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          Q and A | Rovers in tight spot after disastrous start

          2021/09/10 10:56
          Stephen Gillett

          It's still very early days, but many clubs have thrown down a marker with their performances thus far in the EFL - unfortunately for Doncaster Rovers' fans, the Vikings have not been one of them. 

          Sitting bottom of the table in the third tier, Rovers have only picked up a solitary point and Richie Wellens' men were hit for six by Rotherham in the Papa John's Trophy midweek to really set alarm bells ringing. 

          To gauge the extent of Rovers' current struggles , we checked in with fan account Into The Empty Net to delve into the reasons behind their poor start and assess the chances of a swift turnaround.  

          1. Doncaster currently sit bottom of League One with one point from six games, reeling from a 6-0 trouncing by Rotherham midweek. Did you see such a shocking start to the season coming? Have there been positives to take?

          ITEN: I don’t think anyone quite saw it as being this bad. We have scored one goal in eight games and that was on the opening day, in a game that we lost. 

          The club have made it clear that this was to be a season of rebuilding due to another managerial change and the fact that the squad turnover has been remarkably high, but that isn’t supposed to mean a season spent in the relegation battle.

          Hopefully we can get out of the mire soon, but the performances have largely been hard work to watch. We are in the midst of a truly ludicrous injury crisis, with somebody else going down hurt every few days it seems. 

          I think that the manager is starting to impart his playing style on the players, but with no continuity in selection due to the injuries it is hard to say how much progress we’ve made up to now.

          ©Getty / James Williamson - AMA

          2. After making the play-offs in 2018/19, Rovers finished 9th in the curtailed 19/20 season before placing 14th last what we're seeing now the result of a sure but steady decline?

          ITEN: I think you could make the argument for that – and to some degree I have in my latest article - but it is more a case of the club not learning from their past mistakes in my opinion, than any general decline. 

          Last season we were competing for automatic promotion until Darren Moore left, with players downing tools after that and undertaking a miserable slump into midtable. 

          The aim is to compete for a play-off place and I think we should have achieved at least that in 2020/21, but we have shown a lack of bottle on the field and made too many costly mistakes off of it that have impacted the playing side, and so we find ourselves in a bit of a predicament now.

          3. Richie Wellens made a name for himself when he won League Two with Swindon in 2019/20, but he then failed to meet expectations at Salford. How much of Rovers' poor start to the season can be laid at his doorstep?

          ITEN: Very little, if any. You can see the tactical ideas he is trying to get across, and I am yet to see any sign that Wellens is not a good motivator to the team. Everyone has spoken well of him and Noel Hunt in their efforts so far and I feel Wellens is in a tough situation not really of his own making.

          The club’s football strategy doesn’t feel very organised or cohesive. Our approach to the transfer market feels haphazard and not up-to-scratch with modern methods, yet the hierarchy keep putting our failings in this department down to bad luck.

          Everyone and their mother knew that Rovers needed to sign a striker this summer, it was painfully obvious that this is what we were lacking most in the games played so far, yet we waited until the final day of the window to spring into action and then saw our first choice join Rotherham, and our last-minute back-up choice fail to sign due to a paperwork error by Sunderland. 

          You have to laugh, or else you’ll cry.

          4.. Over recent seasons, Rovers have cashed in on key men like John Marquis (reportedly around £2 million) and Ben Whiteman (reportedly around £1.6 million) - have they been adequately replaced?

          ©Getty / Bryn Lennon

          ITEN: No they haven’t. 

          We overly relied on loans in the wake of Marquis’ departure and were unable to find a replacement for the first half of the following seasons, until Fejiri Okenabirhie arrived in the January window 18 months ago. He has largely been a success, but is not the same type of player as Marquis and it does feel as though we have gone backwards in this department since.

          Don’t get me wrong, John was always going to be difficult to replace, but players like Omar Bogle and Kwame Thomas have fallen far, far short of the standard required and it is now a big problem area for the team. 

          Okenabirhie is a long-term absentee through injury, leaving 18-year-old loanee Tiago Cukur to bear the burden whilst our failure to strengthen on Deadline Day led to the free agent pick-up of Joe Dodoo. These lads may yet come good, but it would be asking too much to expect either of them to hit 20 goals in a season like Marquis used to.

          5. Rovers have also dealt effectively in the loan market with the likes of Seni Dieng (QPR) and Taylor Richards (Brighton) enhancing their reputations in League One - have they missed a trick this season?

          ITEN: I believe it’s too early to tell how this season’s crop of loan players will pan out. Dieng was an incredible signing by Darren Moore, he was far better than any Championship loan goalkeeper had any right to be, whilst Richards had something special about him even though he was rough around the edges in his play.

          Pontus Dahlberg looks a strong addition as goalkeeper, even if I personally believe we should prioritise an experienced, permanent signing at the position in future seasons, whilst midfielders Ethan Galbraith and Matt Smith come with good pedigree (from Manchester United and Arsenal respectively).

          Cukur and Newcastle attacking midfielder Rodrigo Vilca are untested prospects, but I’d say it would be unfair to say our loan policy has caused more issues than it has solved at this stage. 

          Clubs at this level have to rely on these sorts of signings to a degree, and I think we have added them in the right areas other than goalkeeper – but Dahlberg is a full Sweden international with solid experience for his age, so at least we have gone to the top end of the pool for that particular player.

          6. Which players have performed well this season despite the team's struggles?

          ©Getty / Isaac Parkin - PA Images

          ITEN: Cameron John has really stepped up in defence after a tough season last year. He is a nuanced centre half who can play at left back as well, and his performances under Wellens have been encouraging. Of course, with this being Doncaster Rovers he has now gone onto the injury list indefinitely with a back fracture, but hopefully that doesn’t derail his progress because he is one of the best signings Darren Moore made.

          Beyond him, it is a short list unfortunately. Ben Close and Ethan Galbraith have shown signs of real quality in midfield, Charlie Seaman is staking a claim for a more prominent role as a winger despite signing as a depth option at full back, and Pontus Dahlberg is almost solely responsible for us earning our solitary point of the season against Portsmouth. It is slim pickings though in all truth.

          7. It's been a tough start - have Rovers got the manager and the personnel to turn their season around?

          ITEN: I’m not sure we have got what it takes to get out of this, is my concerned answer to that. 

          I do have faith that Richie Wellens can get us going as much as he is capable of, but I feel our mistakes in the transfer window coupled with injuries are going to give us an almighty hill to climb early in the campaign.

          We are lacking experience and depth right through the side, and I fear we are also lacking quality in important areas. 

          Tom Anderson looks a shell of his old self in defence and is surrounded by young players still learning their craft, whilst we have been woefully impotent up front. 

          There isn’t much power or guile in the team from what I can see, and we don’t have time to bring along half a dozen or more project players, some of whom aren’t even our own.

          I am usually quite a positive observer when it comes to Doncaster Rovers, but right now I am really struggling to put that optimistic hat on. It may just be a case of finding one win to build some confidence, get some players back fit and move on from this disastrous start, but it may well be a long, long season for us if the malaise goes on much longer.


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