Are Doncaster Rovers Sleepwalking into League Two?
Forgive me the slightly hyperbolic headline, it has been a tough couple of weeks at Doncaster Rovers. Alarm and hysteria surrounding the club’s calamitous end to the summer transfer window has given way to frustration and division amongst fans, a feeling of growing unrest which shows no signs of dying down. A chastening defeat in the EFL Trophy to local rivals Rotherham in midweek has only served to stoke the flames again, and Richie Wellens’ side are desperate for a win to try and get the season back on track.
Beyond just the immediate difficulties facing the bottom-of-the-table Reds though, is the wider issue of where the club is heading. If this goal-shy start to the campaign is a symptom, what is the cause? Last week I penned an emotive article on the situation following the disappointment of Deadline Day, and the response over the past seven days has reassured me at least that the club’s ears are open and they are willing to listen to the concerns of supporters, as has been the case for the best part of a decade now.
However, listening is just one step in the process of action, and an interview by Gavin Baldwin with the Doncaster Free Press released yesterday has set those alarm bells ringing again in my head. Sitting down with Liam Hoden, Baldwin fielded questions on the summer transfer business, deadline day, the manager and budgets in the first part of what is promised to be a multi-part series with the CEO. Two things stood out to me in particular in reading Baldwin’s responses, and have led to me posing the question in the title of this article.
Fool Me Twice
The first was Baldwin’s response to the question of what lessons the club had learned from what occurred this summer. My personal feeling throughout recent events is that Doncaster Rovers are starting to repeat the same mistakes without realising that they have the power to change things themselves. Baldwin’s answer to this question was that he didn’t think “we’d be asking that question if the Aiden O’Brien deal went through, or if we didn’t have the injuries that we’ve had.”
This reads as putting failings down to excuses and ‘what ifs’, which simply isn’t going to placate those with valid concerns about Rovers’ prospects going forward. The fact is that O’Brien didn’t sign, and Rovers have been left short in a crucial area of the team that was in dire need of reinforcements for weeks prior to Deadline Day, whilst injuries alone should not derail the entire squad, regardless of how unfortunate the team has been with them so far this season.
Joe Dodoo may prove to be a great pick-up by Richie Wellens in the Free Agency market, but there is an awful lot of pressure on the lad as a direct result of Rovers’ inability to sort the striker situation out in a timely manner. Fans now know that Dodoo is a make-good after we missed out on O’Brien, and Will Grigg before that, and this is not the first time Rovers have found themselves in this position, yet there is no acknowledgement of that fact by Baldwin or anyone else at the club.
Two summers ago, Wellens’ predecessor Darren Moore was unable to find a striker to replace John Marquis by the end of the summer window. Instead, he had to resort to a pair of lacklustre (and that is being kind) free agents in Kwame Thomas and Rakish Bingham, to complement a strike-force which at the time consisted solely of young loanee Niall Ennis, who was not in too dissimilar a position to current loan forward Tiago Cukur.
As a result, Rovers laboured up front until the end of January when Fejiri Okenabirhie and Devante Cole were signed, yet here we are with the same problem again and no hint of understanding that this was avoidable in both instances. The fact that this has occurred under two successive managers also suggests that people are right to direct their ire about this at those operating above Wellens, to Baldwin and David Blunt.
Aside from claiming it was a good window up until it wasn’t, and putting far too much emphasis on the amateur excuse of paperwork scuppering the O’Brien deal, Baldwin’s second answer to the question of what lessons had been learned was all about the manager. More specifically, he discussed having continuity in the position and how the lack of it in recent years has hamstrung the long-term planning of Doncaster Rovers.
This is a fair argument to make, no doubt, because enjoying sustained success and seeing a multi-year plan play out becomes much more difficult if the man tasked with heading up your football operation keeps changing. Wellens is the fourth manager through the door in just over three years, but this alone cannot and should not be used by the club hierarchy to justify avoidable errors in judgement such as the one that led to us missing out on a striker this summer.
Baldwin has spoken extensively of “identity” and “DNA” this year, pointing to the appointment of Wellens as a key facet of this. But it must be argued that placing so heavy an emphasis on the personality of the manager is a recipe for trouble, because – no matter how many clauses you put in someone’s contract, and no matter how much they espouse the values of Doncaster Rovers – the manager is always a temporary piece of the puzzle around which Gavin Baldwin must plan.
Darren Moore proved this by turning tail and running to S6 at the first sign of a challenge, as did Grant McCann before him by heading for Hull after preaching loyalty in his players. Richie Wellens may stay for five years or be gone in five months, but any change in manager should have a minimal effect on the club’s footballing strategy, because sadly in modern football, managers move on at a frequency rate of little over once-a-season.
