Life After Ben: Breaking Down Whiteman's Departure
The saga over the future of Ben Whiteman is finally at an end, as Doncaster Rovers sanctioned the sale of their captain this week once Championship outfit Preston North End elected to continue their pursuit and meet the club’s asking price for the midfielder.
As with any prolonged transfer deal in the modern game, there has been mountains of speculation – from the fee to Whiteman’s prospects and beyond – regarding the move and now that the pieces have fallen into place, we are left to assess the impact of Rovers losing their captain and unquestioned best player.
The Importance of Timing
Despite what Football Manager and FIFA 21 would have you believe, the complicated financial implications of a player moving clubs is not so readily made public, nor is it such a binary process that we can judge every deal on the same measuring scale. The key elements of this particular transfer lie in the fact that Rovers shored up their negotiating position last season when they tied Whiteman to a lucrative long-term contract, keeping him at the club a year longer than they may have done otherwise whilst increasing his value.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Rochdale-born playmaker’s star was on the rise as far back as 18 months ago, when Grant McCann sought to take him to Hull after a stellar 2018/19 campaign that ended in a Play-Off run for the side. Keeping Whiteman an extra year has allowed him to flourish further and become the best midfield player in League One, pushing his value up towards the £2 million mark which can only be good news for Rovers.
In an ideal world, Whiteman would have stayed in the hoops to see out this season and aid Darren Moore’s promotion push, but it is a short career and these opportunities may not arise again if injury strikes or unforeseen circumstances get in the way. This is purely speculation, but maybe the player’s brush with Covid-19 over Christmas strengthened his resolve to seek that big move sooner rather than later – this past year has shown all of us after all that tomorrow brings no guarantees.
The upside of Whiteman leaving in mid-January rather than approaching Deadline Day is that it allows Rovers a full fortnight and change to sign a replacement, and it may also enable them to do additional business that they otherwise may not have planned for. This season will not be defined by the captain’s departure but by how the club moves to replace him and strengthen the squad for the future.
Naysayers often criticise the club by pointing to a lack of reinvestment from the last high-profile sale of a Rovers player, that being the transfer of John Marquis to Portsmouth for a fee approaching £2 million in the summer of 2019. However, there are a couple of elements to that particular deal that make it a poor argument against the club as well as a largely irrelevant comparison to any transfer involving Whiteman in 2021.
Marquis was in the prime of his career at 27-years-old when he moved to Fratton Park, as well as a prolific striker. Whether you agree with it or not, teams prioritise goalscorers and as such they tend to come at a premium. That fact alone should dissuade anyone who thinks it reasonable for the club to demand the same as Peterborough did for Ivan Toney when selling him to Brentford last summer – Toney went for £5 million with another £5 million in potential add-ons.
As for how Rovers chose to reinvest the money they received for Marquis, it could never be the case that the club simply go out and spend a large portion of that money on a replacement striker. The transfer fee was reinvested, not least in being a contributing factor in the lengthy contracts handed to Whiteman and Tom Anderson last season, as well as in allowing Darren Moore to make successful offers to Jon Taylor and Fejiri Okenabirhie, players the club had to fight off competition to sign.
There was an initial failure to adequately replace Marquis in the team, but Okenabirhie’s arrival was the eventual solution, and Moore has continued to strengthen the squad to the point that Rovers are now genuine promotion contenders at the midway point of the 2020/21 season. The reality is that the manager has been backed to bring in players in each transfer window he has had so far, and there is no reason why that should change going forward, even with the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.
A Realistic Ambition
It would be unreasonable to argue that Rovers can just shake off the loss of Whiteman and move on unaffected. He has been a vital element of a team that finds itself within striking distance of top spot in League One, and the club will do mightily well to find a player with so many good qualities as Whiteman has shown particularly over the past year or so. However, Adam Henshall is paid to do exactly that, and it is a certainty that contingency plans will have been discussed long before now.
If the club can move on a potential replacement quickly and tie up a further attacking option, they stand to minimise the setback of selling Whiteman mid-season. It is to be hoped they have learned from the failed pursuit of an immediate Marquis replacement, courting players like Leon Clarke and having to go without reinforcements for several months when that didn’t materialise, with the decision to hire a dedicated recruitment specialist in Henshall in the wake of that disappointment surely no coincidence.
Darren Moore has the pieces in place off the field now to best assist him in building a successful squad on it, so it is to be hoped Rovers take advantage of this opportunity to be flexible in the window. Could a renewed push to sign Josh Sims permanently be in the offing? It would be astute of the club to spend some of the Whiteman money on a package to tempt Southampton for the winger if Sims is keen to return, and is a move that would appease fans itching to mutiny over the sale of their captain.
Truthfully, Rovers do not need to move mountains to get over Whiteman’s loss and stay in the hunt for promotion this season. Doing nothing would increase the burden on the current squad no doubt, but it is unthinkable that ‘nothing’ is what Gavin Baldwin and Darren Moore will do. Heads will come together, the right additions will be made, and Rovers will begin again as they have done so many times before. Such is life in the mad world of football.