22 April ~ In mid-November, as Doncaster Rovers led Portsmouth 2-0 at a somewhat stunned Fratton Park, a lone voice from the visitors' end called out to the neighbouring home fans: "Yes that's right. All that you've read about us is true." Another side which had promised profusely in their matchday programme they would not underestimate "the likes of Doncaster" appeared noticeably surprised by what they encountered, and after holding on for a 3-2 win Rovers duly went seventh in the Championship. Today Rovers host Crystal Palace; the home side sit 20th, the visitors 21st, and those heady autumn days seem an awful long time ago.
Since that afternoon in Portsmouth, Rovers have won just four matches. So where did it all go wrong? Well, the primary cause of Doncaster's slide down the table is injuries, specifically the club's worst ever injury crisis and one which saw them deprived of as many as 14 first team players in late February. The Football League even received a phone call from chairman John Ryan enquiring about the possibility of postponing the club's fixture at Norwich owing to a lack of players, albeit a match which would not only go ahead, but bring Rovers an unexpected a point. To confound the club's luck the injuries set in when the fixture load was at its heaviest – with recovery time at a premium Rovers played every Tuesday for two months.
Though not always as severely as the medical-room cramming February, injuries have hamstrung Rovers' campaign since the start. Every single member of the first team squad has been forced to miss at least a month of the season. Indeed, going into the final four games just nine of the squad have managed more than 20 appearances, and only two of those have made it beyond 30.
The passing style that has helped Rovers cement their position in this division relies on cohesion and fluidity, factors which have been clearly compromised by ever-changing personnel. Similarly, having been unable to field the same defensive line for more than three successive games all season the team has lacked composure at the back and has subsequently leaked goals.
There are of course other contributing factors to Rovers current position, possessing all the aerial capability of Rod Hull and a frightening tendency to switch off in the closing minutes of games both being key. However, these aspects have been present in Doncaster's make-up for several seasons and the side has managed to soldier on. Top-scorer Billy Sharp, sidelined for the past month, struck 15 goals in just 28 appearances when fit, so to suggest that had he alone avoided injury Rovers would not be where they are is not unreasonable.
John Ryan has long stated manager Sean O'Driscoll has the safest job in football, but following defeat at Hull last Saturday "O'Driscoll Out" threads began to appear on messageboards. At the moment they can be passed off as opinions of the few and the unreasonable, but defeat today against fellow-strugglers Palace could give the dissenters unwanted momentum. Rovers and O'Driscoll need a win to effectively secure second-tier status, but also to silence the critics.
In an effort to aid the cause with a partisan atmosphere, the board have made entrance to today's game free to all home supporters, and all available tickets were snapped up inside 48 hours. For regular fans its disappointing that it's taken such a drastic incentive to fill the ground, but hopefully come 5pm, the majority of those present will be wondering why they don't come more often and vowing to return again for a fourth season of Championship football. Glen Wilson