Mediocre. That’s probably the best way of summing up this game, this performance, arguably this season.
Rovers, now 13th in the table, have managed to scale both ends of the spectrum over the course of a campaign now fizzling out with something of a whimper.
One win in the last eight has all but mathematically ended the play-off dream but over the last ten days or so Doncaster have showcased the very best (at Bramall Lane) and very worst (against Bradford) of themselves.
Saturday’s stalemate against a Rochdale side still in with a fighting chance of extending the regular season very rarely set pulses racing. It was a somewhat stereotypical League One battle; scrappy, unrefined, a contest not helped by the bobbly Keepmoat surface or the stiff breeze.
But it’s the extreme nature of Rovers’ performances that boss Paul Dickov admitted he is finding incredibly frustrating - that ability to turn it on one minute and go to pot the next.
Without really finding their rhythm they were the better team in the first half on Saturday, edging ahead courtesy of Kyle Bennett’s third goal in the space of five days.
Although not to the same extent that they collapsed against the Bantams on Good Friday, Doncaster’s second half performance sadly left a lot to be desired.
Rochdale rallied, equalising through Ian Henderson who was given too much space in the box. Rovers, on the other hand, lost their way and laboured to a draw.
Apart from a good spell just before the interval, when Nathan Tyson volleyed just over, Jamie McCombe of all people went close with a bicycle kick and Bennett fired just wide, Doncaster showed very few glimpses of the spark and verve that had rattled Sheffield United just days previously.
In sync with their current league position, this was all a bit average really.
“It is frustrating,” admitted Dickov, when asked about the hot and cold nature of his team.
“We need to manage the game better as individuals and as a team,” he continued.
“Their goal was an example. Teams are playing one up front, it happened against Sheffield United too, and they end up getting free in the box from a cross.
“We’ve got three or four players six foot plus and they’re quite a short team, and we go and take a short corner when we’ve been looking like we can cause them problems from corners.
“It’s the little things like that in the game when you need a cool head and the right mentality to keep doing the right things.”
Asked how to solve those problems, Dickov’s long pause was somewhat telling.
He gathered himself, before replying: “Without being too harsh, we know where we need to strengthen going into next season.”
For all they kicked on after the break, Rochdale, sat seventh in the table, rarely looked like a team really capable of reaching the Championship. Keith Hill’s men dug in but offered very little quality.
But the fact Rovers looked so ordinary at times in their company, particularly during the second period, only seems to make that much-needed summer of strengthening even more pressing.
Once again the goal they conceded could and should have been avoided by a defence all too willing to switch off.
Rovers clearly lack bite in midfield without Paul Keegan. Nor do they possess a 20-goal a season poacher (Henderson now has 19 for Dale).
There is plenty for Dickov to ponder. Certain out of contract players, though, are putting their case forward more than others.
Bennett, fresh from his stunning double strike against the Blades, was the brightest of Rovers’ attacking players and his controlled finish from Reece Wabara’s cross was just reward for his ingenuity. Considering his improved attitude and application, the winger can count himself unlucky not to have started more games this season.
Wabara too offered width and energy down the right, but it was also from his side that Michael Rose was given too much space to cross for an unmarked Henderson to clip home the equaliser just before the hour mark.
It might have got worse for Rovers.
Soon after levelling Henderson broke clear but his attempted lob lacked height to trouble Stephen Bywater, who had made two excellent saves in the first half low down to keep out drilled efforts from Rose and Jamie Allen.
Substitute Wayne Andrews then forced another save out of Bywater with his first touch, before Doncaster’s keeper had to rely on the woodwork to keep out Peter Vincenti when he seemed certain to score from close range following a corner.
Bywater did just enough to keep out Rhys Bennett’s header from a free-kick, before Vincenti spurned two late chances, first heading over from point-blank range before blasting over the bar following a three-on-two break in stoppage time.
A draw was probably the right result in the end. Doncaster won the first half, Rochdale the second.
But in stark contrast to Tuesday’s thriller at the Lane, this was a pretty poor spectacle and the question remains with Rovers just how to unlock their potential on a more regular basis?
The planning for next season has to start right away. Mediocrity should not be an option.
Rovers (4-4-2): Bywater 7, Wabara 6, McCombe 6, Butler 6, Stevens 6, Coppinger 6, Furman 6 (Forrester 73, 5), Wellens 6, Bennett 7, Main 6 (Clarke-Harris 67, 5), Tyson 6 (Mandeville 80). Subs: Marosi, Jones, Evina, Middleton.
Rochdale (4-5-1): Jones 6, Cannon 6, Eastham 6, Kennedy 6, Rafferty 5 (Camps 53, 6), Rose 7, Bennett 6, Allen 6, Logan 6 (Andrew 67, 6), Vincenti 7, Henderson 7.
Subs: Lillis, Brandy, Nobe-Lazarus, Hery, Bunney.
Kyle Bennett continued where he left off at Bramall Lane, bagging his eighth goal of the season with a composed first-time finish. The winger was Rovers’ brightest attacking outlet in the first half and caused problems for Rochdale’s defence when he drifted inside. He faded after the break – but he wasn’t the only one in red and white guilty of that.
Rovers could well have slipped to a 12th home defeat of the season if it was not for the interventions of goalkeeper Stephen Bywater. The experienced keeper made one superb save low down in the first half to deny Rose and had to be alert to keep out Andrews’ header as Dale pushed for a winner. A question mark still surrounds Bywater’s command of his area but his shot-stopping definitely saved Doncaster from another disappointing result at home.
The fact that Rochdale can still reach the play-offs only rubs salt in Rovers’ wounds. Man-for-man, Doncaster are much stronger than the Spotland outfit, who at times in the first half looked more like relegation fodder than possible promotion candidates. Sadly for Rovers the game is not played on paper – and making sure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts has to be the focus this summer.
“I thought we played reasonably well in the first half and created chances, and scored a good goal by getting the ball wide.
“In the second half I thought they were the better team. We defended too deep and allowed pressure to come onto us. When we did break we didn’t use our width well enough and we didn’t get enough balls into the box – and we paid for it.”
“I’m pleased that we got a result. We played well. We probably deserved a bit more, especially given the way we played in the second half.
“I thought the first half was a non-event and we found ourselves a goal down.
“For their goal there was a player not just in an offside position but he interfered with our goalkeeper and stopped him from diving.
“I thought we rallied well in the second half.
“We dominated possession and enforced our game and style on the opposition. We probably should’ve scored more than one goal.”
Gavin Ward made the right call to let Bennett’s goal stand, despite the linesman’s flag going up. Dean Furman was in an offside position but he did not impede the Rochdale keeper and simply let the ball pass him into the net.