Doncaster Rovers 0
by Rob McNichol
TO answer an age-old question, we now know what happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object.
Doncaster Rovers, the long-time leaders of Sky Bet League Two, who had not lost at their own ground since March 28, 2016 - two days short of a whole year - were beaten by a solitary Sonny Bradley goal as Argyle smashed, grabbed - and won.
It was Argyle's 12th win in 19 away games this season, equaling a club record with four road games still remaining. No club in League Two comes close to the Pilgrims' record on their travels, and even the strongest home side in the division could not hold them out.
The win, and some favourable Saturday afternoon scorelines, means Argyle are 13 points ahead of fourth place in the table, with seven games to go. Interestingly, looking up the way, the gap to Rovers is now just three.
Argyle manager Derek Adams had named an unchanged 18-man squad, with the same starting 11 and bench as had begun the home win against Morecambe eight days previous. Interestingly, as a contrast to the 2-0 victory over Doncaster at Home Park in December, seven of the starting line-up at the Keepmoat Stadium had also featured in PL2, but the Pilgrims bench, with the exception of substitute goalkeeper Vincent Dorel, featured an entirely different cast of characters.
The set-up for the match was the prospect of not only the league leaders Rovers playing their nearest challengers, Argyle, but a home side with the best record at their base in the division, defending an unbeaten record, against a Pilgrims side boasting the best away record in the league. With Sky Sports cameras descending on Donny, no Premier League or Championship football in sight, and a gorgeous sunny day, things really were set fair.
Doncaster, with a noisy and confident home support, pushed forward from the first whistle, and threatened an early chance, but Argyle protected their area well. At the other end, Oscar Threlkeld took a nasty looking bump and fall, but after he emerged remarkably unscathed, Graham Carey delivered an inviting free-kick, which everyone missed. On further inspection, Doncaster were lucky that their manhandling of Jakub Sokolik did not result in an Argyle penalty.
Rovers then had a shout for a spot kick themselves, as Tommy Rowe went down when skimming past David Fox. Despite red and white protestations, there was no contact in the challenge whatsoever.
There was an anticipation that the pattern of this match might be similar to that of the game at Home Park, where Argyle were happy to play cat and mouse, inviting Doncaster on to them, and hitting on the break. That was not the case here, though, as Argyle settled in well, and had just as much possession in good areas as their hosts in the opening exchanges.
Looking to take advantage of this, Matty Kennedy picked up the ball on the left touchline and drifted inside away from several Rovers challenges. His shot from 20 yards was a little scuffed, and no threat to Ian Lawlor in the Doncaster goal, but it was a sign that Argyle were here to play.
So were Donny. A push down the right flank resulted in a ball flashed across the six-yard area which seemed destined for an Alfie May tap-in, but it ended up missing everyone, and the chance was over.
From the other side of the field, Rowe skipped down the left flank and stood up a cross which Conor Grant got on the end of, but not only did McCormick save the shot, but referee Oliver Langford indicated that May had made a push in the build-up.
Doncaster had found their stride, and for the last twenty minutes of the half they were in command. Penning Argyle into their own half time and again, Rovers were increasingly dictating the tune of the game. On 39 minutes it looked certain they had taken the lead. Right-back Matty Blair, a constant outlet on the Rovers' right, got away from Threlkeld and delivered a perfect cross on the run for top goalscorer John Marquis. The forward's header looked to have put Doncaster into the lead, but that reckoned without McCormick, who made a stunning save low to his right.
Rovers kept up the pressure. Coppinger hit a dipping effort over the bar, while Grant got the dip right on a shot of his own but McCormick, backpedalling, caught the goalbound attempt.
In first-half stoppage time, Argyle found another miracle. A slick Doncaster move seemed to have laid the ball on a plate for Coppinger, who had his shot blocked, then Rowe, who headed over from close range. The defending was desperate, and last-ditch, but effective. Rovers will have felt that it was astonishing that they did not lead at the break, but Argyle have built a season on keeping out heavy pressure.
The onslaught resumed in the first minute of the second half, with a free-kick pumped into Argyle territory that the Pilgrims took a few attempts to clear, including following a neat touch-flick-and-cross by the increasingly influential Rowe.
Argyle responded with a push down the right by Gary Miller, whose low cross was headed wide by Mattieu Baudry, defending very close to his near post.
From the corner, Carey's hanging delivery was set perfect for Bradley to attack - and attack he did. A powerful header that was too hot for Lawlor to handle flew high into the red and white net. Bradley and friends slid to their knees, while the Green Army, some 120 yards away, celebrated wildly.
It was very nearly 2-0 within two minutes. Excellent work by Spencer maneuvered the ball to Carey, bursting into space left by Rovers throwing men forwards. It took a while for the ball to come down for the Irishman, but as it did he bore down on goal. With Jervis to his right as an option, Carey opted to go for goal, but dragged the effort wide. Doncaster were shell-shocked as it was, losing a second goal would have been excruciating for them to take.
Rovers boss Darren Ferguson decided a change was imperative, sending on Luke McCullough for Craig Alcock. Niall Mason switched to Alcock's vacated left-back slot, with McCullough, returning from injury, now sitting deepest in Donny's midfield to try to dictate matters.
Doncaster were never going to lay down and take it, and soon Coppinger had whistled one not far over McCormick's bar. Next, May's cross was cleared against Sokolik by Bradley, falling sweetly to Grant. His snapshot was on target; McCormick's reaction save was on point.
A second Rovers change - May replaced by Andy Williams - was quickly followed by Argyle's first, as Yann Songo'o replaced Kennedy. The home sub gave an extra attacking impetus, the away one some added defensive solidity. Soon after, experienced attacker Gary McSheffrey was introduced for Doncaster, while Adams switched front-man, bringing on Ryan Taylor for Spencer.
Doncaster continued to throw bodies forward in search of the ball, but Argyle's season-long modus operandi stood them in the greatest of stead again.
Donny's final chance, as injury time ticked away, bounced wide of the target, courtesy of Andy Williams and Argyle had won.
Trust in me when I say, that even if it all seems too good to be true, we have a title race.
Doncaster (4-1-2-1-2): 38 Ian Lawlor; 17 Matty Blair, 5 Mattieu Baudry, 6 Andy Butler, 2 Craig Alcock (4 Luke McCullough 55); 24 Niall Mason (7 Gary McSheffrey 80); 25 Conor Grant, 10 Tommy Rowe; 26 James Coppinger (capt); 39 Alfie May (11 Andy Williams 73), 9 John Marquis. Substitutes (not used): 12 Mitchell Lund, 13 Marko Marosi (gk), 14 Harry Middleton, 27 Cedric Evina.
Argyle (4-3-3): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller, 31 Jakub Sokolik, 15 Sonny Bradley, 8 Oscar Threlkeld; 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 24 David Fox, 20 Graham Carey (13 Nathan Blissett 90); 14 Jake Jervis, 9 Jimmy Spencer (19 Ryan Taylor 81), 16 Matty Kennedy (4 Yann Songo'o 74) Substitutes (not used): 3 Gary Sawyer, 8 Jordan Slew, 11 Ryan Donaldson, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Referee: Oliver Langford.
Attendance: 7,414 (900 away).