MATCH REPORT: Spirit of Sheff Utd falls flat at Doncaster

Scott Flinders in action against Doncaster Rovers. Picture by FRANK REID
Scott Flinders in action against Doncaster Rovers. Picture by FRANK REID

THE pitch, a barren bog of mud, was the same, as was the table-topping standing of the opposition – the performances, however, were anything but alike.

John Hughes, in the build up to the game, had referenced “the spirit of Sheffield United” as a motivational tool.

That was a day when, amid the mire of Bramall Lane, his side dug deep – quite literally at times – to unearth the most valiant of victories against the league leaders.

It was the turning point – a result without which the recent seven-match unbeaten run would probably not have occurred.

It was the source of hope and excitement.

On Saturday, though, those emotions were dulled somewhat, Hughes admitting his men were “flat”.

It was the first time the Scot has sought not to extract positives from a 90 minutes, instead switching focus to tomorrow’s visit of Colchester United.

And rightly so.

Hughes made a pertinent point – we’re allowed one of these, but no more.

With just 11 games remaining a repeat of such listlessness could prove fatal, for the prospect of survival does remain alive.

It was a display not in keeping with admirable efforts of late.

To illustrate their toil, they failed to register a single effort on target.

There were just 58 minutes on the clock when two of the leading lights of the recent revival – Jonathan Franks and James Poole – peered to the sideline and saw their numbers held aloft.

The pair could not mask their ire.

Yes, they were perhaps a little unfortunate to be hooked given current form, but it was one of those days when any one of the XI could have been withdrawn.

Pools just did not click from the off, rarely threatening the final third let alone the posts of Gary Woods.

What had proved so successful at Scunthorpe United seven days previous – the exploitation of physical but cumbersome centre-backs – was non-existent at the Keepmoat.

Instead, Rovers defensive pairing of Rob Jones and Jamie McCombe, a duo more akin to nightclub doormen than footballers, were allowed to stroll through the afternoon.

Poole and Franks were forced to watch in frustration as Pools laboured in their offensive efforts, often taking too many passes when a simple clip in behind might have asked more questions.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Hughes felt the three goals conceded could all have been avoided.

That was certainly true of the first.

Pools were weak in the tackle in the middle of the park and the ball was worked to Iain Hume, the Canadian collecting in a relatively harmless domain some 45 yards from goal.

He ran, unchallenged, and then ran some more, eventually easing into the penalty area completely unopposed – goal.

Peter Hartley had been caught in two minds – challenge or jockey – and was ultimately culpable, electing for the latter.

It was a blow from which Pools never looked like recovering.

By the time the interval arrived their only effort of note had been a Franks blast from range which skipped wide.

Former Pools man James Coppinger made it two early in the second half, turning home in scruffy fashion following some equally untidy defending from the visitors.

Franks and Poole soon departed but their replacements, Steve Howard and Luke James, were unable to rally their by-now deflated comrades.

Howard, in fairness, did head inches wide from an Evan Horwood cross, but that was to prove the attacking zenith of their efforts.

Billy Paynter then succeeded where Howard had failed, locating the back of the net with a firm header to complete the scoreline.

Scott Flinders was the one player to emerge with real credit, for without a string of second-half saves the winning margin could easily have been doubled.

In isolation, Pools can be forgiven such an insipid outing – the manner in which they have resurrected their campaign owes them as much.

But Hughes knows their position remains perilous.

He knows they simply cannot afford a repeat.

All eyes to tomorrow night.