• Adam Stubbings

Finding Solutions to the Doncaster Rovers Crisis

Somebody close to me sometimes has cause to say “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” on occasion. It’s not a phrase I like hearing, nor is it really one I’d like using in my every day life. But it came into my mind when I sat down to write this article, as I muse on the events of the past month or so at Doncaster Rovers.

I don’t like being negative. I’ve worked very hard in my personal life for several years on making sure I have a proactive mindset (hi Copps!) and try to see the positives in situations, and so I’d hope that has bled through to my coverage here on IntoTheEmptyNet.com. Maintaining that mindset has been increasingly difficult to do when it comes to this football club over the last few months, and my two latest articles perhaps reflect that I’m about at the end of my tether with Rovers in their current guise.

Since publishing a piece asking if the club were sleepwalking into League Two three weeks ago, Rovers have actually won a game. The 1-0 win over Morecambe has been accompanied by three league defeats however, two in which Richie Wellens’ side actually took the lead before losing, and the other a miserable, bottom-of-the-barrel 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Ipswich on Tuesday night.

That performance was arguably the worst I’ve seen from Doncaster Rovers since the Conference days, and appears to have turned the tide against the current manager in some sections of the fanbase. This is hardly surprising, as Rovers’ form is so poor that they now look certain to face a bruising relegation battle for the entire 2021-22 season, and it feels as though little improvement is being made to rectify the predicament we find ourselves in.

What is the answer then? It isn’t my job as a writer and observer to find those solutions, but I woke up this morning and felt as though it was better to at least posit some scenarios that don’t lead to us finishing rock bottom of the table with abject misery the running theme throughout the rest of the season. Call it my one little attempt to throw some good energy out into the ether, if you wish.

#1. Trust the Process

Let me be clear from the outset of this one – it isn’t the solution that I believe in at this stage.

The powers that be at Doncaster Rovers clearly felt in the summer that their ‘new’ approach would prove a winning one in time, even if the road through to success was likely to be rocky. A club legend in Richie Wellens installed as manager, *the* club legend James Coppinger, a former Rovers team-mate of Wellens, moved into a key off-field role, and a slew of new signings intended to be bright young talents with potential, augmented by the likes of Tommy Rowe and Tom Anderson.

It has been tagged as a season of rebuilding, but of course that isn’t supposed to mean being rooted to the foot of League One and taking sporadic tonkings against teams with superior budgets. Wellens has this week reiterated that he believes in the long-term project and wants to see it through, and all right-thinking Rovers fans will surely want nothing more than for that to happen and for results to turn around as soon as possible, starting with the home game against Milton Keynes on Saturday.

If it does happen, and Wellens gets those next few transfer windows to truly shape his own vision for the club, then it will be happy days and this calamitous couple of months will become a “look where we were at the start compared to now” learning lesson.

#2. Alter the Approach

When I sit down and open up my laptop to write these articles, I want to discuss football. I want to talk tactics and statistics and armchair-manage from the comfort of my home. Rovers have made that desire increasingly difficult as the off-pitch circus has ramped up over the course of 2021, but perhaps looking back onto the green grass of home will lead to the answers we’re looking for.

It has at times been rather difficult to tell what Wellens is trying to do with the 11 players he puts out onto the field. However, in certain games, such as the 0-0 draw with Portsmouth or two-thirds of the loss at Plymouth, it is apparent that deploying a technically-sound footballing gameplan is in the works and just needs some refinement. If Rovers were comfortable in the division at the moment, it would be good to see how the vaunted ‘Wellensball’ develops over the next few months.

As that is not the case however, and Rovers are beginning to drift away from shore in 24th spot, it may be a case of plugging the glaring holes in the ship to stay afloat. Richie may want to hone his 4-3-3 and play exclusively on the deck and into the channels (honestly not intentional sea-faring puns, those last two) yet it may benefit his short-to-long term prospects more to adopt a pragmatic, safety-first approach.

