On an emotional evening for Doncaster Rovers, brave Billy Sharp was able to pay tribute to his tragic baby son with a magnificent opening goal.
Sharp, who missed Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Coventry City following the death two-day-old Louie Jacob Sharp, had given Rovers early hope after leading the team on as captain.
But promotion-chasing Boro came from behind thanks to goals either side of half-time from Barry Robson (2) and Marvin Emnes to stretch Rovers winless run to five matches in the Championship.
Before kick-off, both sets of players stood in the centre circle and joined in a minute’s applause along with fans in memory of Sharp’s son.
Boss Dean Saunders handed El Hadji-Diouf his debut after capturing the controversial striker on a three-month deal on Monday while Ryan Mason was recalled in midfield. It was Senegalese international Diouf’s first run-out in five months.
After a cagey opening, Rovers created the first meaningful opportunity after Sharp had been bundled over by Tony McMahon on the left-hand side and Ryan Mason’s free kick was headed wide by George Friend from an acute angle.
Then Sharp took centre stage. He raced on to Diouf’s flick on in the 14th minute to blast in a majestic left-foot volley which looped over Jason Steele. It was a wonderful strike.
Sheffield-born Sharp wheeled away in celebration towards the home faithful, who vociferously chanted his name, after his stunning goal. He was quickly surrounded by his team-mates and the star striker went on to lift up his top to reveal a message saying: “That one is for you son.”
Middlesbrough were shell-shocked and Rovers came close to extending their lead two minutes later when the lively Diouf, whose every touch was booed throughout by the travelling supporters, dribbled past Matthew Bates only for his shot to drift wide.
Early on, the visitors struggled to get going and Justin Hoyte limped out of the action midway through the half and Faris Haroun was brought on as his replacement to compound their woes.
Neat link up play between Marvin Emnes and McMahon saw Rhys Williams have an effort which was comfortably gathered by Neil Sullivan but it proved to be a brief reprieve asBoro equalised on the half hour mark. Scott McDonald turned sharply past Richard Naylor, who hauled the player down, but the referee waved play on and Barry Robson burst forward before unleashing an unstoppable left foot piledriver into the bottom corner. Naylor, with his hands on his head, was cautioned for the late challenge.
The hosts regrouped and Diouf had a penalty claim turned down before Middlesbrough took the lead on the stroke of half-time. It was a lovely counter attack with the dangerous McDonald finding Haroun in space out wide and his cross was turned in by Emnes for his 10th of the season. The Dutchman’s close-range finish went underneath Sullivan and trickled over the line.
Now Championship high fliers Middlesbrough were in the ascendency and started to dominate the midfield battle, with Robson pulling the strings in the middle. They kept pressing for a third and Williams, McDonald and Nicky Bailey all went close to stretching their advantage.
In the 55th minute, the impressive Haroun ought to have made it three after a teasing centre from Robson but he blazed his volley over the top.
However, Middlesbrough claimed a third from the penalty spot. Sullivan made a smart double stop to deny Emnes and McMahon but Pascal Chimbonda clumsily barged over the latter and Robson rifled home the resulting spot kick.
Saunders made his three substitutions in an attempt to try and salvage a result and Friend, who moved into midfield late on to add some bite, tried his luck from distance three times while Shelton Martis could also have reduced their arrears in added on time with a header but there was no way back for Rovers.
DONCASTER ROVERS: Sullivan; Chimbonda, Naylor, Martis, Friend; Mason (Bennett 59), Gillett, Ilunga, Diouf (Barnes 73mins); Hayter (Coppinger 59 mins), Sharp. Substitutes: Maxted, O’Connor.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Steele; Hoyte (Haroun 22mins), McMahon, Bates, McManus, Bennett; Williams, Bailey (Arca 70 mins), Robson; McDonald, Emnes (Zemmama 84 mins).
Substitutes: Kink, Ogbeche.
Referee: Darren Deadman (Cambridgeshire)