The Hatters made their first visit to old League rivals Doncaster in nearly 18 years, and their inaugural one to Rovers’ multipurpose Eco-Power Stadium, but left empty-handed after playing for much of the game with 10 men and ultimately being edged out by the odd goal in three.
Macauley Southam-Hales was sent off only 20 minutes into the evening – leaving his side with a mountain to climb for the remaining 70. The hosts, whom County had not beaten in League action since 1990, proceeded to score later in the first half, and although an equaliser from substitute Ryan Rydel within a minute of the re-start got the Hatters back on terms, their subsequent rearguard action was cruelly overcome by a second Doncaster strike in added time.
The Hatters took to the field in some post-heatwave rain, and showing one change from their starters against Colchester at Edgeley Park three days earlier – with Kyle Wootton, who had scored the only goal of that game to secure County a first win back in League Two, replacing Ollie Crankshaw.
The hosts, managed by one-time County loanee Gary McSheffrey, included among their unchanged line-up another former Hatter, Tommy Rowe, who had plied his trade in SK3 as a youth, and subsequently a senior, player from 2003 to 2009.
Paddy Madden unleashed the first shot of the contest with half a dozen minutes on the clock, and came close to scoring in outrageous style after spotting home goalkeeper Jonathan Mitchell off his line – but the skipper’s half-volley, from just inside the home half, flew wide of the left post.
Ten minutes later, a chip into the County area by Lee Tomlin found Kyle Knoyle – although the onrushing right-back was only able to apply a heavy touch that was safely intercepted by Vit Jaros.
It had been a benign enough start to the night’s proceedings, but as the first half approached its mid-point, the Hatters were reduced in number when Southam-Hales was shown a straight red card after shoving Rowe as the players jostled for position whilst awaiting James Brown’s throw-in from the right.
The Hatters, who had brought on Rydel for Ryan Croasdale shortly after the dismissal, responded to their setback in a positive manner initially – but 10 minutes ahead of the break, they fell behind to the unbeaten hosts when James Maxwell’s low delivery from the left teed up George Miller to slot past Jaros.
As half-time approached, further damage was averted by the woodwork, as a curling effort from Tomlin struck County’s right post, and by the Jaros, whose legs kept out Knoyle’s follow-up shot.
HALF-TIME: Doncaster 1 (Miller, 35), County 0.
County introduced Fraser Horsfall for Wootton upon the resumption, but, having shored up the defence, the Hatters promptly and amazingly drew level. A run down the left flank by Myles Hippolyte eventually found Rydel, whose shot went through the legs of Mitchell and into the net.
Doncaster responded with forays towards the County goal that saw Jaros parry beyond the right post a shot from Rowe, Kyle Hurst fire wide of the opposite upright, and Tomlin, from 25 yards, let rip with a thunderbolt that struck the underside of the crossbar before bouncing clear.
Jaros palmed away two shots in quick succession from Hurst on the left, as the hosts kept up the pressure. And a shot from distance by Harrison Biggins struck the County ‘keeper’s chest, before Jaros recovered to snatch the ball away from Miller on the rebound.
With under 20 minutes left, Jaros intervened again to deny Rowe, after the ex-Hatter connected with Adam Clayton’s corner from the right to head goal-wards. And within a minute of his introduction, substitute Kieran Agard drilled a shot from the right across the six-yard box and narrowly past the far post.
The supreme backs-to-the-wall effort – aided by three further County substitutions for the final quarter of an hour – continued, as Jaros tipped over a Tomlin free-kick that had been glanced on by Antoni Sarcevic, and Tom Anderson’s shot was deflected beyond the right post.
But, alas, the Hatters could not quite hold out for what would have been a bravely-fought point. As five minutes of added time were announced, Tomlin threaded through a ball from the middle for Agard to drill past Jaros for the late winner.
FULL-TIME: Doncaster 2 (Miller, 35; Agard, 90 + 1), County 1 (Rydel, 46).
Team (3-4-3): Jaros; Brown, Lewis, R. Johnson; Southam-Hales, Croasdale (Rydel, 27), Camps (Newby, 75), Hippolyte (Crankshaw, 75); Madden (Capt.) (Evans, 75), Wootton (Horsfall, 46), Sarcevic.
Unused Subs: Hinchliffe, Quigley.
Booked: Madden, Crankshaw, Jaros.
Sent Off: Southam-Hales.
Attendance: 6,309 (1,115 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.