• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Lincoln 0-1 Rovers

Doncaster Rovers earned arguably their best three points of the season with victory at Lincoln on Saturday, courtesy of a goal from Taylor Richards and two penalty saves by Ellery Balcombe in an extraordinary game between two sides chasing promotion.

Here are five things we learned from the 1-0 win at Sincil Bank.

1. Goalkeeping Heroics

There is no place to start other than with the Rovers keeper, as Ellery Balcombe became the story of the game with two outstanding stops from Lincoln penalties in the second half. Darren Moore’s side dug in for a defensive display of resilience but made two key mistakes, first when Reece James tripped Jorge Grant and then when Balcombe himself suffered the classic goalie rush of blood to the head and wiped out Tom Hopper chasing a loose ball to the right edge of his 18-yard box.

He deservedly took the plaudits however after denying Lincoln on both occasions from the spot. For the first, he dived low to his left to keep out and hold on to Grant’s penalty and then he atoned for his own mistake by doing the same for Anthony Scully’s attempt to the other side. Both penalties – which were correctly awarded by referee Darren Bond – were well struck but not enough to get past Balcombe, who expertly anticipated the direction of both to preserve a clean sheet and help Rovers to a massive win at the top of League One.

2. Ruthless Richards Strikes Again

Teams must be setting up plans to try and thwart midfielder Taylor Richards at this point, yet they still can’t get near him. The Brighton loanee notched another goal from outside the area to win this game, directing a low left-footed shot into the corner from 20 yards by finding the one trajectory that would evade two defenders and the Lincoln goalkeeper. Richards is becoming a tormenter of opponents with his skill, movement and ability to take the ball from situations he has no right to, and is now the main driving force of Moore’s reshaped team.

The winner on Saturday was his third goal in five games, all important goals and each one from distance. His technical ability is shining brightly and Richards is now beginning to look like a player with a future certain to be played at a higher level than the third tier, meaning Rovers will do very well to find any way to keep him on a more long-term basis at the end of this campaign.

The manager is ironing out the deficiencies in his game and is starting to reap the rewards of a player who could easily be the regular starting #10 going forward despite competition for the role in the form of Madger Gomes and James Coppinger.

3. Defensive Plan Works Again

He may have been forced somewhat by a lack of squad depth to do it, but Darren Moore has found a knack of shoring up the team defensively when facing opponents who expect to dominate possession. Reece James and Brad Halliday are typically considered Rovers’ primary full-back options but have found their feet as a midfield duo, and they were deployed effectively in this way again against Lincoln, shielding a back four consisting of four traditional centre backs.

It helps of course when the players step up to the unconventional role and perform well, as James and Halliday have, and as Joe Wright has in Halliday’s place at right back, but having what is essentially six defenders in the side means a strong sense of positional awareness to defend against waves of attack, which Rovers did brilliantly at Sincil Bank. Lincoln may have threatened constantly and got plenty of shots off, but they were largely restricted to efforts from 20 yards or more away and the majority of those were blocked.

The bonus is that when they did get through, Balcombe made a couple of great saves and the Imps also squandered one or two good opportunities besides the penalties, but ultimately it was not anything to do with luck that Rovers kept a clean sheet – that was down to a successfully-executed game plan.

4. New Bodies Welcome

As well as they did play defensively, the likes of James and Halliday were looking leggy by the end of the game and the spate of new signings brought in over the past week or so are much needed. Darren Moore knows he needs to manage the minutes of virtually his entire squad in this taxing season, with this rare midweek without a game representing the last time Rovers are without a Tuesday fixture until Easter, and the chance for some respite ahead of that tough run must be a benefit for some of the regular first team players.

Fejiri Okenabirhie is another player who suffered for lack of freshness against Lincoln, understandably so as he has been asked to play 90 minutes virtually every week as the only fit striker in recent games. The arrival of Omar Bogle will help, but his bout with Covid-19 means he will likely not debut until at least the Fleetwood game, meaning Okenabirhie will have to do his best to be ready to take on Oxford next weekend.

Rovers have strengthened in midfield and up front so it should be much easier to manage the squad going forward, which will make a big difference as the fixture schedule intensifies.

5. Staking a Claim

Rovers have now done the double over Lincoln, who are often praised for their football and lauded as a side defying the odds to mix it for promotion with League One’s bigger sides. Darren Moore’s side also have victories away to Charlton and Portsmouth under their belts, a 4-1 home win against Ipswich and are one of the division’s form teams alongside Oxford, who come to the Keepmoat Stadium next.

Yet still the team appear to be going under the radar. National outlets and pundits seem reluctant to give too much credit to Rovers, which may work in our favour when it comes to holding onto assets like Tom Anderson or even the manager himself, but is also unfair considering the level of progression the club has seen over the past few months.

Upcoming games represent as hard a run – on paper – as we’ll face all season, but if they can come through still firmly in the shake-up for promotion then it will surely be time for Rovers to get their due as contenders.