• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers 2-0 Bristol R

Goals from Kieran Sadlier and Jon Taylor secured a return to winning ways for Doncaster Rovers and Darren Moore, kicking off a busy fixture period in ideal fashion.

This game was just the tonic for the bad taste left in the mouth after successive defeats, as Bristol Rovers’ six-game unbeaten run in the league came to an end in a convincing manner. The home side took the fight to a side bereft of ideas up front in the absence of their top scorer, making their dominance of the ball count on the scoreboard. Here are five things we took from this satisfying 2-0 win.

1. Whiteman is ‘Playmaker Extraordinaire’

There has been a fair amount of talk about new contracts in recent days following an interview the Doncaster Free Press did with club CEO Gavin Baldwin. The subject of extending captain Ben Whiteman’s deal, currently set to expire at the end of next season, was the main topic of that discussion about contracts and on the strength of his performance against Bristol Rovers, those talks can’t come soon enough. Whiteman once again underlined his importance to the team by imposing his creative talents on the game, playing a decisive role in the victory.

The skipper had a hand in both goals, first feeding Jon Taylor down the right flank for the winger to pop a cross up into the six yard box for Kieran Sadlier to attack and head in the opener, then Whiteman pulled off a superb defence-splitting through ball for Niall Ennis to run onto and force a save from Pirates keeper Anssi Jaakkola that was tucked away on the rebound by Taylor. Whiteman also went close with one of his trademark side-footed efforts from distance, clipping the top of the crossbar with Jaakkola rooted to his line.

This individual display was all the more impressive considering Bristol Rovers deployed a five-man midfield chock full of creative players, yet none came close to stopping Whiteman affecting the game. Darren Moore’s patented 4-2-3-1 worked a treat and this was all down to Whiteman and midfield partner Ben Sheaf’s ability to break the lines and spread play consistently to create chances for the attacking players ahead of them. Both were strong in the tackle, quick to find team mates in advances positions and protected the ball intelligently on numerous occasions.

The club turned down a fee well into the seven figure range for Whiteman in the summer, handing him the captain’s armband and furthering the bond between him and Doncaster Rovers. In order to ward off inevitable interest in January and beyond, Gavin Baldwin will have to sit down and present Whiteman with a new deal worthy of his excellent performances so far this season and allow Moore to build his side around this immense talent.

2. Ennis return reignites attack

Niall Ennis was back in the side on Saturday after a brief injury absence and it was immediately apparent what had been missing without him. His energy and willingness to pressure defenders is vital to how the team plays and it was clear from the first minute that Ennis was fully fit and raring to go. He was a constant thorn in the side of Bristol Rovers’ three-man central defence and linked up brilliantly with his supporting cast of attacking midfielders.

This allowed wingers Kieran Sadlier and Jon Taylor to shine, with Taylor in particular having his best game in a Doncaster Rovers shirt influencing matters from the right-hand side. Taylor’s teasing cross to set Sadlier up to make it 1-0 before half time was emblematic of his threat all afternoon, with a number of deliveries troubling the visiting back line. Ennis was key in this goal as well, dragging two markers aside with his movement allowing Sadlier to get the run on his man and leap to power a header into the far corner.

Ennis also helped Sadlier set Ben Sheaf up for a golden opportunity in front of goal in the first half and was unlucky not to win a penalty after the break when he seemed to be clipped shifting the ball sideways in the area, with nothing given by referee David Rock. Not to be deterred, Ennis was lively again soon after, running clean through from Ben Whiteman’s through ball to force a good save out of Jaakkola, with Taylor slotting home the rebound to double the lead and seal a deserved win.

Although Kwame Thomas did well off the bench – unlucky not to score himself with a smart turn-and-shot on his left that was tipped round the post – he was not able to stretch the defence in the same way Ennis does, and this was a big part of the problem last week at Oxford. Niall Ennis may not yet be scoring with any regularity, but his work on and off the ball to create chances is proving pivotal to our early season success.

3. Daniels shines in calm defensive display

In another strong outing for the defence, Donervon Daniels shone through at the heart of the back four, joining Jon Taylor in enjoying his finest performance for the club to date. Despite this website advocating for the return of Joe Wright to the starting line-up in each of the last two games, Daniels is proving that he can be a very effective member of the team with his physicality, solidifying a defensive front that has been improving with each match together.

Daniels partnered with Tom Anderson to almost completely shut down Bristol Rovers’ attacking duo, which included former loan striker Tyler Smith, and made a crucial double block with the score at 0-0 after Tom Nichols had got free for a header in front of goal. Although he could have conceded a penalty for a foul on Smith, Daniels was largely composed in all of his defensive duties and fully justified Darren Moore’s faith in sticking with him despite Wright’s return to fitness.

4. Rookie Rock less than solid

Referees have thankfully not been the centre of attention in too many games this season so far, but the officials for this game did not have the best time of it. Ironic cheers came from the home end on several occasions when Rock dared to give a free kick for fouls on Doncaster players, seeming to miss more than his fair share of infringements. Niall Ennis was particularly frustrated by this, being wrestled to the ground multiple times in the first half before seeming to take matters into his own hands by trying to earn a penalty despite minimal contact from Tony Craig midway through the opening period.

Mr. Rock did indeed point to the penalty spot eventually, but it was at the other end with Kieran Sadlier adjudged to have used a dangerous high foot on Alfie Kilgour, despite the fact Kilgour was stooping to try and head a ball he had little right to do so. Nichols’ spot kick was foiled by a quick-moving Seny Dieng, but it didn’t absolve Rock of his questionable decision-making. Indeed, he missed two incidents later on that seemed more likely penalties, one by Donervon Daniels on Tyler Smith and another by Craig sliding into Ennis, but on these occasions the officials were unmoved.

This is Rock’s first season in the EFL and this his first match officiating in League One. This is somewhat puzzling as he has already earned the public ire of managers in two games this season for his decisions in League Two – Northampton boss Keith Curle and Crewe’s David Artell – so it is a wonder what Referee Assessors write in their reports of games. Tuesday’s visit to Southend will also be presided over by a newcomer to the EFL as Josh Smith officiates just days on from his first League One assignment, meaning we may have to be wary of this issue again sooner rather than later.

5. Moore’s tactical confidence bears fruit

Manager Darren Moore faced a tricky task in combatting Bristol Rovers’ 3-5-2 formation this weekend, particularly with the Gas on a six-game unbeaten run and having already proven by beating Milton Keynes last weekend that they were not solely reliant on the goalscoring acumen of Jonson Clarke-Harris. Moore saw his charges overrun at Oxford a week ago so would have been forgiven for adapting a change of style and set-up as he looked to rediscover the winning knack.

Instead he stuck to his beliefs and elected to see if his existing midfield could meet the challenge of the flat midfield five deployed by Graham Coughlan. Meet that challenge they did, with the dynamic duo of Whiteman and Sheaf outclassing opposition trio Ollie Clarke, Abu Ogogo and Ed Upson to run the show and deliver the victory. Moore was also rewarded for keeping faith in Niall Ennis to lead the attacking front that came unstuck a fortnight back against Portsmouth, confident that his players could atone for that misstep and turn possession into goals.

Despite clearly not yet having all the pieces of the puzzle at his disposal, Moore is developing a strong identity in the way his team plays, taking the game to opposition no matter who it is in front of them. That is commendable and when it comes off, as it did on Saturday, there is little that opposition can do to stop it.


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