FOCUSSED and efficient, Boro withstood considerable emotional pressure to battle past a highly motivated Doncaster and win 3-1 on a difficult night at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Rovers were fired up and driven by the touching personal plight of striker Billy Sharp and in a difficult and charged atmosphere Boro did well to come from behind and claim the points.
On a night of harsh perspective on the importance of the game often elevated above life itself, the bustling frontman had bravely opted to play the game despite the tragic death of his new born son.
The infant – Luey Jacob – was born on Thursday and died on Friday plunging Sharp and his family into a deeply personal turmoil beyond imagination. At black times of mourning and emotional dislocation work is generally the last thing on anyone’s mind, let alone something as ultimately trivial as sport.
But brave Sharp chose to channel that into the game as a public celebration of the short life of the boy and in doing so harnessed the emotional response of the entire club – and beyond – and gave the strugglers an added incentive and bite.
Sharp was made Rovers captain for the night. There was a tear-jerking pre-match PA tribute to the two day old innocent ‘taken by angels’ and then an overpowering wall of noise as a minute of applause gripped the Keepmoat Stadium as hard-bitten football fans put aside their default cynicism and clapped with lumps in their throats. Sharp himself was in tears.
The noise from the Boro end – there were 2,273, a quarter of the crowd – was as intense as any part of the ground, a gesture that was warmly appreciated by the home crowd and by the player who later tweeted his thanks to the travelling fans.
Boro of course have been touched by similar tragedy. Colin Cooper, now an Academy coach but then a first team fixture, lost his own toddler son Finlay, and there was a similar unified and dignified reaction among the home crowd and opposition supporters when the club icon made his next appearance. That game was against Sunderland and the Mackem supporters showed a commendable respect that crossed all partisan barriers and was greatly appreciated.
Boro fans also joined in a warm supportive applause at the end of the game when Sharp was named the sponsors man of the match.
And naturally Sharp scored. Roared on by the home fans from the first whistle with his every touch – there was a cosmic ying and yang thing going on as Boro fans booed the every touch of his hate-magnet debutant team-mate, spit spat striker El Hadji Diouf – he set about the game with a zeal and burning desire.
The poignant – and inevitable – goal when it came was a cracker. A ball was forced towards the goal and it was flicked up by an audacious back-heel from Diouf and it looped up to the corner of the box where well placed Sharp struck a sublime volley on the turn that dipped over the stretching Jason Steele and looped into the far top corner.
It would have been a wonder goal in any game. In this one it was infused with an emotional impact that exploded.
Sharp revealed a touching t-shirt with a ‘That’s For You, Son’ message and while his own post-match celebrations were sombre, the Rovers fans roaring was redoubled.
Even the referee Darren Deadman was dragged into the solemnity of the occasion and declined to book the striker for his shirt stripping celebration, a clear infringement. That may well have earned him a black mark from the assessor in the stands but that is surely better than being cast as a heartless villain and being villified forever in South Yorkshire
At that point it felt certain that Boro would be crushed by the inevitability of the tribute match (and for many it probably felt equally certain that Diouff would get the next goal).
So it felt brutally insensitive as Boro put aside the bubbling sub-text of the emotive evening to step up a gear and take ruthless control of the game.
“We all knew it would be difficult for him and we weren’t sure how it would pan out,” said Tony McMahon. “I’m a dad myself and I know I wouldn’t been able to go out and play. I was a bit wary about how it would go.
“But after about two minutes he elbowed me in the eye so I knew he was up for it.”
The opening goal broke the spell and after a tentative start played in a strange bubble of respect aand restraint, the game burst into life.
And Sharp was accorded no special treatment. Big Mick Mcmanus was booked before the break for ploughing straight through the back of him with a hefty tackle.
Boro had their own emotional engine too. An incredible turnout by the travelling Teessiders ensured they were driven on by a full throated roar for the full 90 minutes.
Boro supporters have been incredible on the road this season. There were over 1,600 at Southampton on Saturday to watch a systematic butchering of an out-of-sorts side yet they bounced back for the next game with a zealous determination that matched the team.
The crowd was Boro’s second biggest turnout this season after the Leeds game. And they played a massive part. On a night when the team could easily have cracked and been overwhelmed by the occasion the leather lunged loyalists added a compelling counter-balance to the home fans while still doing the club proud with their show of respect to Sharp.
The team too were superb. After the bruising 3-0 defeat at Southampton and with the pack gathering just behind them during the recent wobble, the stakes were high for Boro going to second bottom Doncaster. Even a draw at a team that had looked relegation-bound and in disarray would have been seen as a strategic disaster.
Given the intensity of the situation, the early emotional opener and then an enforced change to shape and dynamic with the injury to Justin Hoyte – a switch that had a mixed response from Boro fans in the twittersphere – they showed great composure and professionalism.
They played their way back into the game with admirable application and vision. They passed and probed patiently, the movement off the ball was fluid and productive, they showed intent and ambition and carved out a string of excellent chances.
That brought its deserved reward, And after the well worked leveller from Barry Robson Boro took complete control and put in a polished performance that spoilt the script and banished any thoughts of a Southampton hangover.
Of the individual displays, Robson bossed the midfield with a show of drive and determination but Marvin Emnes was also on fire.Emnes seems to have clicked back into gear. At the start of the second half he was unplayable for 20 minutes as he twisted and turned, tricked and feinted through crowds of defenders but somehow emerged with the ball to slot it into dangerous positions that had emerged in the huge gaps his mayhem had carved.
At the back McMahon and McManus both did well. Scott McDonalds may not be able to hit a barndoor with a blunderbus right now – one goalbound sizzler hit unsuspecting Chimbonda and bounced clear but he is working very hard. And Faris Haroun impressed with ‘good engines’ and some neat distribution after coming on.
But every one of them did a fantastic job. Every department clicked.
It was a vital win in difficult circumstances. The team – and the fans – deserve credit.