• Adam Stubbings

Great Expectations in the Wellens Era

It could be the best of times, it could be the worst times, but new Doncaster Rovers manager Richie Wellens will not want to cut the figure of a haunted man by the time his maiden campaign in the Keepmoat Stadium dugout gets underway.

With just ten more days to go until the 2021-22 season begins with the visit of AFC Wimbledon to Lakeside, attention among fans and pundits has turned to how the League One table will shape up once the build-up subsides and the journey through another campaign begins. The big boys of the third tier are being fawned over as favourites and the smaller teams tipped to struggle, all the while Rovers find themselves being placed somewhere in the middle as is often the case in wider perception.

The fanbase itself however appears largely optimistic after a summer of big changes to the playing side of the club. Wellens is still manoeuvring the pieces around his board when it comes to putting the squad together, but signings to date have encouraged supporters to believe a strong season is coming, not least because the manner in which last season panned out left many feeling it couldn’t get much worse.

Hard Times, Past and Present

Malaise set in early on the 2020-21 run-in for Rovers, and form went swiftly off a cliff soon after Andy Butler took the reins from Darren Moore in March. Negativity, toxicity and outright apathy were the dominant emotions on and off the pitch as the club veered from a promotion challenge to midtable mediocrity in alarming fashion, and the end of the season came as merciful relief in the end.

It is for those reasons, coupled with the fact a large portion of the playing squad which participated in that collapse has now left, that expectations among fans at the start of pre-season were lower than they had been in quite a few years. The return of former midfield star Wellens as manager sparked a new wave of positivity and that was followed up on with bright, intelligent signings like those of Kyle Knoyle, Ben Close and returning fan favourite Tommy Rowe.

Rovers will go under the radar again, optimists among the faithful will argue, but they will surprise and amaze as Richie Wellens brings purposeful, attacking football back to DN4 and drives on a fresh, young squad to better things than that which came before. But it is a balancing act to rebuild a depleted squad, and the Manchester-born boss knows he has his work cut out to get his new/old team firing on all cylinders again.

Bent and Broken, or in Better Shape?

Seldom do such drastic rebuilds yield immediate reward in football. Players need time to gel, to acclimate to a new tactical set-up, and to truly buy into the footballing ethos of the manager and his staff. That may be easier for some than others, such as Knoyle and Matt Smith who have both played under Wellens before, but it will come with bumps in the road. His first season at Swindon ended in midtable for the League Two title was won the following year, whilst he never found the mark of consistency in 30 games at Salford last term.

That is not to say that success won’t come for Wellens’ Doncaster side, but supporters need to prepare themselves for a tough road, one that contains setbacks and pitfalls. To that end, fans must be prepared to take the rough with the smooth as it comes in the months ahead, and to not expect miracles or world-beating football in the Sean O’Driscoll mould right away. People therefore should not be surprised to see Rovers predicted to finish in the bottom half of the table by many of the well-informed outlets covering League One.

Straw polls on social media among Rovers fans this summer show that many supporters have belief that the appointment of Wellens and his proactive approach in the transfer market will spark a quick upturn in fortunes for the side. This enthusiasm is not necessarily misplaced, but it may be a little premature in the face of evidence suggesting the team may need more than just this season to get itself going and truly compete for honours.

A Spring of Hope, or the Winter of Despair?

Those who can cast their mind back 15 years to the choppy waters of the 2006-07 season will well remember that things were not all rosy from the outside of Sean O’Driscoll’s Rovers tenure, and this is a period and manager from whom Richie Wellens draws great inspiration for his own managerial career. The man himself is no doubt aware of this and it appears the men who appointed him from the boardroom are toom particularly in the wake of a pandemic-affected year that has pushed the club’s finances to their limits.

There were missteps and teething pains in the genesis of O’Driscoll’s transformation of Rovers from a plucky underdog side to the so-called “Arsenal of the North” and 2021-22 may be a campaign not unlike that first 12-15 months under the former Ireland midfielder, with spectacular highs like the Millennium Stadium win to barely believable lows like the disaster at home to Walsall. Wellens and his assistant Noel Hunt will hope there is more to cheer than not, however reality suggests a more delicate balance lies ahead.

Last season’s capitulation will be hard to overcome despite the heavy personnel shift, and the number of inexperienced players in the camp will also be a factor, just as it was down the stretch in 2020-21. The squad as it stands now looks a little light on depth too, whilst Wellens will know he needs to address a lack of ruthlessness up front and bite in midfield – these in particular being two major issues plaguing Darren Moore’s Doncaster Rovers side for much of the preceding two years.

Wellens himself has questions to answer as a manager, too. He will be intending for this job to be the one that cements him with true pedigree as an EFL coach, and knows that achieving something tangible at a club the size and stature of Rovers will go a long way for his burgeoning reputation in the game. To date, his League Two title with Swindon is the evidence of his potential, but not of his ability to create sustained success, and the hope will be that this Rovers run erases the memory of his tumultuous stay in Salford.

If he commits to the job at hand for a couple of years at least, he looks well placed to bring that success for himself and his new team. For now though we cannot expect magic from Day One and must settle in for a bumpy ride as another fresh start begins in earnest for Doncaster Rovers next Saturday.