6 Things We Learned: Rovers 3-1 Wycombe
Doncaster Rovers got back to winning ways this weekend as promotion-chasing Wycombe became the latest top six side to leave the Keepmoat Stadium with nothing as the home side ran out 3-1 winners. The ultimately comfortable manner of the win seemed scarcely believable at half time let alone before kick-off as Rovers looked to make amends for a disappointing double of away defeats in the previous games.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s victory over the Chairboys.
1. Rotation is Right for Darren
No topic dominated the conversation leading up to the game more so than the manager’s steadfast insistence that he would not waver from his rotation policy despite the inconsistent nature of the team’s form and performances. Darren Moore stayed true to his philosophy of picking an XI to best combat the opponents immediately in front of them and made three changes, restoring top scorer Kieran Sadlier to the side, fetching Madger Gomes into midfield and handing a first league start of the season to Danny Amos at left back.
The most eyebrow-raising of these decisions was the return of Gomes, who had been dropped from the squad entirely after a lacklustre display against Rochdale and only succeeded in provoking a melee in his brief cameo at Shrewsbury last week. The Spaniard also had to justify his selection ahead of Ben Sheaf, who has been superb of late and offers much better protection of the back four than Gomes usually does.
Justify it he did though, with an accomplished display in a reshaped midfield three. Operating on the left-hand side of the central trio, Gomes moved the ball around neatly and showed great willingness and acceleration to break into the area and square for Niall Ennis to open the scoring just before half time. His performance demonstrates the improvement he has shown since a shaky start of the season and is made more impressive by the fact he was apparently playing with an upset stomach.
Darren Moore’s tinkering worked this weekend against one of the division’s most consistent best performing sides, providing further evidence that this rotation policy works against teams willing to come out and go for victory. Wycombe were not the most technical side in the league by any means, but they played on the front foot and came unstuck much as their top six rivals Oxford, Peterborough and Rotherham all did on Lakeside earlier in the campaign.
2. Simple Solutions Yield Success
Kieran Sadlier’s inclusion on Saturday was a no-brainer that pretty much everyone was calling for beforehand, with the Irish winger back to his clinical best and his deft run to the back post to turn home the second goal proved crucial to the win. It is indisputable that Sadlier is our most productive player (that goal was his 12th of an excellent season so far) and his ability to stretch defences and break into the box from wide is a significant asset.
He replaced James Coppinger in the side, despite what Wycombe boss Gareth Ainsworth strangely seemed to think, with the veteran struggling to hold down a place at present. He did need an injection on a persistent ankle niggle at the start of February and has been an unused substitute three times since returning from that, which may explain the reduction in minutes for the 39-year-old. Alternatively, it may just be a case of managing the workload of a player now deeply into the twilight of his career.
Danny Amos meanwhile was a bold inclusion by Darren Moore, but one which many had also asked to see – including by this writer in last week’s match review. Moore’s touting of the U23s squad this season has been encouraging, but aside from a few substitute appearances for Max Watters, it hasn’t yet borne fruit in league games. Cameron John has struggled as a makeshift full back since coming in for the injured Reece James, presenting Amos with a chance to impress which he has taken.
The 20-year-old stepped up without a problem and was defensively steady throughout, provided support further up field and delivered a number of dangerous set pieces which could have resulted in goals. Amos has already earned international honours at U21 level for Northern Ireland and on the strength of this display, should be earning another call-up if he can keep his place going forward. His presence on the pitch improved the team, as did Sadlier’s, proving that sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one for the manager.
3. Loan Stars Worth the Risk
Another bone of contention for Rovers fans in recent weeks has been the reliance on loan players, with many casting an eye towards the future and wondering if we are in for another summer of heavy upheaval on the playing side. Those concerns have merit, but so does the club’s policy of utilising the loan system to good effect and without it Saturday would have looked greatly different than the encouraging win it turned out to be.
