• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers 2-0 Wimbledon

Doncaster Rovers put the disappointment of Saturday’s FA Cup exit well out of sight and mind with an accomplished 2-0 victory over AFC Wimbledon in midweek. The Dons were seen off in clinical fashion courtesy of first half goals from Fejiri Okenabirhie and Taylor Richards, whilst the team as a collective played some of the finest football they have all season.

Here are five things we learned from another impressive win.

1. Smith Runs the Show

It would be unfair to start anywhere else than with the consensus Man of the Match. Matt Smith enjoyed his best performance in the shirt as a play-making central midfielder, demonstrating his ability to be an effective driver of the play and a key reason why Wimbledon were left chasing shadows for large spells of the game. Sitting in the deep midfield role that Ben Whiteman used to occupy, Smith had a great eye for a pass and was as combative as he was classy, putting in an all-round effort that was unmatched on the night.

He affected play across the field and was often the catalyst for attacking moves, particularly ones that ran into the attacking third through Taylor Richards, who was also excellent on the ball again. Smith’s best highlight was a first-time arrowed pass to the left flank that played Elliot Simoes on to the edge of the penalty area from inside the Rovers half, but he did it all throughout the 90 minutes. New signing John Bostock will have a tough job displacing him on the evidence of this match.

2. Commitment to Control

From a team standpoint, nothing was better than the way Rovers controlled their position in the game and made sure they were never really worried about the result once Okenabirhie had fired in a high-quality opening goal in the 10th minute. They were the superior side for the entirety of the first half and could have had several more than the two goals they did manage, with Brad Halliday rattling the crossbar with a thunderbolt of a shot off the right flank and Richards going close before his goal.

Wimbledon inevitably got more of a foothold in proceedings after the break, aided by the introduction from the bench of sitting midfielder George Dobson, but even when they worked shots they were mostly blocked or sent wide as the defence stayed tight and made sure they could always handle what was thrown at them. As the minutes ebbed away, Rovers rose in prominence again and were the more likely side to score again into the final minutes.

That was the mark of professionalism running through the side and is a crucial attribute to any side looking to earn promotion.

3. The Bouncebackability of Butler and co.

Iain Dowie is hardly remembered as a great footballing philosopher, but one quirky term he coined to describe his Crystal Palace team nearly a couple of decades ago seems appropriate to use after this game. Rovers endured a torrid time in defence at West Ham on Saturday, with uncharacteristic errors underlining the disappointment of a limp 4-0 loss. Andy Butler was a chief culprit in that game but seemed more determined than usual to make up for it against Wimbledon, and he was successful in bouncing back.

Indeed, the entire back line was very strong. Butler and Tom Anderson marshalled 13-goal striker Joe Pigott largely into irrelevance – save for one late header that he put just over the bar – whilst Cam John and Brad Halliday were as threatening going forward as they were comfortable at the back. Goalkeeper Ellery Balcombe, who in fairness had a great game at the London Stadium as well, was cool, calm and collected in earning another creditable clean sheet.

Rovers are conceding only a goal every other game and have one of the most settled defences in the league, which can only be a good thing as the season wears on.

4. No Players? No Problem for Moore

The squad is truly down to the bare bones at the moment, with two more players missing tonight through injury – Danny Amos was absent whilst Jason Lokilo suffered a concussion in the FA Cup – leaving Darren Moore with only a dozen senior players to call upon. The manager hasn’t let that faze him though, and the commitment of the players to his system and each individual’s role within it has been a big part of this recent winning run.

Reece James worked hard again in centre midfield, Brad Halliday was superb back in his natural full back position, and Fejiri Okenabirhie is thriving as a central striker once again. Moore has adapted at every turn when he has had to and to put Rovers in such a strong position with more than half a dozen key players sidelined or otherwise missing is nothing short of brilliant. He has proved his managerial chops without question and is forging a reputation as a tactical mind to match his impeccable character.

5. The Best Is Yet To Come

This 2-0 win marks a seventh maximum in eight League One outings, as well as an eighth win in ten across all competitions. Rovers are 2nd in the form table, 2nd on PPG average and are currently on course to hit 92 points over the course of the season. They also have more points at this stage of the campaign than in each of the previous three promotion runs. All the signs are pointing in the right direction for a team that is growing in confidence and stature, yet the best is surely still yet to come.

Rovers have won four of the last give games without Ben Whiteman, who is being replaced by experienced technical midfielder John Bostock. There are strong indications that winger Josh Sims is returning to continue a loan spell that proved extremely fruitful in the early part of the season, and Moore remains in the hunt for a striker to cover the injury to Tyreece John-Jules. Add injured duo Madger Gomes and James Coppinger to the mix and the squad could soon be an embarrassment of riches from which to choose an XI.

There is no reason why this team cannot go all the way and win promotion to the Championship for a third time in 13 years come May. They have shown a gradual improvement throughout the season and have arguably the best manager in the division at the helm. Daring to dream hasn’t felt this realistic for Rovers fans in quite some time.