Deadline Duds: Striker Shambles Raises Big Questions
It doesn’t feel good to be a Doncaster Rovers supporter today. As last night’s transfer deadline clock ticked down, the hopes and optimism of everyone associated with the club slowly and painfully evaporated as it became clear that Rovers had failed to secure the targets they needed in order to give manager Richie Wellens the tools to get his new side off the bottom of the League One table.
Despite being in clear need of attacking reinforcements for weeks, Rovers presided over an omnishambles of a close to the summer window and embarrassed not only themselves but every supporter who had kept faith with their efforts to make crucial additions to the squad. Where do Rovers go from here, and how do we as supporters respond to the events of the past few days?
Best Foot Forward
Anybody who has watched Rovers play in the last few weeks knows exactly where the team has deficiencies. Manager Richie Wellens has continually stressed the need to bring in attacking reinforcements in order to give the side some firepower, as without any viable options up front Rovers have been a toothless side devoid of creativity and attacking intent. Wellens is yet to taste victory in the job and has seen only one goal scored across seven games in all competitions, so it was imperative that the hierarchy act to add to the squad.
Deadline Day though ended up being a tragedy played out on Twitter. Whilst the club’s official channel didn’t utter a word all day – an unusual occurrence in itself – local journalist Liam Hoden was busy updating the masses, and it was through Hoden and the Doncaster Free Press that the fanbase were kept on tenterhooks up to and beyond the 11pm end of the transfer window.
At 9am, the first update of the day was an extraordinarily positive one. Will Grigg, the striker Rovers had been linked to for several days and who had for all intents and purposes agreed to move to DN4, remained top priority according to the story, along with getting the final determination on a long-term loan target to play on the wing. Even if the Grigg deal didn’t come off though, Hoden said, Rovers had other irons in the fire. Free Press took the surprising step of naming those players, and so fans were left thinking it was only a matter of time before those much-needed reinforcements would be stood in their red shirts next to a smiling Richie Wellens.
This was the first own goal the club managed on the day. It is not common practice for the local media to feel in a comfortable position to name targets in this way, and it had the inevitable effect of whipping the fans up into excitement. Grigg looked a good fit and is a proven goalscorer at this level, whilst alternative options Tom Eaves and Kenneth Zohore also offered the potential to bring in an experienced striker that would please fans. Danny Hylton and young Swansea forward Kyle Joseph were less impressive names, but still ones which could easily prove a success.
The club’s second big own goal was detailed in the Free Press update at 1.30pm, where it was revealed that extra funds had been released to ensure that Wellens got the two players he wanted in regardless of any departures. The sticking point for weeks in Rovers’ pursuit of signings had been the fact that funds needed to be raised from getting Omar Bogle and Ed Williams off the wage bill, and this was held up as a steadfast, non-negotiable element of having the finances to sign Grigg and the winger target. It may not have been clear at the time, but making it public knowledge that a decision had been made on Deadline Day to forego that “need” and suddenly find the funds anyway would come back to bite Rovers in a big way.
As the afternoon wore on, those two updates became an albatross around the neck of Doncaster Rovers. First, it was revealed by Stuart Rayner of the Yorkshire Post that Rotherham and Charlton had entered the race for Grigg, following on from a brief update by BBC Radio Sheffield’s Rob Staton that Grigg to Rovers now “seemed unlikely”. As the Sunderland striker made tracks for the New York Stadium, Rovers were left scrambling, yet those supposed back-up options failed to materialise and indeed, all but one of the four names stated in the Free Press ended up staying at their parent clubs.
Even though Grigg never actually looked like joining Rovers on Deadline Day in the end, the news that he was almost certainly signing for Rotherham didn’t materialise until 9pm. Now left with only two hours with which to source players, Rovers were pitched into desperation and it showed in the actions that they did take. As unrest grew amongst supporters still clinging to hope, the club’s official Twitter channel finally spoke at 9.30pm, announcing the loan signing of Rodrigo Vilca.
Vilca, a complete unknown, has been signed instead of the original first choice winger target, and indeed the Peruvian is not even a winger, operating more as a #10 or attacking midfield player for Newcastle United’s U23s team. Hammering home just how last-minute this move was, Vilca was photographed by the club wearing his Newcastle trackies, because he had actually been with the travelling party for the team’s EFL Trophy game at Sheffield Wednesday and had had to depart Hillsborough for the Keepmoat on a whim.
Little did we know however that this was only the start of amateur hour. Not content with signing simply the literal nearest available player, Rovers went back to the negotiating table with Sunderland hoping to find their man. They agreed a loan deal for Aiden O’Brien, another out-of-favour forward that the Black Cats were happy to shift, but this was not made public knowledge until well after the 11pm deadline ticked over, and it turned out there was good reason for the sudden silence from the local press.
