Musings from the South Stand #13: What Can We Expect from Rovers in 2020/21?
League One football returns this weekend as Doncaster Rovers kick off their campaign in an empty Keepmoat Stadium against Milton Keynes. Much has been made of the clubs summer business - including right here on ITEN - but as the season rounds into view the squad is looking much closer to complete than it did just a few weeks ago and optimism is creeping in amongst fans despite the cloud of Covid still hanging over everything.
Is that optimism justified or sadly misplaced? How far can Darren Moore really take this team in 2020/21?
Holding Firm at the Core
At time of writing, Rovers still retain the services of captain Ben Whiteman and as a result have a very strong spine of a team in place. Defender Tom Anderson leads a group of players all very familiar with one another at the back, Whiteman is a vital fulcrum to the team as captain and chief playmaker, and striker Fejiri Okenabirhie looks every bit the #9 needed to push the team forward. Goalkeeper Joe Bursik is the one new addition running along that spine, but the early signs are promising for the England U21 keeper to excel in a Rovers shirt.
Whiteman may still leave of course, but if he does stay for another season it makes Rovers a Play-Off contender from the off. Even if he does leave, it looks likely that the club will recoup a significant transfer fee for the trouble of losing the 24-year-old, funds which will surely go towards finding a suitable replacement as well as supplementing other areas of the squad. The Rovers hierarchy have good reason to remain calm about the short-term future of the squad when it comes to Whiteman, and noises out of the club are reassuring in terms of the longer-term prospects too.
High Ceiling on Young Recruits
In my previous editorial, I mused on whether the club was being too reliant on young prospects instead of blending those starlets with proven experience. It remains a fact that the squad is on the very young side as a whole, and that seems unlikely to change with Darren Moore’s coaching talents lying heavily in youth development. This approach can lead to success and we have seen some excellent players come in over the past couple of seasons and contribute, and the permanent additions of Cameron John and Jason Lokilo show that adopting a try-before-you-buy approach with young players can bear fruit.
Those two have been joined by more young loanees this season, and that number will surely increase between now and the end of the transfer window. Midfielder Taylor Richards cost Premier League Brighton a seven-figure sum a year ago and demonstrated excellent technical ability and vision in his Rovers debut against Blackburn in the Carabao Cup last week. If Richards can deliver on his potential even moderately in the hoops this season, he could serve to catapult the team into contention and if he is joined by similar talents on loan, Moore may just ride that wave into the top six like Grant McCann did with Mallik Wilks and Herbie Kane.
No Rush on Rovers Ambitions
We all know that the club would like to get back into the Championship. Those five seasons spent in the second tier did a lot for the club, both in terms of finance and stature, and fans enjoyed a number of incredible days out against some of the biggest names in English football. Resources are understandably tighter now, and the current hierarchy have had to rebuild from a poor position in the wake of the club’s slump into League Two four years ago, but stability appears to be in place again now despite the troubles brought on by Covid-19 this year.
Getting fans back in the stadium to generate match day revenue will be vital, and that looks to be only weeks away now thankfully. Still, Rovers will likely have an upper mid-table playing budget regardless this season and with League One populated by more and more so-called big teams with much vaster resources, reaching that goal of promotion to the Championship only gets tougher each year. In Darren Moore, the club have a talented, astute young manager with a good reputation in the game, but bringing everything together to create something special may still be in its early phases.
If last season was the year to put the philosophical foundations in place, then 2020/21 should be the one to really get some of the playing pieces cemented. So long as Rovers are competitive and going in the right direction, looking at the top six even if they aren’t firmly in the mix, then next season - another year along under Moore and hopefully back to full stands at the Keepmoat - could be the one to get really excited.