• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers v Rochdale & Bolton

With only four home games to come for the rest of the season, this Keepmoat double-header over the past few days was always going to feel crucial to Rovers’ aspirations for the rest of the season. Four points earned in two games against clubs at the wrong end of the table is not bad at all, but could have been better. Here are five things we learned from the 1-1 draw with Rochdale and the 2-1 win over Bolton.

1. King Kieran

There is no denying Kieran Sadlier’s influence in this team. The Irish winger has gotten better as the season goes on, and is now clear and away the biggest threat in Darren Moore’s arsenal.

He proved that within a minute on Saturday, cutting inside from the left and playing a teasing ball into the penalty area that was flicked into the goal by Jon Taylor, giving Rovers the perfect start against Rochdale. Sadlier was closest to doubling the lead with an effort from a similar position, cutting across highly-rated teenage full back Luke Matheson and unleashing a curling shot that struck the post and came back out, underlining his goal threat from that wide midfield position.

As tough a time as he gave Matheson at the weekend, Sadlier stepped it up again against Bolton. Brandon Fleming had an absolutely torrid evening at left back, as Sadlier switched over to the right hand side so Darren Moore could accommodate Niall Ennis, a move which paid off just as it did a week earlier in the 3-0 win at Tranmere. The creative spark came through Sadlier for the entire first half, with two sublime low crosses just begging to be turned in being squandered before he made a superb run from deep, playing a through ball to Reece James that he laid on for Fejiri Okenabirhie to open the scoring.

Rovers fans are right to worry that we may lose our top scorer for nothing in the summer if he doesn’t sign a new deal. Kieran Sadlier has fast become a talisman, improving consistently since joining the club just over a year ago, and now sits on 11 goals, making him the highest scoring midfielder in League One. His 6 assists only add to that, whilst his overall contribution increases with each passing week making him a player of unquestionable value to the club.

2. Renewed Attacking Hope

Sadlier aside, a team which has struggled all season to find a cohesive and effective way of playing in the final third is finally hitting its groove. Rovers had a combined 29 shots on goal in the games against Rochdale and Bolton, hitting the target 12 times and scoring three goals, a healthy return on all levels. In fact, Darren Moore’s side can boast the 4th highest goalscoring record in League One, behind only Oxford and the division’s current top two.

The January signings of Fejiri Okenabirhie and Devante Cole have played a big role in this, with Cole starting twice as the lone striker and Okenabirhie making his full debut against Bolton. Cole brings a calm presence and has linked up well without yet finding his feet in front of goal, but former Shrewsbury striker Okenabirhie has hit the ground running with two goals in his first three outings. Okenabirhie especially looks the part as the true #9 running off the shoulder and battling defenders, with a clinical touch to boot.

Niall Ennis has also benefitted hugely from the new arrivals, moving more to a supporting role on the left of the front three which has given him the space to punish opposition defences. Ennis has notched three goals in his last four starts, with a great crossing assist at Tranmere to add to that, and pulled off a terrific diving header to win the Bolton game. He looks motivated and confident, clearly relishing the fresh impetus of attacking talent alongside him.

Last night’s 2-1 win showed us what Rovers can look like as an attacking proposition – committed, quality wide play, a sincere approach from a bona-fide, goal-hungry central striker and the guile of a talented #10 in James Coppinger to hold it all together.

3. Darren’s Midfield Dilemma

He may have found his combination in the front four, but Darren Moore has a bigger headache behind them in midfield. Moore was right to give Madger Gomes and young loan starlet Jacob Ramsey the nod against Rochdale after their superb displays in the 3-0 win at Tranmere the previous midweek, but the 4-1-4-1 set-up was simply not the best way to get through a Rochdale side happy to be patient in their build-up through midfield.

The game completely passed Ramsey by despite the fact he was coming off a truly impressive debut, scoring twice on his Rovers bow, whilst Gomes simply does not have the physicality or vision to pull the strings in the same way Coppinger does. That was evident in the way he played with his head down for much of the afternoon and was unable to affect play going forward, whilst he was also guilty of completely losing Ollie Rathbone on halfway for what became the Rochdale equaliser.

Both were dropped for Tuesday’s clash with Bolton and Rovers looked back to their best in possession for the first hour with Copps and Ben Sheaf reinstated. Sheaf has a great understanding with Ben Whiteman and it led to numerous opportunities being created, but still problems arose in the second half when the passing accuracy dipped and players across the pitch in red shirts started to lose their composure in the face of unexpected pressure from the visitors.

As it is, Rovers gathered themselves together and saw the game out, with Ramsey playing a key role in the team managing possession better in the final minutes to hold on for victory, but the manager clearly needs more time on the training ground with his midfield group to work out his best system in this area of the pitch.

4. Away Run a Blessing?

Much has been made of Rovers’ remaining fixtures, with an unusually heavy emphasis on away games. The loss of the Easter Monday home game with expelled Bury coupled with rearranged away trips to Bolton and Portsmouth mean that 10 of the team’s last 14 League One matches will be played away from Lakeside. However, whilst that seems on the face of it like a disadvantage in our push for the Play-Offs, Darren Moore may actually be quietly pleased about it.

This is because Rovers have found a real sense of style away from home of late, with three wins in five on the road including impressive wins at Peterborough and Oxford, plus a gutsy draw at Sunderland. Rovers have the players to hurt teams on the counter attack and have done that to great effect with some of the aforementioned results, whilst a much-lauded defensive unit seems to relish soaking up pressure.

Fatigue may yet become an issue, particularly next month when Rovers play four successive away matches over a span of just 11 days, but if we can make our remaining home games count and keep picking up points steadily away, a top six finish could be within reach.

5. Sky’s the Limit

Whether or not Rovers reach the Play-Offs this season, the squad is starting to shape up in terms of how Darren Moore improves things into the 2020/21 season. January gave us a better idea of his vision for the short term future of Doncaster Rovers, and the building blocks are beginning to be laid.

This team is undoubtedly still a young, raw group but the mistakes of the last two games perhaps show why that is. Loanees Seny Dieng and Ben Sheaf got it all wrong for Bolton’s goal, a present gift-wrapped by a poor pass out from the keeper, a slack backpass from Sheaf and an ill-thought attempt at a Cruyff turn by Dieng on his own goal line. The qualities that these two in particular have shown over the past few months however mark them out as players who can go far in the game.

The fact is that this is League One, a division where young players cut their teeth and more experienced players with quality stay due to the missing ingredient in their game stopping them from going higher. Rovers have a young squad with a number of players who fit the former description, particularly Sheaf and Dieng, who will surely play at a higher level once they iron out this inexperience. Recent contract extensions for Ben Whiteman and Tom Anderson underline the intent to build a foundation of these promising players, with those two both rounding into their peak ages looking more than capable of becoming Championship quality.

At the other end of the spectrum, James Coppinger demonstrated once again that he clearly has always possessed the technical ability to dazzle in the top two leagues. His vision to spot Niall Ennis for the winning goal against Bolton, coupled with the sheer skill of turning on a sixpence and sending over a devastating short-field cross would not have looked out of place in the Premier League. Rovers have benefitted from the loyalty of a man who could easily have jumped ship a decade ago with the club one of the top 30 or so in the country, and we can all agree that if not for bad luck and bad decisions in his younger days, James Coppinger would have been a top flight player.

The bottom line is that, with another 12 months or so of improvement from these key players, plus a young manager in Darren Moore with Premier League credentials, the sky really is the limit for this Doncaster Rovers team and we may be in the midst of the first phase of a truly special time for the club.