Doncaster Rovers 2 Portsmouth 1: Depleted Rovers earn perfect anniversary gift for Ferguson

IN the week of his second anniversary in charge at Doncaster Rovers, Darren Ferguson was afforded a present of timely significance.

Darren Ferguson

Two years to the day since the newly-appointed Rovers manager watched on from the East Stand as his new side lost out in passive fashion at home to Bradford City – the Scot witnessed a rather more relieving occasion last night, even if it was thoroughly nervy.

Beset by a crippling striker crisis as opposed to the crisis of confidence among his players which greeted him a couple of years back, Ferguson would have been forgiven for inwardly fearing the worst for his similarly lowly side ahead of an appointment with an in-form and stingy Portsmouth side seeking their third straight clean sheet.

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But just as his players secured a memorable home victory under the lights at Pompey’s expense 285 days earlier, so another arrived last night, albeit in contrasting fashion.

Rovers hit the heights in that exhilarating televised showing in January and despite a breathtaking and dream opening which yielded two goals in the opening five minutes – including a cathartic moment for Liam Mandeville – this latest success over 10-man Portsmouth was much more in the balance.

Mandeville, who struck Rovers’ opener for his first goal of 2017 – was certainly not the only home player afforded a redeeming moment.

Keeper Ian Lawlor also took centre stage and after his calamitous error in letting Mathieu Baudry’s backpass trundle past him inexplicably to hand Pompey a lifeline on 54 minutes, the Rovers man atoned himself with a brilliant one-handed stoppage-time save to keep out substitute Jamal Lowe’s header.

With just one Keepmoat league success since early April and without the likes of John Marquis and James Coppinger and with one fit striker in Mandeville, it was always likely to be an evening when Rovers would have to dig in to get over the line.

Even accounting for the fact that the hosts played out the last 19 minutes with a man advantage after Dion Donohue was dismissed for kicking out at Niall Mason, anxiety was wholly apparent late on.

Portsmouth’s fans were quick to remind their Rovers counterparts of their side’s failure to win the title last season after a bout of nerves, but this time around, Rovers found a way.

Given Rovers’ difficult start to the season and toils at home, it was hardly ever going to be straightforward, even if the early signs were wholly uplifting

Ferguson displayed ingenuity in his 3-4-3 line-up and it reaped a harvest early on.

A fluid Rovers system totally bamboozled Pompey in the opening quarter as Tommy Rowe and Rodney Kongolo pushed forward to support Mandeville to devastating effect.

The pair combined intuitively for the hosts’ opener, the first of two goals in a scarcely believable start as Rovers harnessed energy and movement with a defined set-piece threat.

It proved a nightmare start for ex-Rotherham United manager Kenny Jackett on his return to South Yorkshire and indeed, it could have been worse for the visitors.

So ponderous on Saturday, a hungry if youthful-looking Rovers provided Ferguson with the perfect riposte, sweetened by a third-minute opener.

Clever footwork from Rowe supplied Kongolo and his drilled low cross was turned in via the aid of a slight deflection by Mandeville, for his first strike since New Year’s Eve.

It got better when Harry Toffolo’s deep left-wing corner found Rowe, whose thumping header was diverted home by the outstretched leg of Christian Burgess.

Another corner almost yielded a third when Andy Butler’s header flew wide, with Pompey eventually managing to regroup.

The visitors’ main first-half weapon arrived in the shape of some dangerous deliveries from Matty Kennedy and his deep free-kick also manufactured a lifeline when Burgess almost made up for his own goal, but the alert Joe Wright cleared his header off the line.

Pompey showed their intent with a double attacking substitution at the break and one of the replacements in Ben Chaplin went despairingly close when his fine curled free-kick clipped the woodwork.

But soon Pompey were handed a real gift after Lawlor’s horror moment. After a tough evening, it represented manna from heaven for the visitors and a major game-shifting moment.

Following such a punishing episode, it also served a big test for Rovers in terms of their game management, something that Ferguson had been critical of, with his anger clear to see after such a soft concession.

His fury was also self-evident later on in the half, albeit for an entirely different reason following Donohue’s challenge on Mason close to the touchline, which resulted in his dismissal on the advice of the fourth official.

Still Pompey pressed as Rovers switched to 4-2-3-1, but Lawlor ensured it was a night to savour.

Doncaster Rovers: Lawlor; Baudry (Beestin 72), Butler, Wright; Blair (Mason 46), Houghton, Whiteman, Kongolo, Toffolo, Rowe, Wrightman; Mandeville (Garrett 88). Substitutes unused: Marosi, Alcock, Ben Khemis, Fletcher.

Portsmouth: McGee; Thompson, Burgess, Clarke, Donohue; Close, O’Keefe; Evans (Lowe 46), Bennett (Chaplin 46), Kennedy; Hawkins. Substitutes unused: Bass, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Haunstrup, Naismith, Rose.

Referee: M Coy (Co Durham).