Musings from the South Stand #12: Will the Kids Be Alright?
Updated: Aug 26
The 2020/21 season begins in earnest this weekend for Doncaster Rovers, although Saturday’s Carabao Cup clash with Blackburn has the potential to resemble little more than a glorified pre-season training game with the players barely through four weeks of preparations for the campaign.
At time of writing, Rovers have added only their third summer signing to a bare-looking squad, and time is becoming increasingly short to get a proper team together for the start of League One on September 12th, but will Darren Moore be able to pull things together under the club’s evident policy to rely heavily on young players?
This summer more than ever, clubs have a vast amount of free agents to choose from when building their squad for the coming season. Players of all ages and career history are on the market, but with finances reduced by the impact of the pandemic and the new Salary Cap a big factor, clubs have to plan their recruitment strategy carefully. Some teams have continued to sign players on longer contracts, some are still paying out higher wages for the level, but at Rovers it appears the developments of 2020 will simply serve to further the club’s existing policy.
That policy has come under some scrutiny from fans and rightly so. Recruiting primarily younger players who will be able to develop and then hopefully move on for big money sounds good in theory, but there are obvious drawbacks and we have seen the best and worst of this idea over the past two years. Rovers’ only significant arrivals two summers ago were young loanees Mallik Wilks and Herbie Kane, but the pair proved vital to the side’s run to the Play-Offs and so the youth policy was vindicated.
Last summer however they both needed replacing, along with star striker John Marquis, who was sold for a seven figure transfer fee which also represented success for the club’s policy, since he arrived for nothing three years earlier. New boss Darren Moore leaned even heavier on the loan market to find those replacements and secured a crop of promising youngsters who by and large benefitted the squad and contributed to another decent season.
Trusting in Youth
The turnover a year ago led to a younger, smaller squad but one who did compete in the league and could have pushed on to a top six place had the season reached its natural conclusion. Now in the summer of 2020, that turnover appears to be trending younger again. Tuesday morning’s signing of 19-year-old Taylor Richards on loan from Brighton brings the total number of players in the first team squad to 16, of which 7 are aged 21 and under.
The lack of experience in the team is evident, yet Darren Moore and the club seem content to push on with the policy of relying on young prospects. Moore has made no secret of his desire to maximise the loan market again, and using last season as an indicator that means we can expect to see three more young additions from Premier League or Championship clubs like Richards and goalkeeper Josef Bursik, who are full of apparent potential but short on league experience.
Utilising the loan market in this way is no bad idea, as proven by the impact players like Wilks, Kane and last season’s stand-outs had for Rovers. But the best way to make this policy work for the club is to pair it with permanent signings of more experienced players with pedigree in the EFL, yet it appears we are moving away from that. Moore has signed Jason Lokilo on a one-year contract, and he is a player who could turn a profit for the club one day, but the look of this summer’s trialists so far appear lacking in senior experience as well.
Trial and Error
With the first competitive game looming in just a few days, decision time nears for the crop of players on trial at Cantley Park. Moore has already dispensed with former Carlisle winger Nathan Thomas and controversial former Dundee United midfielder Wato Kuate, whilst non-league stand-out Ed Williams looks closer to earning a contract. Rovers also reportedly had French attacker Julien Lamy playing in Saturday’s friendly with Derby, trialled a goalkeeper last week at Bradford and had former Brighton U23s winger Jordan Davies in training, although he has subsequently joined Wrexham.
All of these players have between little and no experience in the EFL, and are all on the younger side. If Rovers sign up to half a dozen loanees of this same ilk in addition to a clutch of permanent signings, then it begs the question of how far the club really expect to go in 2020/21. It is rare for a team to enjoy great success at this level with a squad made up of mostly unproven players, yet each transfer window going back a couple of years has seen the average age and experience level in the Rovers squad come down.
Rovers do also have veteran defender Andy Butler on trial, but even if the former captain returns on a permanent basis the side will boast only three players over the age of 27. If that is the policy then so be it, but nobody can use the excuse of financial restrictions on this aspect of recruitment because most League One sides have already signed a number of experienced EFL players, including those known to have inferior budgets to Rovers.
Into the Unknown
This will undoubtedly be a tricky season for Darren and the club to navigate. He showed enough in his first season in charge to merit faith in his decision-making, with far more hits than misses in the transfer market, but there is understandable scepticism about leaning too heavily on the loan market and relying on young players, especially ones who we won’t see the benefits of their promise in the future. One sure thing is that if this squad reaches the Play-Offs this season, then Darren must be commended highly for his efforts.
Looking long term, the club must get a better handle on their approach to squad building. CEO Gavin Baldwin has repeatedly stated that they want to move away from short-term contracts and heavy use of loans, but circumstances apparently dictate they continue down this unknown road for at least another season. Will it pay off? Time will tell, but the patience of supporters will only stretch so far and that is only going to be increasingly true as this season wears on.