As it turned out, the seemingly cryptic and vague messages out of Liam Hoden’s Twitter account were because he was waiting on the club getting the deal wrapped up. Unfortunately, Rovers themselves had got the move for O’Brien going very late in the day and so faced a race against the time to sign off all of the necessary paperwork. The farcical element came in the news just before midnight that this paperwork was not submitted in time by Sunderland, with it then transpiring that they had sent O’Brien the wrong forms.
The consequence is that O’Brien stays at Sunderland, and Rovers are without their much-needed striker. This is a disgraceful failing of the club’s hierarchy and a betrayal of each and every supporter who pays their money and devotes their time to supporting them. It is a stark embarrassment and an entirely avoidable one, a misgiving that must surely leave Richie Wellens wondering why he has come back to manage the club, knowing that he has not backed to the full capability that he should be afforded by those above him.
Any notion that this is Sunderland’s fault for their clerical error is missing the point also. Rovers should never have let themselves be beholden to a last-ditch scramble to sign a player who was, at best, the sixth choice option to sign. The reporting shows us that he was behind Grigg, Eaves, Hylton, Zohore and Joseph on the preference list, and there were no doubt other players who were also looked at as desperation set in in those final hours.
Free agents have been talked about as alternatives now, but this is simply not good enough, and represents a clear and total lack of intelligence or nous from the club, who appear doomed to repeat the same mistakes they have made in the past. When John Marquis was sold two years ago, then-boss Darren Moore spoke of making quality signings to replace the departed talisman, yet none materialised in August and he eventually turned to the bargain bin to sign Kwame Thomas and Rakish Bingham.
If players the calibre of those two are what Rovers are now looking at, then it is time to throw in the towel. Neither were ultimately even professional standard and it left Moore totally hamstrung in his efforts to progress the team, because the simple issue is that if you do not have a quality forward to put the ball in the net you do not get very far in the sport of football, in which the main aim is to put the ball in the net. Wellens now has to face up to the same problem, only from a much worse starting position because of injuries and the interminable Bogle situation.
Answers Needed Now
Fans have expressed their frustration for weeks as this situation was allowed to rumble on. CEO Gavin Baldwin has bore the brunt of that frustration on social media, and he is one of the key men who must now come out and explain to supporters how this has happened and what they are going to do to fix it. Baldwin and chairman David Blunt have got to speak to fans and acknowledge what they are doing wrong, face up to reality and answer the pressing questions which we deserve definitive answers to.
What do they have to say about how the club approaches the transfer market? How do they explain the issue of holding back these extra funds until it was too late to sign top targets who had been lined up for days? How do they justify the role of Graham Younger, a former agent who thus far in his role as Talent Identification Manager appears to be lacking the requisite abilities to source proper quality players? How do Baldwin and Blunt justify their own positions, and what they do for the club day-to-day?
Terry Bramall is now the sole money man at the top of Doncaster Rovers. He has consistently covered the shortfalls in the club’s business model – something which is down to the state of the sport as a whole and not Rovers themselves – in order to keep us going as a competitive League One side, able to challenge for the Play-Offs. He has ridden out an incredibly difficult few years as his business partner Dick Watson sadly passed away and his family ultimately stepped away from the boardroom. But he is the man who employs Blunt and Baldwin to run the club and there has never been a better time to ask if these people are justifying their positions.
From a personal standpoint, I have backed the club in their efforts up to now because it appeared that they were doing their best to make the team competitive. That notion has been backed up in recent weeks by the words of Wellens and club legend James Coppinger, who have spoken of all parties being on the same page in the edict for this season and generally sounding a positive note. That faith, that support which everyone with Rovers close to their hearts has given to them over the past few years has been betrayed by the failings laid bare in the past few days.
It is time to stop preaching positivity and patience out of sheer hope that things will get better. Reality says that Wellens and his patched-up team are now in a relegation battle because they will be unable to score enough goals – until January at the very least – to win games and get up the table. This is obvious to anyone who has watched us in these half dozen games so far, and it is a direct consequence of the hierarchy’s failure to commit themselves adequately in the transfer market.
Repeated failings in this area are actively detrimenting the team and will only cause Rovers to slide further into difficulty. Any trust that we had in this process and the things that are said by Gavin Baldwin in his updates has been destroyed and those in a position to do so must now ask the hard questions of those tasked with steering our club in the right direction. Those questions must be answered now, or else this may only be the beginning of the turmoil for Doncaster Rovers.