Eleven of the Best: Rovers Loanees
Doncaster Rovers have always liked to use the loan market to good effect. Obviously the hits do not always outweigh the misses but there have been plenty of successful temporary players in the recent history of the club, and we’ve decided to highlight a team of them for our latest Eleven of the Best.
As was the case in our Cult Figures XI published earlier this month, the formation is something of an experimental one – it seems quality right backs have not been a need for Rovers in the loan market before – with this team arranged into an adaptable 3-4-3. The only qualifier is that the player must have ONLY played for the club on loan, ruling out players who went on to become permanent fixtures such as Billy Sharp or Matt Mills as we felt that might make it a bit too easy.
So without any further preamble, here are Eleven of the Best…Rovers loanees!
32 apps – 2013-14 and 2014-15
A good number of the players on this list have gone on to successful careers at a higher level after cutting their teeth at Rovers, and goalkeeper Sam Johnstone is a shining example of that. The young stopper came on loan from Manchester United in 2013 and impressed in the Championship, returning the following season in League One under Paul Dickov. His confidence in goal combined with high shot-stopping ability made him a solid option at a time when the club was struggling to find a reliable option between the sticks.
Johnstone was a popular player amongst fans and many saw his return in 2014-15 as a coup, considering the fact Rovers had been relegated to a lower level. His talents exceeded League One without doubt and he has gone on to prove himself as a player who could become a Premier League regular, building a fine reputation with loan spells at Preston and Aston Villa before signing for West Bromwich Albion for £6.5million. In making the move to The Hawthorns he became the first signing for manager Darren Moore, who of course is now in charge at Rovers.
32 apps, 1 goal – 2013-14
Another successful acquisition of the Paul Dickov era was South African centre half Bongani Khumalo, who joined from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2013. “Bongs” was an instant hit thanks to his classy performances in the heart of a defence under plenty of pressure upon the side’s return to the Championship, and his footballing ability was a step up from the old school (yet effective) defensive work of Rob Jones and Jamie McCombe the previous year.
It isn’t often that Doncaster Rovers can boast a World Cup goalscorer amongst their ranks, but in Khumalo they had someone who not only scored in the finals, but netted for the host country in a victory over France in 2010. Khumalo bagged his only Rovers goal in his second appearance, a League Cup win over Rochdale, and went on to be a defensive stalwart making over 30 appearances that season. However, he ruptured his knee on international duty in March and missed the run-in as Rovers went down in agonising fashion on the final day.
23 apps, 1 goal – 2009-10
Imperious defender Jason Shackell played in one of the outright best Doncaster Rovers sides of all time, as part of the 2009-10 squad that rose as high as the Championship Play-Off places at one stage with Sean O’Driscoll at the peak of his managerial career. Shackell was signed at the start of the season to replace Matt Mills and he became a rock in the rejigged back-line that helped push Rovers forward to become an established second-tier side, showing his quality throughout.
He was so consistent in his play that he almost never lost a header in a Rovers shirt and also scored a single goal, heading home against Peterborough to seal a 3-1 win. An injury put paid to his spell on loan from Wolves mid-season and despite the hopes of fans, Shackell moved to neighbours Barnsley in the summer of 2010 going on to become a top player at that level for the Tykes, Derby County and Burnley.
46 apps, 1 goal – 2013-14 and 2014-15
Dublin-born full back Enda Stevens joined Rovers as an almost complete unknown in November of 2013, signing from Aston Villa having joined them after an impressive spell in the League of Ireland. Stevens became a consistent presence in Paul Dickov’s side and impressed enough to be brought back the following season, where he became the first choice left back for the club’s first season back in League One.
He scored his only goal for the club in a home win over Colchester and moved to Portsmouth the following summer after being released by Villa, with Dickov opting to move on and bring in Aaron Taylor-Sinclair instead. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the career trajectory of that pair could not be much different, with Stevens going on to earn a move to Sheffield United where he is now a first team regular in a side pushing for a top six place in the Premier League.
14 apps – 2012-13
Now a team mate of Stevens in that much-lauded Blades side, John Lundstram is the player with the least Rovers appearances on this list but earns his place for a significant contribution to one of the club’s greatest ever successes. Lundstram was only 19 years old when he joined to aid Brian Flynn’s promotion push from League One in February of 2013 and he immediately established himself in midfield with a mature approach to the game belying his tender age.
The Everton trainee went straight into the side and started every game for the rest of the season, including the now legendary 1-0 win at Brentford on the final day which won Rovers the title in dramatic fashion. Lundstram moved to Oxford in 2015 and helped them to promotion from League Two before joining Sheffield United, where he is now one of the most prominent names in their successful Premier League side, alongside fellow Rovers alumni Stevens and Billy Sharp.
76 apps, 2 goals – 2016-17 and 2017-18
Chelsea academy product Jordan Houghton arrived on loan on the eve of the 2016-17 season, with Darren Ferguson looking to add the finishing touches to his squad in preparation for a League Two promotion push. The holding midfielder quickly established himself as a calming presence in the centre of the pitch and helped hold everything together through Ferguson’s ever-changing rotation of formations, until suffering a serious knee injury in February.
