Black humour attended the Keepmoat on the centenary of the Titanic disaster. When Doncaster went two up in five minutes Portsmouth's fans burst into "We're going down with the Rovers". And when Bristol City went ahead at Birmingham that is how it looked until beyond the hour: water pistols for two, life belts for none. Then two penalties in seven minutes for Pompey either side of a Birmingham equaliser gave Portsmouth a lifeline. James Coppinger's instant response for Rovers handed one to them instead until two goals in added time gave Portsmouth 4-3 victory and a sliver of hope. Doncaster became the league's first fall guys.
This is their fourth season in the Championship after more than 50 in lower divisions. In 2003 they ended five years in the Conference. John Ryan, chairman since 1998, made his money in cosmetic surgery. In his ownership Doncaster have enjoyed conspicuous enhancement. Relegation is their first real setback. Before Saturday's match he was already looking forward to the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, which they won in 2007. But his manager, Dean Saunders, was still upbeat. "We just have to go for broke," he said. Portsmouth had long since gone for it. Without their 10-point deduction for administration they would be above the Plimsoll line.
Saunders became manager in September, his first league appointment, after Sean O'Driscoll followed 12 league games without a win at the end of last season with seven more to start this one. By then Ryan's friendship with the agent Willie McKay had conjured up a policy of short-term loans. For £100 a week McKay would use his connections to get in players of quality. They called it The Experiment. The proof of it lies in the league table.
Rovers have 33 players on their books to Pompey's 20. They have used 40 in the league. Loanees – including El Hadji Diouf and Frédéric Piquionne – by their very availability are not match fit. Habib Beye and Fabien Robert were the only two to start here, both scored and the team played as if they knew one another. Pompey had no answer until the manager, Michael Appleton, "had a few choice words". By the end his "sense of frustration" was replaced by a recognition of "good fortune".
Saunders agreed, with just grievance. "The game was decided by the referee [Mick Russell]," he said. "That was Billy Smart's circus out there, all four goals. Let his boss and the assessor make the decision as to whether he ever referees again." His objections to the penalties concerned where Beye, who was sent off, tripped Dave Kitson and the helplessness of James O'Connor when the ball hit his arm from two yards; Greg Halford converted both. Saunders also saw fouls by Kitson in scoring the third "with two hands" and in the build-up to the fourth by Marko Futacs. Even Ryan saw all four goals as "debatable" – like The Experiment perhaps.
Whatever Saunders feels about this, he bought into a three-year contract and talks eagerly and sensibly of creating his own team and moving the club forward again; Ryan does not sack lightly. Appleton, while hoping the fans will "squeeze the ball into the net" in their remaining games, said much the same; he has been in charge even less time. One of Doncaster's famous sons is Thomas Crapper, one of Portsmouth's Charles Dickens. Appleton has the chance of another short chapter before eventually following Rovers down the pan.