THE temperatures may have been an unseasonal degree or two above freezing last night in Doncaster but the League One play-off race continues to hot up.
Three days after suffering what looked to be a hugely damaging defeat to rivals Chesterfield on home soil, Bradford City bounced back with a much-needed victory over Rovers.
Two goals inside eight second-half minutes from Gary MacKenzie and Billy Clarke plus a stoppage-time strike by Tony McMahon settled a crunch derby clash in favour of Phil Parkinson’s men.
Thanks to defeats earlier in the day for Rochdale and Peterborough United, a first victory at the Keepmoat was enough to propel the Bantams back up the table to seventh and to within three points of Chesterfield in the final play-off place.
Throw in the game in hand Bradford have on the Spireites and the dream of a second possible promotion in three years is very much still alive.
Doncaster, in contrast, are in danger of losing touch. A 10th home defeat of the season means Paul Dickov’s men are now seven points adrift of the top six.
Even with a game in hand, it is a big gap to make up and leaves Rovers with little margin for error during a run-in that starts on Tuesday at Sheffield United.
The Blades, of course, are in action this lunchtime at Barnsley in a fixture that could have huge implications for all four of Yorkshire clubs chasing a play-off place.
At 4.15pm yesterday, things had been progressing very well for the quartet.
Not only were Chesterfield two goals behind at bottom club Yeovil Town, but Rochdale and Peterborough United were also behind.
Paul Cook’s Spireites, of course, produced an almighty comeback to triumph 3-2 at Huish Park. It left both Rovers and City desperate to claim all three points, a point reflected in how committed to attack the two sides were throughout the night.
It was an admirable approach, though one in the first half was continually let down by either poor execution when it came to the final pass or simply a weak finish.
James Coppinger and Jonson Clarke-Harris were both guilty during Doncaster’s strong spell in the ascendancy just after the half-hour mark.
Coppinger’s big moment came courtesy of a Ritchie Wellens cross. It found the club’s long-serving midfielder unmarked 10 yards out but his shot was wretched, the ball heading back in the direction it had emanated rather than towards goal.
Less than 60 seconds later, Clarke-Harris wasted another gilt-edged opportunity with a miscued header that looped wide of Ben Williams’ post.
Bradford’s own spell on top had come in the 10 minutes that preceded Doncaster’s two big misses.
Again, though, poor finishing let down enterprising approach play as, first, James Hanson failed to get enough on a Filipe Morais cross. Then, Mark Yeates shot wastefully wide after a fine knock-down from Hanson.
Despite those two let-offs, Rovers went in at the break believing they should have been ahead following two debatable decisions from the officials.
A blatant push by Stephen Darby on Clarke-Harris as he looked to convert a right-wing cross from Coppinger on 18 minutes was the first to be missed by referee Graham Salisbury.
The home fans – and Paul Dickov, judging by how he harangued the fourth official in the immediate aftermath – were further incensed just before the break as a second penalty appeal was waved away.
It came a second or two after Curtis Main had fired a 20-yard shot against the post. As the ball bounced down, Harry Forrester charged in to try and convert the rebound only to be checked by Darby. The linesman immediately flagged but, much to the frustration of the locals, it was for a debatable offside call.
Adding to the frustration felt on three sides of the Keepmoat, Bradford duly took advantage 11 minutes into the second half.
Mackenzie, whose blunder in midweek had handed victory to Chesterfield at Valley Parade, made amends by firing in following two almighty goalmouth scrambles in a matter of seconds.
The first saw Hanson denied by an Andy Butler block on the line before Rovers were able to clear the ball to the right flank.
Morais, alert as ever, immediately whipped in a first-time cross that Rory McArdle diverted back towards danger at the back post. A scrum of Rovers legs ensured the ball stayed out but only for a second until MacKenzie emerged from the mass of bodies to fire past Bywater.
Doncaster almost responded straight away, Williams having to save acrobatically from Dean Furman after Forrester had got clear down the left.
City, however, continued to do more of the pressing and it took a wonderful reflex save from Bywater to deny Billy Knott after the hosts had again failed to deal with a Morais corner.
It was a fine effort but, unfortunately for Doncaster, one that only delayed the inevitable as Bradford doubled their advantage in the 64th minute.
A long ball forward released Hanson, who after holding off a Luke McCullough challenge laid a pass off to Clarke.
The Bantams’ best player on the night then smashed a first-time shot beyond Bywater to send the 2,410 visiting fans into raptures.
McMahon’s stoppage-time strike capped a fine night for Bradford, whose goal difference of plus eight now matches that of sixth-placed Chesterfield to set up nicely Monday’s home clash with Preston North End at Valley Parade – a fixture that Rovers will be hoping can be won by Simon Grayson’s promotion chasers.
Doncaster Rovers: Bywater; Wabara, Butler, McCullough, Stevens; Coppinger (Bennett 68), Wellens, Furman, Forrester (Tyson 68); Main, Clarke-Harris (Mandeville 84). Unused substitutes: Evina, McCombe, Razak, Marosi.
Bradford City: Williams; Darby, McArdle, MacKenzie, Meredith; Morais, Liddle, Knott (Dolan 90), Yeates (McMahon 68); Clarke (Stead 89), Hanson. Unused substitutes: Urwin, Zoko, Routis, Webb-Foster.
Referee: G Salisbury (Lancashire).