ITEN Match Preview: Milton Keynes (H)
Rovers are back in action this weekend looking to banish the demons of a very bad week when they take on strugglers Milton Keynes in League One.
Dumped out of two cups in the past six days, both by 3-0 scorelines, Darren Moore’s side have underlined their disjointed recent run with a pair of truly shocking performances. They say the best tonic for such strife is to put it right on the pitch, and that is exactly what the players will aim to do when they play their first home league game in over a month.
Back to the Well
Aside from the fact we have just not nailed down a consistent replacement for Niall Ennis up front, the Rovers side has lost form as consistency in selection has faltered, for one reason or another. Six weeks or so ago, Moore’s charges were flying playing an expansive 4-2-3-1 formation with everyone pretty much fitting into their role capably and it made the team an effective unit.
Injuries, suspensions and selection tweaks have meant changes in almost every area during the time since our last couple of league victories – over Bristol Rovers and Southend in October – with results and performances lacking. It feels sensible then to return to what worked, starting with the balance of the attacking midfield trio that plays off the central striker.
Kieran Sadlier must be trusted to provide the creative engine in this area alongside James Coppinger and Jon Taylor, with Ben Sheaf and captain Ben Whiteman secure in their positions behind. Defensively, Cameron John is back and getting up to full speed but feels a solid choice to start again alongside Joe Wright, who has played consistently for the first time in 12 months during the month of November.
Kwame Thomas is the only forward option with any physicality, a trait that would be useful against this robust MK outfit, but the imminent return of Niall Ennis cannot come soon enough as neither Thomas nor Rakish Bingham seem to possess the quality that the young loanee has shown when fit.
Martin’s MK at Rock Bottom
Russell Martin is still searching for his first point as Milton Keynes boss, let alone his first league win. Taking over from Paul Tisdale at the start of November, the rookie boss – who is six days short of being a full five years younger than James Coppinger – has so far failed to arrest the team’s slide and they are now on a five-match losing run in the league, haven’t won for a staggering 11 League One matches and are in the relegation zone.
Their position in the table is at odds with Martin’s pre-match assertion that “the pressure is off” his players. Presumably he is attempting to impart freedom in their mentality since confidence is at rock bottom, as an immediate return to the fourth tier is surely not something the club will want to accept. Tuesday’s EFL Trophy win over Coventry should boost confidence in the camp somewhat, but Rovers must treat the game as one that they are clear favourites to win.
Another remarkable stat is that Milton Keynes have had a player sent off in five of their last six games, an astoundingly poor disciplinary record that suggests there are big underlying problems in the camp. Bailly Cargill was dismissed against Rotherham so Regan Poole will likely deputise in central defence, whilst first-choice right back George Williams is also still suspended. This may force Callum Brittain into the back four despite him playing as a right-sided midfielder for the entire campaign to date.
The knock-on effect of that creates imbalance in the midfield diamond that Martin has preferred since taking over. Former Rovers anchor Jordan Houghton plays a key role in this quartet, but Hiram Boateng may not be able to slot in to Brittain’s position as he is a more physical, defensively-minded player. Any potential formation switch will have to factor in the form of the strikers, with Joe Mason netting two in two and Kieran Agard pushing for a league start ahead of Jordan Bowery.
MK will be without long-term absentees Sam Nombe and Rhys Healey in attack, who alarmingly have scored as many goals between them as the rest of the strikers combined despite the fact neither has played since September. Finding a winning formula will be tricky but Rovers will have to be sharp to make sure they do not crack it at the Keepmoat this weekend.
These sides have met ten times since the controversial relocation of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes, and every meeting has been in League One. Rovers have won five, drawn three and lost two, never tasting defeat on home turf, and secured a pair of 2-1 victories when the sides last met in the 2017-18 season.
John Marquis scored twice in a comeback win at Stadium MK in April of 2018 to confirm Rovers’ place in the division, whilst the home side drifted further into a relegation mire they would not escape. Darren Ferguson’s side also came from behind to win the last clash on Lakeside earlier that season as fleeting sensation Alfie Beestin assisted both John Marquis and Matty Blair for a narrow win.
MK will be looking for their first ever win in Doncaster this weekend but can boast two 3-0 home wins earlier in the decade, notably despatching Brian Flynn’s league leaders in 2013 with goals from Izale McLeod, Daniel Powell and Stephen Gleason sunk the eventual League One Champions.
James Coppinger’s longevity in the game is legendary, with the evergreen attacking midfielder on 644 total appearances for Rovers, with 568 of those in the league. However, there is one active player in the EFL ahead of him in this department and Copps will face him on Saturday. Milton Keynes left-back Dean Lewington has been with the club since before they were born, coming out of the Wimbledon academy and played in their first ever game against Barnsley in 2004.
Lewington, the club captain, currently stands on 741 total MK appearances with 638 in the league, so will likely stay atop of that list when the pair retire. All that will matter on the Keepmoat pitch this time round of course is whether or not Copps can find a way round Lewington to help Rovers to victory.