in deciding whether one should be awarded? Probably not, but it is particularly galling for a team of little resources to concede a controversial spot kick away from home on the stroke of half time. Referees must be as close to certainty in their mind as is humanly possible when they make this type of decision.
Doncaster fell apart after the break, admittedly. Leicester’s relentless counter-attacking pulled the visiting back four out of position on numerous occasions and it could be said that Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men deserved the wide margin of victory for their second half dominance.
But to decide which team, if either, deserves victory from any match is often to diminish the importance of the effect each event in the game has on its outcome. A regular mistake is to say a player “could have scored three”, for example. If the first opportunity is taken, then the second does not come along. Certainly not in the same fashion, anyhow.
Leicester only got the opportunity to score four in the second half because the momentum was with them and, as anyone in football will tell you, an equalising goal in first-half stoppage time is a “perfect time to score”.
Doncaster’s deflation appeared in stark contrast to the buoyancy they would have maintained had they been in a better position to threaten Eriksson’s unbeaten home league record as Leicester manager.
I think the key word here is empathy. There are very few football supporters who can truly say their team does not regularly find themselves on the end of a decision that appears to favour a “bigger” club. I’ve been to Old Trafford. I’ve been to Stamford Bridge.
The difference in scale between the two sets of clubs on those occasions were far greater than between the pair involved in the encounter at the Walkers Stadium on Saturday, but the story is the same.
Doncaster are, in many ways, one of the most enviable professional football clubs in the entire country. Punching above their weight without huge investment, O’Driscoll’s side also play passing football and have a refreshing commitment to attack.
Putting five goals past them is no huge achievement given the respective transfer values of each sets of players. That one of them, the most crucial of all, came about in such a pathetic manner felt, in some small way, shameful.
It is a great credit to O’Driscoll that he was unwilling to focus on that particular aspect of their mauling at the Walkers, preferring to concentrate on defensive deficiencies.
Doncaster have a good man at the helm, a welcome footballing philosophy and, as a club, represent so much that is good about the Football League. May the next controversial refereeing decision in a Doncaster Rovers match go in their favour.