• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned from Gillingham & Swindon Wins

Doncaster Rovers have made the perfect start to the festive period with three straight victories, following up the 2-0 win at Northampton with back-to-back 2-1 home wins against Gillingham and Swindon Town. The run has put Darren Moore’s side into the top six and if they can repeat that feat against Burton and Shrewsbury – combined with Hull dropping points against Portsmouth on Friday night – then it will be Rovers who top the League One standings on Christmas Day.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves though, here are five things we learned from the past two games.

1. James: The Bacup Bale

The only place to start is with Reece James, who scored three of the team’s four goals across these two games. Moore’s greatest tactical success so far this season has been the conversion of James from left back into goalscoring midfielder, with the progression not too dissimilar to the move Gareth Bale made in his early days at Tottenham to work further up the pitch. The Bacup-born player is finding the knack in the penalty box and took each of his goals with the calm composure of a prolific centre forward.

He is beginning to contribute in big ways in the attacking third, emerging as a leader of the team in that area and a player through which play can move frequently. He struck quickly for his opener against Gillingham in a crowded area and showed great guile to move beyond former Rovers defender Mathieu Baudry and finish to take the lead against Swindon. James is in such good form that when he strode clean through from Ben Whiteman’s through ball later in the half, there was an air of inevitability about him doubling his tally on the night.

2. Sims’ Influence Key…Now a Big Miss

Josh Sims is the man who set James up for his first against Swindon, a seventh assist in just 12 league outings for the club. That statistic underlines his importance to the team, but the Southampton loanee may not figure for Rovers again after coming off with a hamstring injury in the second half. It was a sight seen many times over in football, as Sims pulled up clutching the back of his leg chasing after the ball, and if the injury is as bad as feared then it will stretch past the end of his loan spell.

This would be a crying shame for Darren Moore, who has come to lean on Sims for his creativity and ability to turn defences inside-out. He has been an excellent signing since arriving on Deadline Day and replacing him will be a big ask. Jon Taylor is now back fit but he does not possess the same level of quality as Sims, despite being a very good player at this level himself. Taylor’s lack of composure in front of goal his main drawback and we saw an example of that when he drove Danny Amos’ cross wide late in the game.

3. Halliday’s Wizardry Underlines Progression

Right back Brad Halliday was the match-winner against Gillingham on Saturday, slamming in the rebound after Jack Bonham saved Whiteman’s initial shot, to grab his first Rovers goal in his 63rd outing for the club. It is a richly deserved goal, and not just for the sake of the Harry Potter-inspired goal celebration gif, for a player who has worked tirelessly to improve his game and become an almost permanent starter in Darren Moore’s defence.

The Redcar-born full back has begun to exert more influence in attacking areas this season, and played well as a right-midfield option at Northampton last week. Despite moving back into his usual position for these two games, Halliday still found a way to work the ball over the halfway line and was often found taking up the position of an inverted winger against Gillingham, capped by being in position to score what proved to be the crucial winning goal.

This development serves him well and helps the team to play on the front foot, making him a key reason for Rovers’ recent upturn in performances and results.

4. Putting Games to Bed

Those performance levels have come under intense scrutiny over recent weeks, especially following lacklustre displays against Sunderland, Blackpool and Hull, but it appears as though Rovers have turned the corner at the right time to put a run together, much as they did in December and January last season. Those preaching patience can also point to the fact that those three poor outings still yielded four points against very capable sides, but regardless it is nice to see the levels improve and wins come with that improvement.

Many identified the run of fixtures that we are now in the midst of as a great chance to move into contention and Darren Moore has found an extra gear in his players to allow them to put these games to bed, and the hope has to be that this continues in the coming weeks. Rovers were dominant against Gillingham and enjoyed 80% possession for most of the game, with the scoreline somewhat flattering Steve Evans’ side.

Likewise against Swindon, Rovers were clearly the better side and were able to score the goals to give them control over proceedings, staying patient in possession whilst creating enough chances to win the game without too much stress, and that is a mark of a top side.

5. Growing Belief

Another subtlety to the players in these recent wins is the calmness and clear belief running throughout the team. Seldom have we seen frustration creep in either in play or from individual reactions when things might not be going quite the way Rovers are wanting it to. There have been no big mistakes and senior players have stepped up to lead the charge. Whiteman, Sims and James have probably been the main proponents of this but it is something which the entire squad have started to show, and it translates to the football.

Andy Butler too has been a big influence, finally getting a run in the team and performing excellently when called upon. Having players like him and James Coppinger in the dressing room – players who have tasted success with Rovers – is invaluable and if Darren Moore can keep this group together for the duration of the season, keep them moving forward and finding ways to be effective, then you will be hard pressed to find anyone inside the club who doesn’t truly believe that 2020/21 can be this team’s year.