Musings from the South Stand #22: Swimming Against the Tide
It’s nice to be able to write one of these columns having actually sat in the South Stand this week. 2021-22 has mercifully kicked off with fans permitted to the stadiums, under no restrictions, and able to enjoy the football on offer, and whilst results have not gone the way Doncaster Rovers fans will have been hoping so far, it has been a fulfilling experience getting back to live games.
Wellens ‘Comfortable’ Despite Struggles
New manager Richie Wellens has had quite a job on his hands so far. His third spell at the club has already been beset by problems, with the most obvious being an injury crisis that is making team selection a massive headache across the pitch, whilst fan unrest grows over a perceived lack of flexibility in the transfer budget from those above Wellens in the boardroom.
It has been stressed by Gavin Baldwin that Rovers have an increased amount to work with this season compared to last, and hope to be back to a pre-pandemic standing by next season, but supporters have questioned the validity of this claim in the wake of regular reports that the manager is having to wheel-and-deal, offset his playing squad with departures and utilise the loan market more heavily than he originally intended.
These are valid worries, particularly when a lack of squad depth has undoubtedly contributed to Rovers’ winless start to the campaign, but Wellens himself has rebuffed claims of reticence in the boardroom to give Rovers the best chance of success in the window. Last week, Wellens described both Baldwin and chairman David Blunt as “fantastic” and made it clear that they were all on the same page as far as their vision and intent for the team, and this week he also said he “feels comfortable” working for the duo.
We should trust the manager then, yes? Wellens has been backed to revamp the team in the wake of Darren Moore’s messy departure, and it is a mess he acknowledges will take several transfer windows to fully clean up. Wellens has cut a positive figure throughout recent weeks and is clearly beginning to impart his playing philosophy on the players he does have available, as evidenced in the much improved performance against Portsmouth last week, a game Rovers were unlucky not to win.
Balancing Act on Bogle
The manager acted swiftly in the summer to add a new midfield lynchpin and three first-choice defenders, bringing those priority targets in on permanent contracts and creating a solid backbone to his side. Those signings all look like good ones even in these early weeks, with Kyle Knoyle and Ben Close hitting the ground running, Tommy Rowe proving a driving force and Ro-Shaun Williams settling in to the centre of defence.
Fans in some quarters have expressed the view that Wellens has been unable to make the additions he wants and needs, but he was backed from the start of this window to add key players and has now signed 11 players to build the foundations of this rebuild. It is clear that another centre forward is needed, as well as a winger, but it is normal for that to mean outgoings are also necessary, and it is not Wellens’ fault that certain existing players have not fulfilled their roles in this area.
The club do have to take some responsibility for the fact that he is saddled with Omar Bogle and Ed Williams, two players have proven that they are not up to the task. But the only failing of the hierarchy here is that they backed Darren Moore to bring those players in, as they have backed managers wholeheartedly throughout their time in charge of Doncaster Rovers, and were misplaced in that judgement. Recruitment processes may need looking at, but that is a discussion for another day.
It is plain to see that if Bogle and Williams had lived up to the standard expected of them by Moore, then Wellens would not need further attacking additions now because these two players would be regular starters in the team rather than an unwanted presence on the wage budget, and the fact that they are not is unfortunate. The two men in question have never shown anything to warrant abuse from fans and so it can only be hoped that they find new clubs soon, for their own sake and for Rovers to move on.
Make Do, or Mend?
Tuesday’s transfer window deadline looms on the horizon, but Richie Wellens knows that he can bring in stop-gap loan options if need be. The fact that the Cambridge United fixture on September 4th has been postponed gives Rovers some much needed breathing space for their injury woes, with a fresh report today in the Doncaster Free Press suggesting that both Jon Taylor and Jordy Hiwula could be available to play by the time the international break is over.
Getting those two back would be a huge boost to the forward line regardless of any new signings that may come through the door between now and next week, with it looking likely that Wellens will have to deploy utility midfielder Dan Gardner as a False 9 again in the local derby at Rotherham on Saturday. The list of absentees from the side grows with each game at the moment and it means fans may have to be patient as ‘Wellensball’ takes time to bed in, and results may be rough for another month or two yet.
However, so long as the manager remains optimistic on the team’s chances, it is worth sticking with him and seeing how we get on over the next 6-8 weeks. By then it is to be hoped that the majority of those injured will be back fit and hitting their stride in the team, whilst fringe players and youngsters have a great chance to step up and contribute in the meantime. Ben Blythe impressed at Stoke in the Carabao Cup and even under-18s striker Ethan Harrison got a senior run-out, and these positives can heal some of the divisions apparent within the fanbase at present.
It has been a frustrating few weeks, no doubt, and disheartening in some ways to see the team struggle for points and players, but the complexion of this season will not become apparent for at least another couple of months yet and in Richie Wellens and his crop of hungry new players, there is reason to believe that better things are right around the corner.