• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: FC United 1-5 Rovers

Doncaster Rovers made light work of Northern Premier League side FC United of Manchester on Saturday night, running out comfortable 5-1 winners in front of the BBC cameras. Although these games are unique one-off occasions there is still plenty that players and coaches can learn about themselves, their character and abilities so here are five things we learned from Rovers’ FA Cup 1st Round victory.

1. Butler Steps In and Steps Up

Arguably the biggest challenge the team faced ahead of the trip to Broadhurst Park was the news that Darren Moore and his entire coaching staff would miss the game due to being exposed to a positive Covid-19 case and would have to self-isolate for two weeks, with first team defender and Doncaster Rovers Belles manager Andy Butler asked to step in and lead the team through training and any matches in that time. Assisted by his Belles number two Nick Buxton, Butler stepped in and excelled, looking every bit the composed young coach he is rapidly becoming.

The hometown boy appeared to be enjoying himself in his pre-match interview with BBC Sport’s Alex Scott and spoke of his pride at being asked to take on the role, revealing that whilst Moore picked the team - including naming Butler himself to the substitutes bench - matters on the day were left to the defender and so any tactical alterations or substitutions during the game were made by him and Buxton. It is easy to see why the Belles are thriving under their leadership and this may be a good dry run for a permanent spell in the men’s team dugout down the line.

2. Sims and Whiteman Impress the Pundits

As far as the players go, there were no big surprises in terms of performance as captain Ben Whiteman and winger Josh Sims impressed once again, scoring three of the five goals between them and combining to set up another in some style as well. Their individual displays caught the eye of the BBC team, with Guy Mowbray lauding them both at various points in his commentary during the game and pundits Scott and Micah Richards quick to single them out for praise as well.

Their qualities are nothing new to Rovers fans of course but the consistency with which both are playing is cause for optimism about the season as a whole, providing they stay beyond January. Whiteman finished the second goal on this night coolly after breaking through a sleeping FC United defence, Sims scored with two deflected efforts after good running down the left and it was the Southampton loanee’s crossfield ball that Whiteman expertly chested down into the path of James Coppinger for the visitors’ deflected fourth too.

Between them they were excellent, putting on a masterclass that the non-league side had no chance of stopping considering many League One sides have also failed to find the answers to their play this season already.

3. Coppinger Isn’t Finished Yet

For 39-year-old Copps, his left-footed effort to put the tie beyond doubt before half time was his second goal in a week and underlined his continued importance to the team he has played for now for over 16 years. Although he is retiring at the end of the season and has seen his playing time reduced since the start of the 2020/21 campaign, Coppinger still provides vital contributions when called upon and pulled the strings at times on a cold night in Moston, knitting play together between midfield and attack and maintaining an air of calm that Rovers needed to shake off any cup jitters that may have arisen.

He spoke to the BBC after the game and looked right at home in front of the cameras, a mature and positive presence that was able to laugh and joke as well, especially when Micah Richards came in for some stick by referring to Copps as a “legend” - which we know he is of course - and when Dan Walker pulled up his heat map to demonstrate the influence the veteran had exerted over the tie. Added to his injury time equaliser in midweek at Wimbledon, there is clear evidence that he still has enough left in the tank to be a key man when needed for Rovers this season.

4. Young Guns Thrive in Spotlight

Coppinger and Butler are outliers in this youthful Rovers squad, and at the other end of the spectrum are prospects like Louis Jones and Liam Ravenhill, who made their first significant appearances for the senior team in the game. Goalkeeper Jones, whose only previous games for Rovers were two EFL Trophy matches this season, started in goal and played the full 90 minutes, looking assured and confident both in terms of stopping shots and commanding his area. The young stopper is highly thought of around the club and looks to have a bright future.

17-year-old Ravenhill was making his senior debut when introduced by Andy Butler as a late substitute in place of James Coppinger, a man 22 years his senior who played alongside Liam’s dad Ricky Ravenhill at the start of his Rovers career. Despite only being on the pitch for a short period of time, the teenager didn’t look out of place and was able to get involved in Rovers’ passing sequences from the centre of the park, and didn’t put a foot wrong.

His recent call-up for Northern Ireland U21s alongside Danny Amos suggests his talent is being taken note of and it is to be hoped he can follow in his father’s footsteps and make a career for himself at the club.

5. Fans Truly a 12th Man

For FC United of Manchester it was a disappointing night in the end as they were well beaten, but their time in the spotlight did allow them to showcase themselves and their ground, as well as highlighting the reasons for their existence - namely the movement of Manchester United fans to break away from the increasingly corporate world of Premier League football and the grip on that club of their American owners the Glazer family.

Manager Neil Reynolds came across humble and positive throughout the coverage and accepted where his side had gone wrong on the pitch. He had only good things to say about Rovers and came away with plenty of credit from Rovers and their fans too. On the subject of fans though, it was clear that Rovers only had a relatively easy ride of things thanks to the lack of supporters in attendance.

If 4000 passionate FC United fans had been able to line the pitch willing their team on, the game would surely have played out differently and the minnows would have had a better chance of competing for longer in the game and may well have added to Regan Linney’s one goal that briefly gave them hope in the tie. Fans add so much to football, a fact that has only been amplified by their absence this last few months and there is no competition more in need of its supporters in football than the FA Cup.