Matty Blair lives up to reputation to give Doncaster Rovers hope against Charlton Athletic
The 29-year-old has twice found the net at Wembley in finals, including the 2012 winner that took York City back into the Football League.
His record in semi-finals is not to be sniffed at either with six appearances in both the play-offs and the FA Trophy now having yielded an impressive four goals.
Whether his most recent effort, a late header yesterday for Doncaster Rovers, proves to be nothing more than a sidenote to Charlton Athletic walking out at Wembley on May 26 remains to be seen. Friday’s second leg at The Valley will tell us that.
But Blair’s ability to deliver almost on demand in the big matches means Rovers at least make that trip down the Floyd Road with hope.
Up until he headed in Malik Wilks’s looping cross with just three minutes remaining such a prospect seemed unlikely thanks to the clinical finishing of in-form Charlton.
With Lyle Taylor leading by example an attacking unit packed full of athleticism and energy, the Addicks had taken an iron grip on proceedings.
Josh Cullen, so impressive in two years on loan at Bradford City, pulled the strings in midfield to ensure the pace and power of Taylor, Josh Parker and Joe Aribo was fully utilised.
Rovers, after going close in the opening half hour through James Coppinger and Danny Andrew, were hit with the sucker punch of two goals in as many minutes.
It meant as the clock ticked down and the 3,688 travelling fans enjoyed an impromptu party at one end of the Keepmoat Stadium that manager Grant McCann’s men needed some inspiration to regain a foothold in the tie.
Enter Blair, the man who not only netted two winners for York in semi-finals but also then scored the only goal of a two-legged League Two semi-final against his former club for Fleetwood Town at Bootham Crescent in 2014.
His lung-busting run from right-back to meet Wilks’s deflected cross just a yard from the goalline was typical of the never-say-die spirit that has epitomised Blair’s career.
“I don’t know what part of my body it hit,” said the former York and Mansfield Town man with a smile afterwards. “I just threw myself at the ball and the main thing is it went in.
“Even before the first leg I thought we would have to go to The Valley and get a result. If we play like we did in the second half – and add a bit more energy and quality – then we can give them a good game.”
Charlton’s record since the start of 2019 underlined why Doncaster were felt to have the toughest of play-off tasks this year.
Lee Bowyer’s side had welcomed in the new year sitting sixth in the League One table, a point ahead of Rovers.
By the time the regular season had drawn to a close on May 4 that gap between yesterday’s combatants at the Keepmoat Stadium had grown fifteen-fold.
Thirteen wins and just two defeats from 21 outings had propelled the Addicks up to third, a record made all the more impressive by 14-goal top scorer Karlan Grant having been sold to Huddersfield Town for £2m midway through January. For McCann’s men to put a halt to the London club’s assault on reclaiming a Championship place the initiative had to be seized and quickly.
Initially Rovers did just that, neat, intricate play in and around the Charlton penalty area bringing chances as Coppinger had an early sight of goal from Wilks’s knockdown.
Doncaster’s venerable veteran also brought a fine reaction save from Dillon Phillips, while Andrew was unfortunate to see a 35-yard free-kick thump against the crossbar before bouncing to safety.
So far, so good as the half-hour approached. Then, though, came those two mad minutes as first Taylor headed in from close range and then Aribo timed his overlap to perfection before beating Marko Marosi.
Rovers did well to get to half-time without any further damage having been inflicted.
McCann’s response to those two quickfire goals was withdraw Coppinger and switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation, something that seemed to suit his players.
Charlton still carried a big threat as Cullen headed narrowly wide and Taylor was agonisingly close to converting a right-wing cross from Krystian Belik. But Doncaster, too, were asking questions long before Blair swooped to continue a quite remarkable scoring record on the big occasion.
Bowyer still ended the afternoon the happier of the two managers.
But he knows Rovers will arrive in London with a renewed sense of belief that a return to the Championship is still attainable.
Doncaster Rovers: Marosi; Blair, Butler, Downing, Andrew; Whiteman, Kane; Wilks, Coppinger (Rowe 46), Sadlier (May 84); Marquis. Unused substitutes: Jones, Crawford, Anderson, Smith, Lewis.
Charlton Athletic: Phillips; Djiksteel, Bauer, Sarr; Purrington; Bielik, Cullen, Morgan (Pratley 61), Aribo; Taylor, Parker (Pearce 66). Unused substitutes: Maxwell, Page, Forster-Caskey, Williams, Lapslie.