FOR a team that is yet to win outside Yorkshire this season, Doncaster Rovers continue to live dangerously in the Championship.
Defeat last night to Derby County means Paul Dickov and his players will spend an anxious couple of hours this afternoon keeping tabs on how Barnsley and Millwall fare.
Victory for both their relegation rivals – the Reds host Leeds United, while the Lions travel to Middlesbrough – will leave Doncaster teetering on the edge of a trapdoor marked ‘League One’ just a year after escaping the third tier amid that never-to-be forgotten final day drama at Brentford.
It would also leave Monday’s trip to Millwall as a potentially season-defining 90 minutes for Rovers, whose only victories in 21 games on the road this season have come at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United.
Much, therefore, for Dickov to ponder after his side slipped to a fourth straight loss thanks to goals from George Thorne and Chris Martin that mean Derby can still, in theory, catch Burnley in the race for the second automatic promotion place.
The reality is that the Clarets are almost up thanks to an eight-point advantage over the Rams, meaning the big question from a Doncaster perspective is whether Sean Dyche’s men will be one or two divisions higher than the south Yorkshire club next term.
Derby, sporting a strip whose design had not been seen since Thunderbirds were go in the mid-Sixties, had confirmed a play-off place before a ball had been kicked thanks to results elsewhere in the Championship.
Despite that fillip and the knowledge that anything but a victory would mean the champagne corks popping all around Burnley, the Rams almost committed footballing suicide within four minutes.
Under very little pressure, Richard Keogh absent-mindedly rolled a pass back to goalkeeper Lee Grant without realising his team-mate was out of his goal.
As the ball trickled towards the line, Grant then had to scramble back quickly to keep the ball out.
It was a let-off for Steve McClaren’s side and one that, for the best part of half an hour, seemed to inhibit the visitors.
That allowed Doncaster to, if not quite seize control, then at least have the better of play as the combination of Gabriel Tamas and Chris Brown twice came close to unlocking the Derby defence.
First, the big striker met a flying cross with a header that Grant did well to tip over at full-stretch. Then, as Tamas again found sufficient space on the right to send over an inviting cross, Brown rose highest to power a header that Grant was relieved came straight at him.
Derby offered little until the closing stages of the first half but their final foray forward proved telling as a neat passing move involving Craig Bryson and Will Hughes saw Thorne teed up for a shot. And the loanee rose to the challenge with a lovely drilled shot from 20 yards that arrowed into the corner of the net, just evading the out-stretched hand of Sam Johnstone.
Going in at the interval behind was harsh on Rovers. Any injustice felt by the hosts, though, could not be channelled into a concerted spell of pressure on the restart.
Instead, Derby seized the early initiative and really should have doubled their advantage on 54 minutes.
A delightful slide rule pass from deep by Thorne opened up Doncaster sufficiently for Craig Bryson to have a clear run on goal.
However, as the 3,341 visiting fans rose to acclaim what seemed like being a certain goal, Johnstone produced a stunning save low to his left.
From the resulting corner, Rovers had another fortunate escape as a mis-understanding saw the ball allowed to bounce in the six-yard box where Keogh couldn’t quite apply the final touch despite being at full stretch.
Derby’s reward for an improved display after half-time came 10 minutes from time when Chris Martin fired in from close range after being picked out by Jamie Ward.
The game was up for Doncaster, who despite lacking the polish of their efforts in the opening 45 minutes had created a couple of chances.
Tamas headed wide from a typically accurate free-kick by David Cotterill, moments after Billy Sharp had been unable to get a foot to the ball as it fizzed across the 18-yard line.
Theo Robinson also looked to be through on goal only for an unfortunate bounce to see the ball spin away from the substitute at the vital moment.
Grant blocked a Robinson effort 14 minutes from time after great work by Mark Duffy but, in truth, Rovers just didn’t ask enough questions of Derby in the second half and this afternoon is likely to be an anxious one as they follow events at Oakwell and the Riverside.
Should the two results go against Dickov’s men, then surely they must end that near 12-month long wait for a victory outside the Broad Acres at The Den or League One really will be beckoning.
Doncaster Rovers: Johnstone; Tamas, Quinn, Meite, Stevens; Coppinger, Keegan, Furman ( Duffy 74), Cotterill; Sharp (Robinson 66), Brown (De Val 89). Unused substitutes: Maxted, McCullough, McCombe, Ferguson.
Derby County: Grant; Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Thorne, Bryson, Hughes (Hendrick 81), Russell (Dawkins 61); Bamford (Ward 50), Martin. Unused substitutes: Eustace, Sammon, Whitbread, Legzdins.
Referee: S Hooper (Wiltshire).