I was sitting bored, like many before me, a number of hours into an aeroplane journey. I’d read a newspaper, watched a couple of movies and listened to some music, but now I was bored. Bored of doing nothing. We’d hit a little turbulence so the familiar seatbelt signs were in operation and even a trip to the toilet was off the table. The plane rocked gently from side to side and with more nervous energy than I’d like to admit I explored my seat for something of a distraction. I settled, somewhat underwhelmed, for the airlines generically cheesy inflight entertainment magazine in the hope that it would distract me from the planes increasingly forceful agitation.
I flicked through the pages of adverts interspersed with scandals bad gossip before coming across an interview with Ronnie O’Sullivan. The world championships were due to start shortly in Sheffield so snooker was relevant enough for Virgin to speak to its premier exponent.
The article proved to be a decent read with one of sports enigmas, and one of O’Sullivans answers stuck with me long after the plane had landed and luggage had been claimed. He said that for a number of years during his early career he never really achieved much, certainly not what he was capable of. He said that from playing against, and losing to Stephen Hendry, the man who’s crown he would go on to take in the following years, he was able to see first hand that the difference between Hendry, a true winner, and the rest of the field was that when a match got down to its crucial frames were the pendulum could swing one way or another, Hendry changed his approach and played aggressive snooker, taking on risky pots and forcing the issue against his opponent. When the going got tough, Hendry went for it and O’Sullivan suggests it was the acquiring of this attitude that changed him from potential great, to the best there’s ever been. It stuck with me because I was surprised that someone with such natural talent, so far above his compatriots in terms of ability, considers the crucial caveat to success to be that of attitude and a mental approach to winning.
When Doncaster Rovers went to Leicester on the final day of the 2014 season the season was well and truly in the final frame. The only certain thing was that if they won, Rovers would be safe and avoid relegation from the Championship. Anything less would depend on results elsewhere.
I must admit that I was a little surprised when Paul Dickov’s teamsheet arrived and showed his side would line up with 5 at the back, with Lucas Neill as a sweeper.
I was even more surprised with this when I saw Leicester had gone with Nugent (a striker who has many pluses to his game, but blistering pace is not one of then) and Phillips (a man who was playing his last game before retiring at 40 Years of age and had never had any pace during any of his 20 previous seasons) up front, hardly threatening to run in behind a back line to bring a sweeper into play.
Anyway, the parking of the bus was understandable to a degree. Keep it all square then if results are going against us have ‘a right go’ late on. That was clearly the plan.
The problem was it was the plan of a side with the worst away record in the league and how often have we all seen similar performances from a team who defend doggedly before falling behind only to find the die is cast for the game and the ability to change tempo and direction is never really viable.
Still it was Paul Dickov’s plan and but for a dodgy penalty or a lump of injury time in Lancashire it would’ve worked, but I can’t help think it would’ve been more through luck than judgement. The truly baffling things happened after we fell behind. 15 minutes to go and we are 1-0 down. We might’ve well have lost 10-0 as 1-0 as in each possible outcome in the relegation lottery, that was fact and was known before the game. 0 points meant 0 points and we had the worst goal difference of them all so the moment Nugent’s penalty hit the net was the moment the bus needed to crank up the gears and get moving. We needed a goal at this point, one goal as a minimum and what was the response from the bench? Nothing.
Nothing for 7 minutes when with 8 minutes of the season remaining Dickov replaced the left back. With another left back. Even now the dust has settled, I cannot comprehend that decision. Assuming Husband wasn’t fit to continue there was still already 3 other fullbacks already on the pitch. Why not throw on a forward and change things at the back? It makes no sense to me to make such a short sighted and naive decision at such a crucial time (one which ultimately denied us the opportunity to have Theo Robinson on the pitch, the only player we have with any pace). Indeed it was not until 2 minutes later, with only 6 minutes remaining that two forwards were introduced.
In a game we needed to get something out of, we managed 2 shots on target.
The most frustrating thing of it all is that it feels as though we went down with a whimper. Not just on the final day but from winning at Leeds in March and being almost safe (we were 8 points clear of relegation at that point. I was almost confident), we managed only 1 point from the remaining 7 games and scored only 4 goals in the process. Going down from such a strong position at the end of March is the most unpalatable thing of all.
Certainly we can point to key injuries at key times, a small squad, financial disparity, terrible refereeing decisions regularly dished out to ‘small’ teams but there is also a lack of tactical guile which punctuated the season.
Rovers conceded the first goal 26 times this season in games which went on to yield 1 win, 3 draws, and 22 defeats. There was too often no plan B from the bench and too often games slipped us by with a familiar sense of inevitability.
Should the responsibility rest with the manager? Yes.
Should he be sacked just because he couldn’t keep Doncaster in the Championship? No, even Stevie Wonder could’ve seen it was a tough ask.
Is the run of form from March, and 1 point from 21 acceptable? No, absolutely not.
I am sure he is a genuine, hard working guy. There is enough evidence to suggest the players play for him and the dressing room is a settled enough place. Paul Dickov’s tenure has seen some astute signings (Sharp, Meite, Wellens, Tamas et al are all from good stock) and he was notably given the financial backing from the board to do so. There does remain however a huge question mark over his tactical nous. Ultimately he has been lacking all season in this crucial area. Granted however, it’s easy to be tactically astute when your sides better than the opposition and the simple fact is we haven’t been good enough.
I only hope that one can learn how to be a better tactician. God knows there have been enough lessons throughout this season for him to be going on with. Mr O’Sullivan has shown us albeit in a different sport, that it’s possible to work out how to win matches through losing them. Hope springs eternal, especially for a Rovers fan, but I still can’t help but think if Ronnie O’Sullivan had picked the team at Leicester the final frame, and the final reckoning might’ve been very different.