ITEN Match Preview: Milton Keynes (A)
What a difference a week makes. Heading into last week’s game against promotion-chasing Wycombe, fans and manager alike were bemoaning successive losses which had made a top six finish that much harder for Doncaster Rovers to achieve, yet victory over the Chairboys has people believing again. Darren Moore even changed his tune on the manner of the performance at Shrewsbury as he discussed the team’s Play-Off prospects with the Doncaster Free Press on Thursday.
This weekend’s trip to Buckinghamshire to take on Milton Keynes will be a different prospect to the one against Gareth Ainsworth’s men. The team dubbed “Franchise FC” by many have been in the bottom six all season but are on a good run and now look likely to survive relegation off the back of their excellent home form, meaning Rovers will need to be sharp to get anything from the game.
Fresh-Faced Rovers Raring To Go
A youthful Rovers outfit acquitted themselves very well against Wycombe, running out comfortable winners in the end having responded superbly to conceding in the second half. The performance off the bench of debuting winger Jason Lokilo was particularly encouraging – his cross eventually finding its way in for the game-sealing third goal – and the praise he has received in the press this week suggests he may be in line for a start at MK.
Lokilo, impressive teenager Jacob Ramsey and academy product Danny Amos all shone in the game giving Rovers a fresh, freeing spirit about their play. Devante Cole meanwhile made more out of his role than he has been able to previously and figures to keep his place up front with Fejiri Okenabirhie serving the last of his three-match suspension, meaning we could see three of Darren Moore’s four January signings start together for the first time.
Cole in particular will want to impress against Milton Keynes, not just so that he can show the manager why he deserves to start even when Okenabirhie returns, but also because he counts Saturday’s opponents among his former clubs, having spent a few months there on loan in 2015.
Healey Out To Hurt The Hoops
There is no doubting that Russell Martin has turned things around at MK since taking up his first managerial post in November. His side were unlucky not to leave with all three points in the 1-1 draw at the Keepmoat three months ago and despite the fact they haven’t won an away game since September, their home form has helped to move them 11 points clear of relegation, with six wins in the last seven at Stadium MK and three straight heading into the visit of Rovers.
Their improved results have coincided with the return to fitness of Rhys Healey, who missed nearly four months in the first half of the season but marked his comeback with goals in three straight games from Boxing Day and has netted in six of the last seven outings for Milton Keynes, all of which the team have either won or drawn. That is ominous for Rovers, who will need to demonstrate their defensive prowess to keep the striker quiet.
Dean Lewington, the only man in the EFL with more appearances for his club than James Coppinger among active players, returns to the side having missed last week’s creditable 1-1 draw away at Rotherham due to the birth of his daughter, whilst Carlton Morris comes back from suspension to add the physicality to the front-line that Milton Keynes sorely missed at the New York Stadium.
Both sides are transformed prospects from their last meeting in early December, particularly in attacking areas, but it is a name familiar to Rovers fans who may prove the key cog for the home side this weekend. Jordan Houghton spent two very good years under Darren Ferguson at the club, winning promotion from League Two in 2017, before moving to MK and repeating that feat last season. He operates at the base of his current team’s midfield, and could be a thorn in our own central players’ sides if at his best.
Houghton was essentially replaced in the “Quarterback” role at Rovers by someone he shared the midfield with in his second season, Ben Whiteman, as Grant McCann adapted the role of the man who now wears the armband for the Red & White Wizards. Whiteman usually plays a more dynamic style than Houghton, so the two could clash frequently on the pitch this Saturday. Whichever of the two wins out in that battle could be the real string-puller of the match.
It is Rovers who lead the head-to-head record against Milton Keynes, winning five of the eleven meetings since the Buckinghamshire side came into being in 2004, losing only twice. Both of those defeats were 3-0 losses at Stadium MK, the first of those a shock result for the then-League One leaders in March 2013, as Brian Flynn’s side negotiated an ultimately successful push for the division championship. Rovers won the last meeting here two years ago thanks to a John Marquis double in a bad-tempered game which saw eight yellow cards.
Dean Lewington and James Coppinger both featured in the first ever meeting between Milton Keynes and Rovers in September of 2004, also in League One, with Lewington playing the full 90 minutes and Coppinger used a second half substitute in place of Gregg Blundell in a game which was settled by a Mark Albrighton goal for the visitors. The fact they both could feature again in this fixture again some 15 odd years later is testament to their longevity and quality.