And therein lies the problem with this response for me. Instead of using continuity of managers as an excuse, Baldwin and his team should instead look at how much continuity they can find in the areas which surround the identity of the manager himself, or the players as individuals. If there is anything that Rovers can learn from how successful clubs operate, then this is a key one to be looking at.
Too Much Rope
The second element of this interview which worried me was the discussion surrounding how the transfer budget was spent this summer. Now, this is not to get into the weeds about any particular player or position, but more to discuss the Modus Operandi of the club itself. Between Gavin Baldwin and his “football committee” currently consisting of manager Richie Wellens, Talent Identification Manager Graham Younger and recently retired club legend James Coppinger, players are assessed and recruited based on a vaguely-defined (publicly, at least) ‘DNA’ profile of what Rovers want and need.
Baldwin described to the Free Press how this works in practice: Wellens prioritises his positions, the club agree deals with the players and then put the financial implications of said deal to Wellens for him to decide whether or not it suits his plan for the entire squad. The problem with this approach is that it places a heavy burden on the manager to achieve the balancing act, and if the manager goes down a path that maybe those above don’t fully agree with, he is simply given the rope with which to metaphorically hang himself if it goes wrong.
Without meaning to repeat myself, this is exactly what is reported to have happened in the aforementioned hunt for a striker under Darren Moore, who allegedly vetoed targets that had been lined up and as a result Rovers missed out and had to scrape around in the bargain bin. This time around, the same situation has occurred with Baldwin confirming that Wellens essentially spent all of his budget for the summer before getting a much-needed striker in, and when efforts to raise money through the sale of fringe players like Omar Bogle failed to materialise, it weakened our position in the market and, frankly, in the league table.
This makes it look as though there is a lack of cohesion and organisation behind the scenes at Doncaster Rovers. If you have a manager and a recruitment operator singing from the same hymn sheet, along with those on the board whom they answer to, then situations like the Will Grigg/Aiden O’Brien fiasco shouldn’t happen. In theory, you have a clearly-defined structure which means planning and execution works to a set framework, yet Rovers came out of another transfer window making a mess of it.
Avoid the Iceberg
Those in charge of the footballing operation at Doncaster Rovers have got to stop pointing to excuses like paperwork and injuries now. I have banged the drum of patience and faith for a very long time in the belief that missteps would be learned from, but I now feel that that faith has not been repaid. I and many others in the Rovers fanbase – who simply want to see the club succeed and reach the level that they are capable of – believe that the time for patience and excuses has run out.
I am not personally calling for the heads of Baldwin, Blunt or anybody else. They have navigated the pandemic very well and kept Rovers competitive in the division which you could argue they ‘belong’ in, in terms of stature and financial capability. They are clearly astute businessmen who can bring success to Doncaster Rovers, they have proven that already, but without taking a tough look inwards at how things are done from top to bottom of the operation, I fear that they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that led to the last disastrous relegation we had to suffer through.
The slump which led to relegation to League Two in 2016 began several years prior, as a misshapen footballing strategy and haphazard execution led to a team littered with inadequacy and lacking any notion of pride or fight drifting to relegation from a position they should have been comfortable in. That was not solely down to any one player, nor was it down to the manager or his predecessor, but due to the fact that from the very top of the club down, everyone believed things would be okay and they would right the ship.
That ship was not steered away from the clutches of the iceberg until it was too late. Rovers had to dig deep and rebuild from scratch in the fourth tier, and whilst they did well enough to put the club back on solid ground in League One a year later, it appears they still haven’t learned enough hard lessons to avoid risking it again. Every new interview from those in charge at the moment only brings me more concern, and that is not something I wish to continue feeling as I will the club up the table and away from danger.
We should be under no illusions that the 2021-22 season could end in relegation, despite the fact we are only half a dozen games in. This Rovers side, which remains beset by injury troubles, has shown a lack of bite, a loss of composure and a potentially terminal inability to score goals. Richie Wellens and Noel Hunt will rightly get time to try and impart their philosophy on the players they have available, and if those players live up to their reputations and potential then Rovers should have no problem eventually getting going.
But if they don’t, and this season is spent mired in the bottom four, it will mean that we will have to revisit the events of the past fortnight again and again. Fingers will be pointed at those who allowed it to happen, and a much bigger hole will need digging out of than Gavin Baldwin, Richie Wellens or anybody else may currently feel they are stood in. So when I ask if Doncaster Rovers are sleepwalking towards another relegation this season, what I really want to know is whether or not the people in charge are going to open their eyes?