He was badly missed for the rest of the season but Rovers went up anyway, and a campaign over the summer for his return was answered when he returned for a second loan spell. Now partnering Ben Whiteman in midfield, Houghton contributed to a very solid if unspectacular team and was wanted on a permanent deal by many fans, but it was not to be. Houghton expressed his desire to stay close to home in the south and joined Milton Keynes instead, where he remains to this day.
49 apps, 7 goals – 2018-19
Houghton’s departure was initially a blow, but the arrival of Herbie Kane as his replacement in the summer of 2018 proved a game-changer. Highly thought of at Liverpool, Kane quickly showed why with a string of dazzling displays and he became a symbol of the blood-and-thunder approach of new manager Grant McCann. His chemistry with Whiteman as well as the likes of James Coppinger allowed him to flourish and he also showed off a penchant for stunning long-range goals, with strikes against Blackpool and Chorley the highlights.
He ended up making 49 appearances as Rovers went to the Play-Offs and got to the FA Cup 5th Round, and his return of 7 goals and 10 assists is impressive for any central midfielder, let alone a 20-year-old playing his first season of senior professional football. His popularity stretched further even than that and there were attempts to bring him back this season by Darren Moore, but he instead linked back up with McCann at Hull in January after making his first team Liverpool debut in the autumn.
19 apps, 1 goal – 2010-11 and 2011-12
Enfield-born attacking midfielder Ryan Mason was a Sean O’Driscoll type of player in every way. He possessed a deft touch, great vision and mobility and was someone much more focused on the technical side of the game than the physical. His potential was there for all to see in his three separate loan spells across two seasons at the Keepmoat Stadium, and he is the only former Rovers player this side of the year 2000 to go on to earn full international honours with England.
Mason scored his only goal for the club in a League Cup game against Tranmere but suffered an injury in a bad tackle and barely featured again after O’Driscoll was sacked and the “experiment” began. He eventually established himself in the first team at parent club Tottenham, earning his sole England cap in that time, before moving to Hull where he unfortunately suffered a career-ending head injury in a collision with Gary Cahill. If not for that accident, Ryan Mason could easily be a top Premier League player to this day.
66 apps, 13 goals – 2005-06 and 2006-07
Nobody on this list scored a more important goal than the one Jonathan Forte netted in the first minute of the 2007 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, setting Rovers on their way to a landmark victory in Cardiff. The pacey winger joined on loan from his hometown club Sheffield United in the previous season under Dave Penney, scoring a few goals before moving on to another local rival, Rotherham, helping them to League One survival in 2006.
He returned to Rovers for what proved to be a full season that summer and thrived under Penney’s successor Sean O’Driscoll, scoring 9 goals in a fruitful campaign that proved to be one of his most prolific, culminating in that opening goal against Bristol Rovers that cemented his name among the annals of great Doncaster Rovers memories. His form caused newly-promoted Championship side Scunthorpe to snap him up in 2007 and he enjoyed a long career in the EFL before retiring through injury last year.
53 apps, 16 goals – 2018-19
Easily one of the most exciting players to don the hoops ever, Mallik Wilks was a star of Grant McCann’s Rovers side from the minute he debuted. He scored in his first three games for the club, setting the tone for a campaign full of high points. His direct wing play, ruthlessness in front of goal and downright cockiness made him a joy to watch – the sort of player who delights and frustrates in equal measure but who you ultimately know is worth having around.
Wilks managed a terrific 16 goals in 2018/19 and his influence on the Play-Off run cannot be understated. He formed a great partnership in attack with John Marquis and at times tormented opposition defences entirely on his own; just ask Rochdale or Preston how deadly he could be with the ball at his feet. Rovers were never in with much chance of signing Wilks permanently from Leeds and the £1million fee Barnsley paid for his services last summer underlined that, although he is yet to reach the heights in the Championship that he did for Rovers.
36 apps, 8 goals – 2012-13
Canadian international striker Iain Hume typified the never-say-die spirit of the League One title-winning side of 2012/13. Hume arrived as an experienced EFL player with notable spells at Tranmere, Leicester, Barnsley and Preston, completing the revamped team under Dean Saunders and adding a different dimension to a physical attack that also featured Chris Brown and Billy Paynter. His play was that of a determined terrier, and he popped up with numerous important goals throughout the club’s journey to the championship.
Regulars at away games that season will have fond memories of Hume’s strikes as he scored most of his Rovers goals on the road, including a crucial equaliser in an eventual 2-1 win away at Stevenage, the winning goal at Portsmouth and a dramatic last-minute winner against the club he began his career with, Tranmere. Whilst he came in and out of the side under Brian Flynn, Hume’s attitude made him a big hit at the Keepmoat and he is a figure who will always be well thought of at Doncaster Rovers.