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Perrett’s Verdict: Cherries 1 Doncaster Rovers 2
ON another day...
With just nine league games remaining and their hopes of automatic promotion fading fast, Cherries are in desperate need of a change in fortunes.
This latest defeat, albeit undeserved, has left Eddie Howe’s men facing a huge task to finish in the top two and embroiled in a tense battle to even qualify for the play-offs.
But for the woodwork, an inspired display by a 43-year-old goalkeeper, some better finishing and a more eagle-eyed referee, it could have been a different story for Cherries.
And as if a fifth successive defeat was not hard enough to stomach for Cherries, coming against the League One leaders and one of their rivals for promotion made it even more unpalatable.
Despite flying high and boasting the best away record in the division, Doncaster were a team of modest talents, their 12th win on the road owing more to grim efficiency than skill and craft.
Player-coach Rob Jones, a man-mountain of a central defender and a colossus of a captain, epitomised the spirit in the Rovers camp and cleared virtually everything, mostly with his balding head.
So talismanic a figure with Rovers supporters, they marked their appreciation of him by designating last month’s visit of Walsall as ‘Rob Jones Day’ when fans donned masks of their towering skipper.
Cherries’ dispiriting run of defeats has been down in no small part to the absence of inspirational captain Tommy Elphick, whose presence – and, more importantly, voice – was again sorely missed.
Behind 33-year-old Jones stood a goalkeeper 10 years his senior, with Neil Sullivan recalled from a loan spell at AFC Wimbledon to cover for injured first-choice Gary Woods.
He performed like a sprightly teenager, throwing himself left and right to deny Brett Pitman twice and Lewis Grabban once during a Cherries-dominated opening period.
And when Sullivan was finally beaten – by headers from Steve Cook in the sixth minute and Pitman in the closing stages – the woodwork came to Rovers’ rescue on both occasions.
Sullivan also ensured Grabban would have another cow-and-banjo day in front of goal, the stopper pulling off another important save after the misfiring striker had gone through one-on-one in the 75th minute.
In defence of Grabban, without his 13 goals, including 12 under Howe, Cherries would already probably be also-rans in the race for promotion.
“Lewis has been excellent since we have come in,” said Howe. “Not only has he scored goals, but his all-round work rate and contribution has been immense. He was unlucky and that is the life of a striker. You are going to miss chances and it is about how you respond and how you bounce back.”
The writing was on the wall for Cherries once Billy Paynter had got across his marker to open the scoring, somewhat against the run of play, from a David Cotterill cross midway through the second half.
On the 17 occasions that the opposition has taken the lead against Cherries this season, only once have they come back to win – against Tranmere in October.
Paynter arrived at the near post to convert Cotterill’s centre with Cherries debutant goalkeeper Ryan Allsop unable to prevent the targetman bagging his sixth career goal against the Dorset club.
It looked destined to be the winner until Cherries substitutes Steve Fletcher and Matt Tubbs combined to fashion an equaliser with just four minutes remaining.
Fletcher outjumped the Rovers defence to flick on Allsop’s mule-like clearance before Tubbs seized on Jamie McCombe’s weak header and applied a fine finish by lift ing his shot over the advancing Sullivan.
Referee Fred Graham, who had remained in the background for much of the contest, was thrust into the spotlight following two contentious decisions in the closing stages.
Firstly, the official deemed James Husband not to have fouled Eunan O’Kane in the lead up to Rovers’ winner, the winger appearing to have shoved the Cherries midfielder before converting at the second attempt.
Then, and after Pitman’s header had come back off the upright, Graham was unsighted when a Rovers defender charged down with his outstretched arm a follow-up shot from Marc Pugh.
Doncaster boss Brian Flynn admitted Cherries had given his side “serious problems all over the pitch” before hailing “a big win for us at this stage of the season”.
Howe, meanwhile, was left to reflect on what might have been: “We are going through a spell where we are not getting the breaks that we were a few weeks ago. You have to remain mentally strong and make sure you come out fighting.
“We had our share of luck dur ing the unbeaten run and it was great. Everyone enjoyed that period. Now the boot is on the other foot and, although we are performing well enough, we are not getting the breaks.
“If we continue to do the right things, I am sure it will turn for us.”
Cherries: Allsop 6, Francis 6, Cook 6, Seaborne 6, Ritchie 7, McQuoid 5 (Fraser, 71), O’Kane 7.5, MacDonald 7 (Fletcher, 78), Pugh 7, Grabban 5.5 (Tubbs, 78), Pitman 6.5.
Unused subs: Hughes, Fogden, Partington, Jalal (g/k).
Rovers: Sullivan, Quinn, Jones, McCombe, Spurr, Cotterill, Coppinger, Lundstram, Husband, Paynter (Bennett, 90), Brown (Hume, 89).
Unused subs: Wakefield, Griffin, Howieson, Sinclair, Maxted (g/k).
Booked: Coppinger, Husband.
Attendance: 7,178 (including 569 visiting supporters).
Referee: Fred Graham (Essex).
The Irishman edged this week’s award just ahead of Shaun MacDonald and Marc Pugh with Matt Ritchie also in the mix.
O’Kane was a model of consistency in the Cherries midfield and his promptings led to the creating of several goalscoring chances. He made good use of the ball and his distribution was excellent.
Pugh gave his marker Paul Quinn a torrid time and supplied a number of probing crosses, while MacDonald added both steel and flair in the engine room.
Ritchie, who has proved more than an able deputy for Charlie Daniels at left-back, was again the pick of the Cherries defence.