Niall Ennis scored another well-taken goal to set Rovers on their way, his fourth goal in eight games over the course of the past month-and-change, whilst Seny Dieng made another impressive reflex save from Paul Smyth in the first half. Jacob Ramsey also impressed again, following up his excellent performance at Shrewsbury with another bright showing in midfield. The teenager’s close control and calmness under pressure mark him out as a promising player and it is undoubtedly improving the side at the moment.
Darren Moore finally turned to his mysterious sixth loanee Jason Lokilo, brought in late on Deadline Day from Crystal Palace. The Belgian winger scored a pearler of a free kick for the development squad recently and finally got his senior debut against Wycombe, making an immediate impact by facing up experienced left back Joe Jacobson and sending in a delicious cross which was turned in by a defender for the third goal to seal the points.
Questions over the temporary nature of these players’ presences is more than fair, so how likely is it that any of them will stay beyond the summer? Lokilo in particular seems to have been brought in to assess the viability of a permanent switch as he is out of favour at his parent club, whilst Ramsey’s youth may make an extended loan period into next season a realistic prospect too, providing his parent club Aston Villa remain in the Premier League.
The prospect of the more established loan players staying is perhaps more unlikely however. The manager continues to talk up the top-flight potential of Dieng, whilst the futures of Wolves duo Ennis and Cameron John, as well as Ben Sheaf, rest squarely with how high their parent clubs see their individual ceilings as. Time will tell, but for now this crop of loanees is paying short-term dividends for Rovers.
4. Refereeing Standards In Decline
Names like Trevor Kettle, Mick Russell and Jarnail Singh still illicit groans from Rovers fans, and the matter of suspect officiating continues to rear its head. Despite the scoreline, home fans left the ground on Saturday thoroughly displeased with the performance of referee David Rock after a truly infuriating display. Rock missed a catalogue of blatant fouls on Rovers players, some right under his nose, and refused to stamp out Wycombe’s constant antics deployed from the very start.
VAR has brought officials further into the spotlight at the elite level this season, but further down the pyramid the deficiencies remain as stark as ever without any need for technology to highlight them. Last weekend, Andy Woolmer completely failed to maintain his authority on the game at Shrewsbury yet was rewarded with a Championship game this weekend, one in which he gave a very dubious penalty in injury time.
Rock saved his coup de grace for near full time at the Keepmoat on Saturday mind, denying Devante Cole two penalty shouts, one of which was blatant as he steamed towards goal only to be wiped out by the flailing leg of defender Anthony Stewart. Thankfully it didn’t affect the result.
5. Cole Finding His Role
Besides that late incident and another where Cole was wrestled to the ground when shielding the ball in the area a few minute prior, it was a positive afternoon for the forward signed from Wigan in January.
It was his willingness to win the ball on the left which instigated the move for the opening goal, whilst his movement across the Wycombe defence created the trouble that led to Jason McCarthy turning Jason Lokilo’s cross into his own net for the third, and although he struggled to get shooting opportunities himself, Cole worked hard for the team all afternoon and had plenty of success taking defenders on in the channels.
Cole is not the sort of forward that Rovers fans have become used to seeing in recent years – a player with a more casual demeanour than the relentless running of John Marquis or the terrier spirit of Alfie May – but he has shown effective quality on the front line in the past two games since coming in for the suspended Fejiri Okenabirhie. He will get another chance away to one of his former clubs in Milton Keynes next week, with signs showing that he is not far away from his first goal in the hoops.
6. Giving Up Isn’t An Option
Losses on the road at Gillingham and Shrewsbury have left the side with a bit of a mountain to climb in order to reach the Play-Offs, but the manner of this win over a side competing for the title shows that Rovers are not throwing in the towel just yet. Darren Moore pledged that he wouldn’t let the season tail off into insignificance prior to Saturday, and his players proved he was right.
Form has been inconsistent for much of the season but 2020 has so far been a good one, and with eleven games to go in League One it is still all to play for. Few sides higher up the table won this weekend meaning the top six is just about in reach again, and if form over the previous stretch of games is replicated over that final eleven to come, Rovers will be close to 70 points, a tally which could be good enough for a Play-Off place in this shortened season.
That belief is worth holding onto for now.