Musings from the South Stand #3: A Conflict of Expectation
A transitional year. Finding consistency. Building for the future. These are all soundbite phrases that have been used to describe Doncaster Rovers this season, both inside and outside of the club. But what should the expectation be for this side come May?
Perspective Through Peaks and Troughs
“This group will be stronger next season,” Grant McCann stated repeatedly in the immediate aftermath of seeing his plucky Rovers side go out of the Play-Offs on penalties at Charlton. How true a statement that was will never be known, with McCann leaving for Hull in the summer and the club left facing the difficult task of rebuilding the squad with a new manager and new ideas.
Had McCann stayed, it may have been reasonable for Rovers fans to heed his words and hope for a push towards the top two rather than top six, but his acrimonious departure and the subsequent delay undertaken to recruit Darren Moore meant expectations had to be tempered before a ball had even been kicked.
Moore did an admirable job putting a team together for the start of the campaign, but a failure to secure a replacement for John Marquis coupled with unfortunate injuries to players like Kazaiah Sterling and Cameron John left Rovers at a disadvantage through the initial months and a promising start gave way to a period of malaise leading up to Christmas.
At that stage, sat below halfway with games in hand but possessing only a small squad lacking depth and consistency, some fans decided to hang their hat on those soundbites touting transition and accepted that this was not going to be a season of success. Others pointed to the January window with optimism, hopeful that the right moves in the mid-season market might renew the side and enable a genuine run at the top six in the new year.
Those moves came late in the window, with two strikers and two midfielders added to the group, seemingly boosting hopes for a Rovers side now firmly in the Play-Off chase. Results have however tailed off, and at time of writing Darren Moore finds himself on the outside looking in, down in 11th place wondering how to bridge a seven-point gap to Peterborough in 6th.
At this stage, it looks unlikely that Rovers will repeat last season’s admirable run to the post-season, although it isn’t yet out of the question. A dozen games out from the end of the 2019/20 season, Darren Moore knows that a winning run is needed now or else attention will very quickly turn to the next transfer window and how expectations will form for 2020/21.
Eighteen months ago, following a lacklustre season and the surprise departure of Darren Ferguson, expectations were not high. The club had appointed an unproven manager and, although the squad had been kept together, there didn’t seem to be much coming in, and so an improvement from 15thto 6th and a Play-Off place seemed a very tall order.
But Grant McCann quickly fostered a never-say-die, blood-and-thunder attitude in his charges and got the best out of what he had, earning him a move to the Championship and his better players transfers to pastures new. Darren Moore’s approach is a different one, a more cerebral philosophy of tactics and leadership, but he is clearly someone concerned with the long-term vision.
That vision is taking shape, moulding young players into a defined playing style and accepting that development means teething problems and having to take a step back to truly propel forward, both as a team and as individuals. Fans have grown impatient at times with the back-to-front possession style the team has deployed, but patience should bring rewards with such a system just as it should with embracing the club’s determination to cement a foundation for the future looking beyond just this season or next.
The fact is that Moore has made Rovers one of the best technical sides in League One, and he has done that in quite a short amount of time and with a squad which many say is lacking serious pieces to be successful. Just think what Moore could do with a full summer transfer window and the bulk of a squad well used to his methods.
Embrace the Rebuild
Rovers may not end this season in the top six. A solid run to the end of the campaign should at least see a finish between 8th and 12th, and that is not to be balked at. Moore and the players have faced a difficult season, largely for reasons out of their hands, and have performed well. Inconsistency is a hallmark of sides in the early phase of a rebuilding job, and there is no escaping the fact that Rovers are in one of those.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took several years to dredge the river of mistakes made by ‘The Experiment’ and subsequent short-sighted Saunders and Dickov eras. There have been bumps in the road to recovery, but everything is trending in the right direction and has been since 2016. Darren Moore has been tasked with taking this club to the next level, and there is no reason to believe he can’t meet that task.
Rovers fans should be satisfied with a competitive top ten finish in League One this season. Given the time of a proper summer window, armed with a year-plus knowledge of the division consolidated this season, there is every reason to put expectations for next year towards the top of the table.
For now though, expectations shouldn’t rise too high. All we should really be asking for between now and May is to see a team going in the right direction, playing good football and earning a positive sum of points to put Doncaster Rovers firmly in the top ten, and remind the rest of the league why they shouldn’t count us out.