Doncaster Rovers knocked Championship side Blackburn Rovers out of the FA Cup with a backs-to-the-wall third-round victory at Ewood Park.
Taylor Richards scored the winning goal shortly before the break for the League One visitors, as his effort from distance squirmed under goalkeeper Aynsley Pears.
Blackburn dominated the possession stakes and had a succession of efforts, but they failed to fire up front as their opponents defended heroically to hold on for a cup upset.
Story of the match
Blackburn had the advantage not just in status but in preparedness too as Doncaster played for the first time since before Christmas due to Covid-19 issues, and they were the dominant side for much of the game without ever making it count.
A lack of cohesion and cutting edge let them down, with the better opportunities largely falling to their opponents. Doncaster carved two early, Tyreece John-Jules denied by an onrushing Pears after a one-two with Richards before the midfielder was the next played in, having more time but placing his shot wide.
Blackburn probed and pushed but were reliant on individuals to make something happen against an organised defence, led by uncompromising skipper Tom Anderson. Bradley Dack – making his first start since December 2019 after injury hell – fired a free-kick just wide while Tom Trybull’s cross was begging to be tapped in, yet neither Darragh Lenihan nor Ben Brereton obliged.
That allowed Darren Moore’s side to claim the half-time lead. Blackburn could hardly have been more generous in handing it to them, as Richards was allowed to advance unopposed, invited to shoot from outside the box, and when he did Pears let the shot squirm underneath him and into the bottom corner.
Doncaster almost reciprocated the gift at the start of the second half, when Anderson inadvertently headed a Stewart Downing corner onto his own crossbar from close range. Dack also turned a Barry Douglas cross wide moments after as the Championship side looked to come to life at last.
The away side still had real threat on the counter, however, as Fejiri Okenabirhie gave a reminder of with a fizzing drive aimed too close to Pears. They also had a debuting goalkeeper in Ellery Balcombe, freshly signed on loan from Brentford, who would soon make his mark.
For all their pressure, it took more than 70 minutes for Blackburn to offer a shot on target, until two came along in a matter in seconds. First substitute Harvey Elliott hit a brilliant swerving strike which Balcombe did very well to keep out, but the keeper immediately went even better by managing to recover and spectacularly block the follow-up from Dack from point-blank range too.
It became a true rearguard effort in the closing stages, and Anderson made a hugely important block to deny Adam Armstrong’s drive in the centre of the box before Buckley failed to get contact on a floated cross at the back post.
Short supply of goals
This clash saw the Championship’s highest scorers this season take on the joint-best attack in League One, and the two sides shared five goals in an entertaining season-opener in the EFL Cup first round back in August.
It was not such an open affair this time around. Doncaster had little of the ball but managed to do more with it, looking dangerous on the break every time they came forward, even if their goal owed something to fortune.
For Blackburn, it was a hugely disappointing afternoon in front of goal. Getting forward was no problem, but with a changed line-up, including Dack as he continues his build-up to full fitness, they lacked the fluidity to turn good position into serious chances.
Only two of their 20 shots were on target – both within a matter of seconds, denied by Balcombe’s wonder double save – albeit with a quirk of the statistics ignoring a fair number of rifles at goal that were blocked by defenders.
The likes of Brereton and Tyrhys Dolan flattered to deceive with a lack of end product, the latter particularly so in what should have been an opportunity to grab. The player who probably did most to make things happen in attack, and stake a first-team claim, was John Buckley, despite being positioned at right-back.
Battle against adversity
Wins don’t come much more hard-earned than this one, as Doncaster repelled wave after wave of pressure from their higher-tier opponents by defending their penalty box brilliantly throughout.
But that was not the only adversity they have faced, of course, having not played since before Christmas due to Covid-19. Four consecutive games have been postponed – giving them a daunting backlog into the season’s home straight – and they were still short of maximum here.
They were missing several key personnel, particularly in midfield where the absence of Madger Gomes, Ben Whiteman, Jon Taylor and Matt Smith left them with a pair of full-backs in the centre of the pitch. Gomes remains injured, Taylor and Smith were deemed short of fitness after bouts with Covid-19, and Whiteman non-appearance may or may not have been transfer-related.
The players that did take to the field were only allowed back into training a few days’ ago, giving them less than ideal preparation to take on a Championship outfit. On the flip side, that at least put the two debutants, Balcombe and Elliot Simoes, on a level playing field with their team mates in that regard after signing in the week.
Simoes was largely absent in a game where the Doncaster forwards needed to really get stuck in to be involved, but Balcombe can be pleased with his day’s work. There were a few nervy moments in possession but when he finally had saves to make, he did so in brilliant style to earn his team passage to round four.
Man of the match: Tom Anderson (Doncaster)
Anderson led a highly disciplined backline throughout, and came up with a number of crucial blocks to help repel everything Blackburn threw his side’s way.