Just when Doncaster Rovers were starting to think ahead to a sustained push for promotion next season, a painful reminder of their own shortcomings and football’s propensity to surprise was served up at the Keepmoat Stadium last night.
Two goals to the good and seemingly coasting to a fourth win in five games, against a side already bound for League Two, Rovers somehow conspired only to draw the game.
And even then they required an equaliser from Andy Boyle to spare their blushes after ‘dead-and-buried’ Bury turned the game on its head with three goals in 22 minutes either side of the break.
The point may have extended Doncaster’s unbeaten sequence to six games, their longest of the season, but the manner in which they capitulated from a position of dominance will cause manager Darren Ferguson headaches.
He had spoken in the build-up of his team’s chances of reaching League One’s top 10 before season’s end, a modest target to some, but with the spectre of relegation only erased in the last few weeks it was an ambition that spoke to their hopes to provide a springboard into next season.
Such a goal may still be realised – they sit 13th, three points adrift of Bradford in 10th – but their inability to close out a game against a team with nothing but pride to play for suggests much work still needs to be done before Doncaster can become a force in the third tier again.
The outcome was so surprising given the nature of the first 35 minutes when Rovers scored twice and should have had more.
Bury’s shallow self-belief on the back of seven straight defeats was exposed two minutes in when the evergreen James Coppinger got to the byline and whipped in a cross that more assured centre-halves would have gobbled up, but the ball found Andy Butler whose stooping header was destined for the back of the net the moment it left his forehead.
The lead was almost doubled moments later when John Marquis hit a first-time shot against the foot of a post from Tommy Rowe’s cutback, Coppinger again involved.
While Coppinger provided the ingenuity from the tip of Rovers’ four-man midfield diamond the thrust came from Rovers’ marauding full-backs.
Niall Mason was constantly on the front foot from left-back, and it was one of his bursts from deep that created an opening for Marquis on 16 minutes, but the striker could only shoot straight at Joe Murphy in the Bury goal.
On the other flank right-back Matty Blair needed little excuse to get forward into his natural habitat of a more attacking position, overlapping Ben Whiteman at every opportunity to give the beleaguered Bury defence plenty to guard against.
It was from that source that the second goal arrived moments after Rowe had spurned a one-on-one chance with a casual effort.
This time Blair raced straight at the heart of the Bury defence and, even though his final touch was too strong, Marquis was on hand to dink the ball home.
Rovers’ greatest attacking assets in Mason and Blair, however, soon became their biggest weakness in a dramatic turnaround.
First Mason headed Callum Styles’s free-kick past his own goalkeeper Marko Marosi to give the Shakers hope.
Then, after Neil Danns had been played in behind Blair only to rifle the ball into the side-netting, that same outlet drew a penalty for the visitors six minutes into the second half.
Blair was again turned inside out, this time by a run in behind by Phil Edwards that left the swivelling Blair little room to do anything but clip his heels.
Jay O’Shea coolly placed the penalty-kick down the middle and then on the hour he set a move in motion that gave Bury a lead few in the stadium could believe.
Spotting space behind Mason, he played substitute Zeli Ismail into acres of space and his shot was tapped home by George Miller.
Rovers responded quickly and on 66 minutes they were level, Boyle heading home Coppinger’s left-wing corner.
Mason continued to carry the greater threat, cutting in from the right late on to lace a shot straight at Murphy. And then Butler, who had started the goalfest, had a header tipped over the bar before Rowe jinked his way past a couple of tackles, only to shoot straight at Murphy. But by that stage Doncaster were desperate, when they should have been cruising.
Doncaster Rovers: Marosi; Blair (Kiwomya 58), Butler, Boyle, Mason; Houghton, Whiteman, Rowe, Coppinger (Kongolo 79); Marquis, Beestin. Unused substitutes: Lawlor, Alcock, Anderson, May, McCullough.
Bury: Murphy; Shotton, Thompson, Edwards; Cooney, Danns (Ince 80), Styles, O’Shea (Tutte 90), Bunn; Mayor (Ismail 55), Miller. Unused substitutes: Ripley, Clarke, Dai, Adams.
Referee: C Boyeson (East Yorkshire).