• Adam Stubbings

Are Doncaster Rovers Ready for League Two?

There is little better feeling as a football fan than that anticipation building to the opening day of the season. Starved of ‘proper’ football for three months, left to pour over every soundbite and minor news item related to the club as players sign, others leave and new kits are revealed can be fun, but it eventually gets tiring as you just want the real thing to come back around in August.

As Rovers fans, it is arguable that we have been deprived of proper football for far longer thanks to the historically bad fortunes suffered by the team last season. Considerable effort appears to have gone in to reviving Doncaster Rovers since relegation was confirmed, and an unbeaten pre-season spearheaded by a clutch of intriguing new players has renewed a sense of unity and optimism amongst supporters.

Until the lads in red and white step out onto the turf at Valley Parade this Saturday against Bradford City, it is difficult to say how far Gary McSheffrey, James Coppinger and their staff have really gone to banish the negativity and malaise that led to Rovers returning to the bottom tier of the EFL. Can the club really “bounce back decisively” in 2022-23, as the chairman promised back in April?

New Boys on the Block

The fine line between optimism and pessimism in pre-season often boils down mainly to one thing – transfers. How many the team make, whether they look on the face of it like decent signings, and whether or not any of them look likely to break out and be a star of the division. Whether Rovers have done this is entirely subjective before a ball has been kicked in anger, but with eight additions at time of writing to a squad which sorely needed a refresh, it looks like a step forward in recruitment when compared to the shambles of a year ago.

George Miller and Luke Molyneux are the eye-catchers of those eight new faces, with both netting double figures in League Two for their previous clubs and showing in pre-season games the style of play which they intend to bring to the team in attacking areas. Harrison Biggins adds energy and experience to the midfield whilst the wildcard signing of veteran Lee Tomlin has pleased fans following his successful trial period throughout July.

Crucially, there has also been an effort to bring in young players with demonstrative potential to grow into true assets. James Maxwell has been brought in against stiff competition from clubs at a higher level, Kyle Hurst has joined from Birmingham with glowing reports – alongside fellow Blues prospect Josh Andrews on loan – and money has been spent to bring Adam Long from Wigan to bolster the defensive ranks.

All of this crop of youngsters have tremendous upside and can be developed into true EFL assets who hopefully progress with the club back up the leagues, in a clear shift from signing rough diamonds who have flattered to deceive at previous clubs. The balance of the squad still skews young but if certain senior members of the group can stay fit, it should mean a nice mix throughout the team which is far better set up for success than we have seen in recent seasons.

Revitalising the Core

None of these eight players of course suffered through the dreadful decline which resulted in Rovers being relegated, of course. There has been a losing culture amongst the club since around the time that Darren Moore had his head turned by Sheffield Wednesday some 18 months ago now, and shifting that mentality to spark a renewed push is going to be the toughest task for those in charge of steering the ship back on course.

Several of those who featured heavily in last season’s inept campaign will walk out at Bradford this weekend in the shirt again, so can they shake off that ‘stink’ of a year-plus underachieving? Established EFL players like Kyle Knoyle and Ro-Shaun Williams underwhelmed, injuries derailed the seasons of Ben Close, Tom Anderson and Jon Taylor, and the rest of those who remain by and large are still very green as far as professional experience goes.

Tommy Rowe was one of the few to feature all season who kept his individual reputation intact and should lead from the front again, whilst newly announced club captain Adam Clayton is among a group of January additions who may feel that the damage was already done by the time they walked through the door, but collectively it will take a lot to unlearn the bad habits which plagued Rovers in 2021-22.

Rovers cannot allow a decent pre-season to cloud the reality of how much work needs to have been done. Steve Eyre and a number of coaching and staffing additions should go a long way to bringing on these players, particularly those just starting out in their careers like Joe Olowu and Reo Griffiths, and it may take a number of months before we see consistent displays out of many of this revamped and hopefully hungrier Doncaster Rovers squad.

Leaders Learning

A team cannot be successful on footballing talent alone. Even if supporters’ feeling that there is true ability and desire back amongst the playing ranks following the summer, Rovers will only achieve their aim of promotion if that ability is harnessed and guided to consistency in performance and results. That task falls upon manager Gary McSheffrey, his supporting staff and the club’s Head of Football Operations, club legend James Coppinger.

There is no hiding from the fact that both McSheffrey and Coppinger are rookies in their roles. They are now the public face of leadership at Doncaster Rovers and their inexperience has raised a few eyebrows amongst neutral observers. It is a valid point – neither have achieved anything yet in their off-field careers despite their considerable accomplishments on the pitch, and so scrutiny over their impact (or lack thereof) over the course of the season will be high.

McSheffrey’s position was criticised for exactly this as he failed to steer the team to safety in 2021-22, albeit from a position severely handicapped following the disastrous reign of Richie Wellens and under a cloud of criticism levied at the board for their indecisiveness in appointing him manager in the first place. McSheffrey has at least come through the baptism of fire that was last term’s extremely challenging circumstances, and it is noticeable how much more relaxed he has appeared in front of the camera and on the touchline in pre-season.

For Coppinger, he has spoken about the amount of legwork he has done to prepare for the Head of Football Operations role, a position which many had been crying out for to bring cohesion to a wayward footballing operation that has undoubtedly cost Rovers their status as an upward-moving third tier side. The change in approach to both transfers and the fitness sides of things is clear already, and it is to be hoped that the changes Copps has implemented in his first summer at the helm bear fruit and show that he can unite all aspects of the club to push forward together.

Will Rovers Bounce Back?

Where does all this leave the team’s chances in League Two then? Pundits have made claims as varied as automatic promotion right down to finishing in the bottom six, and whether that’s a genuine belief or simply a statement designed to get attention and clicks, it shows that nobody is quite sure where Rovers measure up compared to their rivals. Pre-season is not the real thing, no matter how positive things have seemed, as it will take true league games to sort the real deal from the pretenders.

We should see within ten games just whether or not this iteration of Doncaster Rovers are capable of mounting a promotion challenge, because the fixture list has thrown up a succession of clashes with favourites. All five of the teams currently above Rovers in SkyBet’s title odds list feature in the opening month of fixtures with Bradford, Stockport and Mansfield all appearing in most outlets’ promotion mix. That means a bad start may not be a disaster for Gary McSheffrey, but a good one will get heart rates rising with genuine belief.

Rovers appear to have addressed some glaring issues within the squad and a culture shift looks to be taking hold at Cantley Park. Gary McSheffrey must grow into the manager’s role and his staff will need to get the maximum out of some hungry young players whilst steering the squad through the inevitable adversity they will face over a long campaign, but the early signs are good that this will be far more likely than it was last season.

There is no reason why the club cannot achieve their stated aim of an immediate return to League One, and that should be the ambition. Executing it is a different matter though and it was not an easy thing to do last time Rovers were here in 2017, when some quality senior pros made a crucial difference, but it is now in the hands of McSheffrey, Coppinger and the players to alter the narrative that has taken hold around them and put Doncaster Rovers back on track for success in the EFL.