• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned from Swindon & Rochdale Wins

No game for three weeks, no problem. Doncaster Rovers got back to League One action last weekend with a hard-fought win away at Swindon Town and followed it up with an even grittier display to see off Rochdale, making it three wins in a row in all competitions and seven wins from eight games overall. Darren Moore has so far navigated the tricky waters of January very well indeed and can now look forward to a pressure-free FA Cup tie in East London on Saturday.

Before we turn attention to West Ham ourselves though, here are five things we learned from the back-to-back wins over Swindon and Rochdale.

1. Fejiri Leads the Way

Leading striker Fejiri Okenabirhie came in for some criticism earlier in the season for his underwhelming performances in attack. Despite the perception that he had lost his way somewhat on the field, Okenabirhie still came into this run of games as the top league scorer for Rovers and he underlined that statistic with a fine brace to seal the points at the County Ground.

Playing off the left flank, Okenabirhie wasted no time imposing himself on the Robins by slotting the opening goal underneath Swindon keeper Mark Travers after a delightful through ball from Reece James, and he was in the right place at the right time to finish off Jason Lokilo’s teasing cross after Andy Butler had headed it back across the face of goal to claim his second of the game, and 9th goal of the season in all competitions. If the first goal showed his anticipation, the second should his desire as he nipped between two defenders to nod home.

Those are the attributes – along with his ruthless finishing ability – that marked him out when he joined the club a year ago and he will need to keep that going now that Tyreece John-Jules has been ruled out indefinitely. His hold-up play as the central striker against Rochdale showed he is capable of being the all-rounder Darren Moore requires in his frontman and as of now, there is plenty of reason to believe Fejiri can be the marksman to see Rovers through the rest of 2020/21.

2. Moving On In The Middle

There is no getting around the fact that Darren Moore is having to adapt in the wake of Ben Whiteman’s departure. The Preston-bound playmaker knitted everything together for Rovers and performed the role of a multi-faceted, multi-talented central midfielder and it will be impossible to replicate his abilities in any replacement. Moore will seek an addition to maximise his flexibility in the position but there were signs across both of these wins that he has plenty of the tools to do just that at his disposal already.

James split the defence with swift precision to set up Okenabirhie for that opener at Swindon and he is fast growing into an accomplished midfielder despite spending the majority of his career until this season at full-back. His movement and quality pair well with the technical style of Taylor Richards, who has a hustle about all of his play that also helps any central midfield player to be effective.

Whilst Richards may be more effective in the attacking third – see his deft assist for Jon Taylor against Rochdale – he can also be an asset in that deeper role, especially as he isn’t afraid of doing the dirty work. Matt Smith stepped in for the suspended James against Rochdale and it was his Whitemanesque cross-field ball that set up Taylor’s winner in the first instance. This trio can all be a strong central option for Moore, and if the manager can also add an outright playmaker to his ranks in the next 10 days, Rovers still figure to look very strong there despite the loss of Whiteman.

3. Captain Marvellous

One gap left by Whiteman that has been seamlessly filled is that of the captaincy, as Tom Anderson has stepped up immediately. The armband is just reward for a player who has grown in standing and maturity with each season he has spent at the club, and after three years in the hoops he is now every bit the consummate, experienced professional that every club needs at the heart of its defence.

It is not unreasonable to draw comparisons to legendary Rovers captain Rob Jones. ‘The Corporal’ was a fiery presence on the pitch and a gentleman off of it, which Anderson is too, and his sheer consistency adds to the natural stature he brings to every game for the team. It was another Man of the Match display from the man now dubbed the Burnley Beckenbauer against Rochdale, in a game that required steel from the back-line under more pressure than they’d like to be.

If Whiteman was a stylish Quarterback as captain, Anderson is more like the imposing Lineman – steady, protective and as resilient as, yes, a brick wall.

4. Moore’s Balancing Act

Numbers have diminished as far as fit and available options for the squad over the last few weeks, with Rovers reduced to only 13 fit senior players against Rochdale. It has afforded match day places for some of the younger contingent among the ranks but has also meant a delicate balancing act for Darren Moore, who is now seeing the benefits of his push to make as many members of his team versatile in their positioning and role as possible.

Fortunately, the players he has tasked with the biggest changes have come through and flourished. Aside from James, Cameron John has now settled into the left back position and brings strength as well as energy to that flank, whilst both Joe Wright and Brad Halliday have stepped up admirably when asked to play unconventional roles – Wright even came on as an emergency striker against Rochdale! It is testament to the coaching team as well as the players that Moore is able to call on them to fill in during a tough spell for the squad.

5. Great Start for Greaves

One player who will likely remember this past week for a long time is young midfielder AJ Greaves. The academy graduate made his League One debut off the bench at Swindon and put a solid shift in, doing enough to earn a first start a few days later against Rochdale. Greaves walked away from that game with the fan’s Man of the Match award on Twitter, and deserves credit for his endeavour and willingness to get involved in the game both in and out of possession.

He is by no means the finished product at 20 years of age, but showed he had the mental acuity for the senior game and was always keen to get on the ball and earn possession for the team. Breaking up play is clearly a key part of Greaves’ playing style and that functionality is something Rovers often miss in matches, so his ability to contribute to the first team at this stage of the season can be a vital asset.

So long as nobody expects miracles out of the lad at this early, early stage of his career, AJ Greaves could fast become a fan favourite and has all the makings of a youth team success that is a long time coming for Doncaster Rovers.