The Big Doncaster Rovers Season Preview 2021-22
Here we are then, just seven days away from the start of the new season. It is a campaign in which everyone at Doncaster Rovers will be hoping for better – both on and off the field – than in 2020-21 following a capitulation which resulted in a disappointing 14th-place finish.
There is a new manager in place, a host of new players for supporters to see on their long-awaited return to the stands, plus a clutch of new teams and players that promise to create a drastically altered League One to the division that we saw in the past two seasons. Our Season Preview focuses in on how Rovers are set-up for this new era with insights from our expert contributors – lifelong Rovers supporter Daniel Nice, ITEN Lead Designer Abigail Hinder and EFL Fans’ Show host Gabriel Sutton.
Meet The New Boss
The club has its fourth manager in as many years set to take the reins as Richie Wellens steps into the dugout, following on from two successful playing spells at the club in which he played an integral role in the side. On the face of it, the appointment looks a shrewd one and from the moment it was confirmed that interim boss Andy Butler would not be given the job on a longer-term basis, Wellens’ name was the one at the top of the wish-list for most Rovers supporters.
“I think the appointment makes a lot of sense,” says Daniel Nice. “Richie looks like a man with a plan, and this is a club who will give time to a manager who has a plan.” Longevity has been an issue for incumbent managers at Doncaster Rovers in recent years, but that is through no lack of intention from the club’s hierarchy, who have backed their appointments to build a successful team over the longer term, and the hope is that Wellens will finally fulfil the board’s edict on that front.
“How quickly he can turn around the club’s fortunes is the million dollar question,” adds Daniel. “To the untrained eye it looks like a long term project which could take a good portion of the season to get the team playing how Wellens wants, but on the other hand Grant McCann came in (in the summer of 2018), released the shackles and got the team winning games in an entertaining fashion with limited resources – so it is far from impossible.”
The big difference to McCann’s season at Rovers however is that he arrived with a squad largely intact, whereas Wellens has had to rebuild a good deal of what was left by his predecessor Darren Moore. McCann though had a strong-headed bullishness about his approach, and Wellens has shown in his previous spells at the club that he too can be very assertive and forthright in how he communicates both with his players and the media.
This can rub people the wrong way, and it is that aspect of Richie Wellens’ character which means Abigail Hinder is yet to be convinced by his return. “I do have reservations but the proof will be in the pudding really. The appointment made sense based on the options available, but I'm not completely on-board yet and the way that the Andy Butler situation was dealt with left me feeling uneasy.”
“It’s easy to get carried away with a club legend coming back, but I think it’ll take some time to get up and running and we may have to settle for a mid-table finish this season as this rebuild will be a slower process,” she adds. Gabriel however is firmer in his belief that Rovers have made the right choice. “I really like the appointment of Richie Wellens, he's a manager I rate very highly, and had Donny gone with someone more unproven I might have had them down as potential relegation candidates.”
There have been a couple of big summer rebuilds carried out at Rovers in the past decade – in 2012 by Dean Saunders and in 2016 under Darren Ferguson – with both leading to promotion, albeit from a lower division following respective relegations, so the high turnover this summer isn’t an alien concept for Rovers fans. However, there are some big shoes to fill and it remains to be seen if Wellens can plug those gaps in just one window.
Undeniably, the squad has suffered from key departures, and our contributors are aligned on who the biggest loss to the team is. “Ben Whiteman is the obvious choice because we felt his loss so keenly from January onwards,” says Abigail of Rovers’ former captain, and Daniel concurs that his sale impacted the midfield tremendously. “The team that ended the season without him looked like lost souls looking for their midfield general, so hopefully Ben Close can help to fill the void.”
Wellens appears to be adopting a different tactical set-up to his midfield, opting for a 4-3-3 with one physical presence anchoring two more technical outlets. By his own admission, the manager has not yet found that physical player and Gabriel sees the issues with asking Close to take on the role. “Wellens' title-winning Swindon side used Anthony Grant as a basic destroyer in midfield, then a more progressive operator in Michael Doughty to carry the ball forward. Looking at the current Rovers midfield, I'm not sure I see either of those types of player.”
