• Adam Stubbings

Musings from the South Stand #21: Injury Curse or Mild Setback?

It feels as though Doncaster Rovers players are dropping like flies at the moment. Since Jon Taylor suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury a fortnight ago in the win over Portsmouth, a clutch of key players have joined him in the treatment room.

Fejiri Okenabirhie missed a couple of games, Omar Bogle suffered a hamstring strain that left Rovers with no strikers for the game against Crewe, John Bostock and Reece James both went off injured in that game, and then Scott Robertson had to be withdrawn in the first half against Northampton on Saturday with a toe injury. Josh Sims has a nerve issue that may keep him out for some time in the worst case scenario, and long-term absentee Tyreece John-Jules is still over a month away from full fitness.

Reds Holding Firm

That is seven players who could all reasonably named first team regulars, and it has left Andy Butler short on options in certain areas of the team despite his predecessor Darren Moore working hard to add depth to the squad in January. So is it a case of Rovers’ season coming to a screeching halt over the unfortunate curse of injuries, or does it just feel like that may be the case after a bout of bad luck?

Whilst the above paints a picture of disaster, Andy Butler’s four games in charge to date have yielded 7 points from a possible 12, a tally which will lead to a guaranteed Play-Off place if it can be repeated over the final 14 games. Rovers did lose with no striker at Crewe last week, but were able to name a strong XI for the visit of Northampton on Saturday and with a little more ingenuity going forward would surely have taken all three points.

Rovers ultimately still hold a strong position in the table, sitting 5th with a small cushion to 7th placed Portsmouth and with games in hand on every side around them. More significantly, of the players listed above we already have Okenabirhie and James back fit and available, whilst Robertson may be able to play at Oxford on Tuesday night according to Butler in the Doncaster Free Press, and both Bostock and Bogle are looking likely to return at the weekend against Gillingham.

Challenging Weeks Ahead

The loss of Taylor coupled with another potential lay-off for Sims are a larger concern though. The pair are easily the most consistent wide players in the squad and, when fit and firing, are amongst the most productive as well. The truth is that neither Taylor nor Sims has really looked at their best since returning from injuries incurred around the New Year, so the prospect of coping without them is not alien to Butler or the squad.

Nevertheless, we are yet to see the same capability in Elliot Simoes or Jason Lokilo, even though Lokilo has clearly improved since the start of the season and is now a viable candidate for a run in the team, solving at least one of Butler’s selection headaches. Lokilo is not yet the finished article like Taylor or Sims though, so it would be a huge benefit if the Southampton loanee can shake off his latest problem and add to the manager’s options in that area of the pitch.

Four of the next five games are away from home for Rovers, so it will be a challenge that those who are fit and able to contribute will have to rise to meet. There is an additional blow in Monday’s announcement for the upcoming international games, with midfielder Matt Smith called up by Wales and highly likely to be missing for the trip to Milton Keynes at the end of March.

All to Play For

Heading into the crunch time of the campaign, Rovers need every body they can muster to help the fight for promotion. In this season of all seasons though, it is to be expected that the challenge of losing key players to injuries was always likely to rear its head. Rovers struggled with a lack of squad depth in the first half of the season, but management did the right thing by bolstering wherever they could in January to set the team up for success into this run-in, and now is the time to see that borne out in reality.

The truth is that all teams have probably endured more than the fair share of injuries and absences, with a packed schedule and added strain on each and every player in the league trying to get through the pandemic and all of its ills. Rovers can at this stage still call upon a number of excellent players for this level and are as well placed as anyone for a tilt at promotion to the Championship.

Most fans and observers will have taken 5th place by mid-March back in September when the 2020/21 season belatedly got underway, and current injuries provide opportunities for others, like Lokilo and Simoes, or AJ Greaves, Danny Amos and Charlie Seaman, to perhaps step into the void and stake a claim for a more prominent role in the team. Whether or not they succeed, there is no reason to think that Rovers are about to come off the rails and there is still plenty of reason to believe that there will be cause for celebration come the end of May.