• Adam Stubbings

Match Preview: Doncaster Rovers v AFC Wimbledon

Another season begins this weekend, and it will surely be a season like no other. Fans return to the Keepmoat Stadium to witness a league game for the first time since February of last year, and so much has changed in that time both at Doncaster Rovers and in the wider world, that nobody is quite sure what to expect. That makes previewing the occasion a tricky task, but we are here to give it a go anyway!

Read on for a look at both teams heading into the opening game of 2021-22, some tentative team news and an interview with Rob Smith, who runs the Wombles Downunder fanzine covering opponents AFC Wimbledon.

All Change

Both sides have new managers since they last met, with Richie Wellens making his competitive debut as Rovers manager and Mark Robinson beginning his first full campaign in the Dons dugout. Robinson took on the role just four days after a 2-0 defeat at the Keepmoat in late January, replacing Glyn Hodges, and having taken Wimbledon clear of relegation has been rewarded with the faith of keeping the job on a longer-term basis.

That win for Rovers however was near the end of Darren Moore’s spell in charge, with form taking a turn for the worse soon after followed by Moore’s departure for Sheffield Wednesday. The fallout has resulted in Wellens returning to the club he played for with distinction and a big rebuild is underway in South Yorkshire. To that end, the team that lines up for the home side on Saturday will be virtually unrecognisable from the one which last faced Wimbledon only a few months ago.

At time of writing, eight new faces have joined the club and more are apparently on the way to complete the make-up of Wellens’ first Rovers squad, with debuts in this game expected for Kyle Knoyle, Ro-Shaun Williams and Matt Smith at least, a return for Tommy Rowe and a place in the team for Ben Close if he can shake off the after-effects of Covid-19. It remains to be seen whether Louis Jones will keep his place in goal after a shaky pre-season for the young prospect, with competition for his #1 shirt expected to sign on loan this week.

Wimbledon meanwhile are adjusting to life without striker Joe Pigott, who left for Ipswich in the summer, and will be hoping senior forward Ollie Palmer can improve on his light goals tally from last season. Aside from Palmer, the Dons will be relying on younger players to fill the void, including recent loan acquisition Dapo Mebude, a team mate of Rovers loanee Tiago Cukur in the Watford academy. Luke McCormick is the headline signing for Robinson’s side, brought in from Chelsea to replace Shane McLoughlin, who has gone to Morecambe.

Opposition Talk with Rob Smith

ITEN: Mark Robinson seems a popular figure at the club, and did enough to steer Wimbledon clear of relegation last season. What are your thoughts on the manager and what he brings to the team?

Rob: Mark Robinson has plenty of support among the fanbase. He came into the job midway through last season with the Dons looking squarely at relegation, and in the space of 21 games and 13 weeks he breathed new life into AFC Wimbledon and gave supporters real hope of better times ahead.

‘Robbo’ is doing it his way – a positive brand of attacking, passing football, an emphasis on player development and a pathway for promising academy talent into the first team. He is concentrating on building a young, hungry team and has landed impressive young Premier League talent in Aaron Pressley (Brentford), Henry Lawrence (Chelsea) and Dabo Mebude (Watford) on season-long loans.

Robinson has been with AFC Wimbledon for 17 years, he knows the inner workings of the club and has been highly influential in the success of the academy from its inception, with a steady production line of youth players into the first team squad. Now he is in charge of the first team as Head Coach, and not with the ‘Manager’ title either.

How big of a difference will it make to have fans in every week at Plough Lane this season?

One of the great disappointments of this pandemic has been the inability of fans to finally watch their team in the newly-built Plough Stadium, after working so hard to get funds together to make it happen. There have been a couple of test events recently but fans are looking eagerly to watching the Dons play before them, first up against Bolton Wanderers on August 14th in the first league game at Plough Lane since they were forced out of the old ground just up the road in May 1991.

Wimbledon is fan-owned and prides itself on being a community club – the main stand has been used as a vaccination centre recently – so it will be an emotional time for many fans, getting back to Plough Lane and cheering on the Dons. No doubt their presence and vocal support will spur on the players after they played in a soulless empty stadium last season.

Joe Pigott is obviously a big loss to the side, as his goals have been a driving force in the past few seasons. How much will Wimbledon miss him, and is there enough to cover for his goals in the squad now?

One of the big concerns going into the new season is whether or not the Dons have adequately compensated for the departed Pigott. ‘The Pig’ was far and away the most influential player last season with 20 of his team’s 54 goals in League One, and he contributed another five assists — that’s almost half of the Dons league goals. He will be a big act to replace.

‘Robbo’ has brought in Brentford youngster Aaron Pressley on loan to join striker Ollie Palmer up front, and Dabo Mebude has joined this week to boost the ranks. How the goals are spread out among attacking midfielders Luke McCormick, Jack Rudoni and Ayoub Assal will decide Wimbledon's season in my view. The team find goals hard to come by in League One, so it will be Robbo's task to turn that around with his attacking game.

Luke McCormick looks like a shrewd signing, coming with a good reputation from Chelsea. Will his arrival spark a change in how Dons play, and will he be expected to take on a key role in the team straight away?

Luke McCormick was Robbo's first major signing of the off-season and a crucial one. He brings an attacking all-action style to the Dons midfield and has stood out in pre-season. The ex-Chelsea man, signed on a free, will be one of the focal points of the attack and as I said before, how he fares will be key to the Dons' success this season.

Finally, how do you see the 2021-22 season going for Wimbledon? Is it a case of fighting for survival again or do you believe the club can aim higher in League One now?

There is optimism among the fanbase that the low budget Dons can over-achieve this season under the direction of Mark Robinson.

Our Pundits’ Poll in the Wombles Downunder fanzine has an average finishing position of 14th, which might be overly optimistic but given a good run with injuries, and if the young squad can gel as a unit then a better season could eventuate.

Wimbledon have struggled in League One – in their five seasons since promotion they have finished 15th, 18th, 20th, 20th and 19th, with some very close shaves to avoid the drop. It is far from an experienced group but ‘Robbo’ prefers working on developing his players over time. It might be a work in progress, and patience will be key, but for Dons fans it certainly won't be dull.

Likely Line-Up

It is hard to say who will be in Richie Wellens’ first XI, but one thing that is certain is that neither Fejiri Okenabirhie nor Jordy Hiwula will feature in attack. Okenabirhie has missed most of pre-season with a foot issue and remains sidelined, whilst summer recruit Hiwula went down injured in the game with Sheffield United and will miss several months. Jon Taylor also remains on the shelf, whilst Ben Close and John Bostock are fighting back to fitness after Covid bouts, so any new additions in the days leading up to the game may well go straight in to the team.

Wellens has said that Tommy Rowe, signed to play left back, may have to play in midfield while numbers are short, meaning Branden Horton may well start the season in defence, but unless those reinforcements arrive before Saturday, Rovers will be looking mightily thin in attack especially, and Omar Bogle is virtually guaranteed to lead the line at the start of a make-or-break season in his career.