“I don't see a basic, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ Paul Keegan type in this current crop. There's a lot of excitement over Close, who I feel is someone who can slot into a team that's already playing well and do a job, but I don't think he can drag a team to new heights,” Gab stresses. “He's not the most physical player and while he can retain possession, I don't tend to think he does an awful lot with it – although he is capable of the odd strike from range. Maybe Matt Smith can be the more progressive midfielder, although his qualities may be more in the creative side rather than driving forward.”
Gabriel’s assessment of things digs down into the issue surrounding depth, a matter which is clearly on the manager’s mind as he tries to finalise his squad. “I don't see much physicality or drive in midfield,” adds Gabriel, “and I do wonder if there'll be the odd game where Wellens goes for someone fairly unproven like AJ Greaves, just for the tenacity factor.” The consensus seems to be that Rovers’ business to date has been good in respect of making strong signings, but perhaps just not enough of them to make a complete picture.
“I think that we've made some really exciting signings this summer but it's clear that a good few more are needed,” says Abigail of recruitment to date, and Daniel adds a similar sentiment. “I’m happy with the business Wellens has done but you don’t need a degree in maths to see that we’re well short of where we need to be. What happens if we have an injury crisis or get hit by Covid-19? If we could sign trialists such as Louis Reed and get three more loans in, the squad looks totally different, but for now it looks like a half-decent first team that is desperately short in depth.”
This begs the question of whether or not ‘Wellensball’ is actually achievable in the short term. “I know how Wellens will want to play but can we get the best out of what he has?” muses Daniel on the prospect of hitting the ground running. “I suspect there are more players he would move on if he had the choice, and he’s caught between the devil and the deep blue sea in some senses.”
“Do you try to move more out and risk having an even bigger turnover or upset players stuck on the wage bill, or do you give them a go and hope it clicks? I am hopeful we’ll see a team that will pass and move, play on the half turn, hit teams on the break at pace and look to be positive. It should bring out the best in people but it will also expose the technical deficiencies in any position, which may mean Wellens is forced into a pragmatic approach in the early part of his tenure.”
Abigail strikes a slightly more optimistic tone on this front, whilst acknowledging that patience may be a virtue for fans expecting a quick sea change in the viewing experience. “I think that we've had some really exciting signings this summer but it's clear that a good few more are needed. I'm not sure we have the personnel in place to play the aggressive, attacking football that Wellens would like to yet, but there is still time to bring added depth to our attack, which would be a significant boost.”
Finding the right players for the way Wellens likes to play will be a case of trial and error, and attacking areas do look a bit of an enigma as things stand. “I don't see a reliable centre-forward, either,” says Gabriel. “Fejiri Okenabirhie plays best when paired with a striker – which he wouldn't be in this set-up – and Omar Bogle has come in for a lot of criticism.” However, the decision to prioritise defensive signings early in the summer appears to have paid off.
“I see Rovers operating with an expansive 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 setup, with Kyle Knoyle and Tommy Rowe pushing well on from the full-back positions, bringing different qualities,” says Gabriel, complementing existing players who figure to feature heavily this season. “I think Tom Anderson has got a really important role to play,” according to Abigail. “As one of the most experienced senior players, we need his club knowledge imparting onto the new players and some of the younger ones. He's also the best centre half in the league so you can't underestimate his importance to Rovers defensively.”
If Anderson is key to the new players bedding in, he will also be vital to the progression of Rovers’ young goalkeeper. “I’m feeling really enthused about Louis Jones and am actually at a point where I’m actively willing loan moves to fall through to make absolutely sure he’s our #1,” reckons Daniel, but Gabriel isn’t so sure about the young stopper. “I know that Daniel has high hopes for Louis Jones in goal, but perhaps you'll forgive a touch of scepticism from a humble outsider's perspective, given his lack of EFL experience.”
Daniel though is flying the flag for the hometown boy. “I don’t buy the age and experience argument, for if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” he says. “My concern is that he won’t be in the team in January – not because of poor form but because a big club will come sniffing before too long. He’s that good, I promise you.” Jones could be the big success story of 2021-22 if he progresses and that would certainly solve one headache facing Richie Wellens.