That would mean shoring up the defence with an extra body, or else employing two sitting midfielders – the squad is well stocked with central options even if none are actually conventional Defensive Mids – and going back-to-basics by utilising the width of wide players and pace of the better forward options available to Wellens at present. There’s nothing to say that shelving Wellensball for the time being won’t steady the ship enough to keep Rovers’ heads above water.

#3. Change the Manager

I wouldn’t usually even want to entertain this one, as Rovers are not a sacking club and have cultivated a reputation in the game for giving managers time. The shortest reigning permanent Doncaster Rovers manager of the 21st century to date is Steve Wignall, who got just over 18 months between Ian Snodin and Dave Penney in the club’s non-league spell, so dismissing Wellens after only 10 league matches appears on the surface like the fancy of a lunatic.

That annihilation at Portman Road in midweek has made the prospect a sadly more realistic one, however. Wellens himself started talking about the pressure mounting on his standing and with good reason, being that it was a seventh league defeat in only nine outings, and the second 6-0 reverse of his brief reign when you factor in the awful home drubbing by local rivals Rotherham in the EFL Trophy. Sometimes, clubs just hold their hands up and say “we got it wrong” though, and it can lead to an upturn in fortunes if a different character is brought in to add a motivating factor that may be lacking.

It would be a considerably bold move by the Rovers hierarchy though, and an admittance of failure on their part to appoint the right man in the first place. Neither of these are regular character traits of the Bramall-Blunt-Baldwin trifecta if we’re being honest, and that is not necessarily a criticism, but it does mean it would take a drastic situation to force their hand. Is being more than five points adrift of safety by the start of October drastic enough? They will have to be the ones to judge that.

If anything, the club have been reaffirming their current approach to footballing matters by this week appointing another member of Sean O’Driscoll’s legendary team to the backroom staff. Paul Green, an incredibly popular midfielder in his playing days who was with Rovers from the ashes to the glory, is back as fitness coach - linking back up with Wellens and Coppinger whom he played alongside with distinction for Rovers. It’s a sign of more support for Richie, if anything.

#4. Fix the Operation

Here then we come to my preferred solution, albeit one that may not get us out of trouble until January at least. I truly believe that the problems currently afflicting Doncaster Rovers on the pitch run from the boardroom down and are primarily of a cultural persuasion. Let me qualify this by saying that I do not advocate “sacking the board” or removing either David Blunt or Gavin Baldwin from their current positions, as they are business-oriented people in business-oriented posts, but they must now accept that their management of the club’s football operation is lagging far behind where it needs to be.

One month ago today I wrote an article outlining the frustration I felt in the wake of the club’s failure to secure a much-needed striker on transfer deadline day. That event has dominoed into a growing crisis in the weeks since and noises out of the club simply have not gone far enough to reassure me – or many others by the looks of the discourse among fans – that those at the top of the club understand the level to which they have been deficient.

Forget the pandemic, forget the budgetary constraints and all of that. I’m talking football: squad building, giving coaches the tools with which to do their best work, creating a true footballing philosophy that goes above and beyond bringing in a promising manager and letting them run the rule over their players.

Who truly identifies our signings, and on what basis? Vague “DNA profiles” don’t justify what appears to be a haphazard, half-baked strategy of recruitment, nor does it explain why we have watched a group of players struggle to blend for two months now. I have been using the phrase “joined-up thinking” a lot in discussions lately because I feel as though there isn’t much of that going on in the background of Doncaster Rovers, and I’d like to see some signs that there is more to the operation than lining up four blokes in nice jumpers and saying “we know what we’re doing now, trust us.”

The Bottom Line

Gavin Baldwin spoke in depth about Rovers finding their identity again in the summer. I’ve not felt this lost as to what Doncaster Rovers looks like on and off the pitch since the wretched ‘Experiment’, a debacle that led to a pathetic relegation and the squandering of a decade of great progress.

We are not yet over the cliff edge and into the abyss, there is time to turn back, but that time is running short and my insistence that those in control at the club do some reflection leading to firm action is going to count for very little if we are still saying the same things a month from now.


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