FURIOUS Doncaster Rovers manager Dean Saunders criticised referee David Coote and claimed he cost his side maximum points in their rollercoaster League One derby against fellow high-fliers Sheffield United yesterday.
Rovers let slip a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes, with goals from Nick Blackman (penalty) and Dave Kitson earning the Blades a point.
The hosts paid a heavy price after losing goalscorer Billy Paynter to a straight red card three minutes from time when he tangled with Tony McMahon.
Two minutes later, Kitson – barracked continually by Rovers supporters with the striker having netted a controversial handled goal for Portsmouth in their crucial relegation game at the Keepmoat last term – silenced the home boo-boys as the Blades secured a share of the spoils.
Downcast Saunders – whose side had manufactured a 2-0 lead courtesy of strikes from Paynter (penalty) and David Syers – said: “We played really well from start to finish and the referee did us, really.
“The first penalty was a blatant one and the goalkeeper (George Long) should have been sent off. Their penalty was a disgraceful decision and was never a penalty and the red card was not a sending off. We could have been 8-0 up. They did not have a shot at our goal and the referee cost us two points.
“It has cost all of the supporters and players and losing those two points might cost us at the end of the season. Those two decisions for them are going to be hard to swallow for a couple of days. I am sick we have not got over the line after playing so well.”
Hailing his side’s dramatic comeback, Blades manager Danny Wilson – who handed a debut to new signing Danny Higginbotham, who has signed a six-month deal, while teenagers Terry Kennedy and Elliott Whitehouse also started in a makeshift line-up – said: “We waited until we were 2-0 down to get a head of steam up and when we did we showed that people can’t handle us.
“After we got the first I was always thought there was a chance we would get another and we put them under great pressure. Ours was a stonewall penalty, just like theirs was. You could not argue with either.”
Wilson, who confirmed that the signing of Motherwell winger Jamie Murphy is imminent, added: “From our perspective, it feels like a great point. From theirs, it will feel like a loss. Psychologically, it will do us no harm whatsoever and it will possibly do a little bit of damage to them.”
The first half saw Rovers firmly in the ascendancy with goalkeeper Gary Woods a bystander for the most part. The Blades were on the back foot and struggled to piece together any cohesive attacking moves.
The visitors’ only tangible opportunity arrived on 11 minutes when McMahon’s expertly-taken free-kick was tipped over by Woods, with Rovers drawing first blood seven minutes later courtesy of a penalty from one-time Blades target Paynter. It was a definite spot-kick after Long injudiciously raced out of goal to trip the on-rushing Syers, who had latched onto Iain Hume’s instinctive through ball. Paynter coolly sent the Blades goalkeeper the wrong way to plunder his seventh goal of the campaign – and second spot-kick in successive games.
Soon after, midfielder Syers spurned a glaring chance to net his third goal in consecutive matches, heading wide after ghosting in at the far post unchallenged following ex-Blades winger Dave Cotterill’s deep corner.
After a first half in which they asked nearly all of the questions, Rovers went within a whisker of a second moments after the restart with Hume’s shot hitting a post.
The highly-rated Long then showed his mettle to beat away Hume’s close-range effort before boyhood Sheffield Wednesday fan Jamie McCombe just failed to connect with a header following Cotterill’s free-kick.
With the Blades bringing little to the encounter, Rovers made them pay on 63 minutes with a well-taken second.
Cotterill’s fine free-kick was glanced in by the unmarked Syers, who again displayed his penchant for getting on the end of quality balls into the box as he struck his fifth goal of the season.
Hume soon went close to a third for the rampant hosts, with his low shot blocked by Long. Only a desperate clearance from Higginbotham prevented Paynter from tucking away the loose ball.
Kitson was being kept under lock and key by defensive pair Rob Jones and McCombe.
Returning James Coppinger was then afforded a rapturous round of applause when he entered the fray 14 minutes from time for Kyle Bennett, but it was another substitute who had a more telling impact.
Blades’ replacement Joe Ironside went down when challenged by Andy Griffin on 80 minutes with Blackman tucking away the spot-kick for his 13th goal of the season to hand the visitors a lifeline.
An enthralling denouement then saw Paynter receive his marching orders after tussling with McMahon – Rovers will appeal against his dismissal – before Kitson’s intervention a minute from time, firing home amid a goalmouth frenzy after earlier shots from himself and Matt Hill were only half-cleared.
Doncaster Rovers: G Woods; Quinn (Griffin 64), McCombe, Jones, Spurr; Cotterill, Syers, Keegan, Bennett (Coppinger 76); Hume (Martis 82), Paynter. Unused substitutes: Maxted, Husband, Ball, Harper.
Sheffield United: Long; McMahon, Kennedy, Higginbottom, Hill, Blackman, McDonald, Doyle, Flynn (Ironside 73); Whitehouse (Cofie 53), Kitson. Unused substitutes: Westlake, McAllister, Cresswell, M Williams, Coyne.
Referee: D Coote (Notts).