Dose of Reality
Fear of a hangover from last season’s collapse is understandable among the faithful, even in the wake of a raft of changes to Rovers’ playing and coaching contingent. “Given the way we ended last season, the target has to be for us to enjoy our football again and get to 50 points as soon as we can,” says a grounded Daniel. “I thought under Darren Moore that promotion would have become an inevitability with steady, strong leadership and his eye for a good loan signing. Why he left still baffles me, but whatever the reasoning, it has set us back somewhat.”
Abigail concurs, and hopes the club can find themselves towards the upper end of the middle pack at least. “I'd say we should expect a mid-table finish, considering this should be a rebuilding season. I appreciate that's not very optimistic but it is realistic.” That realism is something Rovers fans may have to adjust to, particularly if the Wellens era starts off slowly. “To me,” Gabriel says of the club’s reasonable ambition, “It's having a season stabilizing in midtable whilst developing long-term assets, whereas I suspect some Rovers fans might have loftier hopes after Play-Off challenges in recent seasons.
It’s true that expectations have gone up in the past few years, as Rovers have been able to attract bright young managers and play their way into the Play-Off mix on a semi-consistent basis, but the impact of 2020-21’s Spring slump cannot be understated. “We were pitiful towards the end of last season and it was the last thing Andy Butler wanted or deserved,” adds Daniel. “I suspect we’d be content with a top ten finish, flirting with the Play-Offs like Moore’s first season. I fear we may find that a struggle but hope for a McCann-type introduction for our prodigal son.”
Richie Wellens is undoubtedly the ‘X factor’ in this cautious pragmatism from fans and pundits alike, and Gabriel sounds a positive note on the influence he could have. “I think finishing in the top half would make a good season, but I still think it'd be possible to finish in the bottom half and take positives if the right foundations are in place. I like Wellens and some of the players in this squad, so perhaps I should be more optimistic about Donny than I was when predicting an 18th-place finish.”
“It's such a competitive league this year though and for whatever reason, I just wasn't quite feeling it – perhaps I'm put off by the poor form in the second half of last season!” Banishing the demons of last season will be the acid test for the new regime, but Daniel believes that character will shine through. “Two things are for certain – Wellens will not suffer fools gladly and he is not as green as he is cabbage looking. He won’t make big statements, he’ll be fully aware of the scale of the task but also knows time will be on his side for the first time in his managerial career.”
“I’m not sure a quiet revolution is quite Wellens’ style but he always let his football do the talking here.”
Enjoy The Ride
It may be too early to say where Doncaster Rovers will finish in the League One shake-up this season but one thing everyone seems united on is how excited they are to get back to the live football experience. For Abigail, just getting back to that Saturday afternoon routine is the thing she’s most excited for. “The atmosphere, the pies, getting ignored by my other half as he live-tweets the game and having a good ole sing along, that’s what I’m looking forward to.” (Editor’s Note: She definitely doesn’t get ignored…that much!)
Daniel meanwhile echoes the sentiment that this writer feels after being forced to watch the sterile atmosphere of pandemic football from the sofa. “It’s all the little things mainly. The sights, smells and sounds of football grounds in the lower divisions is what I’ve missed the most. Jumping on a train and having a little adventure on a Saturday at the end of a working week. Give me that instead of empty soulless Premier League grounds any day!”
It is fair to say that Gabriel sees this point of view as well. “The return of fans will be vital and I hope the right precautions and protocols will be in place to keep that going. 2020-21 had some great stories – Barnsley reaching the Championship Play-Offs, Blackpool back on the up, Morecambe winning promotion – but it was a bit of a slog at times too. Football without fans is like muesli without milk: better than nothing, but not nearly the same.”
No doubt there will be bumps in the road, and the next few months promise to be a rollercoaster with new ideas bedding in as the club – and football on the whole – emerges from one of its most difficult periods in living memory, but every supporter, player and coach will greatly appreciate the sense of normality returning to the match day experience, and it is for that reason that we should all enter the new season with a sense of optimism and excitement, regardless of the outcome at the end of 46 League One games.
Great thanks to our contributors for their thoughts on Rovers and the season ahead. You can find Daniel on Twitter @daniel_nice7, Abbey can be found @abbeym_, and Gabriel presents The EFL Fans Show from his page, @GabSutton.