Musings from the South Stand #5: Rovers No Joke On Transfers
Lockdown has taken away plenty of the things we take for granted on a day-to-day basis: being able to see family or friends, the freedom to come and go as we please, going to a game of football of course. Instead, we’ve all spent a lot more time in watching tele, and at the start of the month the second series of Netflix’s fly-on-the-wall football documentary Sunderland ‘Til I Die dropped on the streaming platform.
The Marquee Man
Covering the Black Cats’ 2018/19 season in League One, the series charts the former Premier League club’s attempts to get to grips with the level under new ownership. Although Rovers were a promotion rival and finished just one place behind Sunderland in the table, the club barely got a mention as the focus of attention primarily centred on the general misfortunes of owner Stewart Donald and his business partner Charlie Methven.
The only time Rovers themselves played any part was early on in Episode 4, titled “Playing Poker”, which dealt with the issues Sunderland faced in the January transfer window. After losing top scorer Josh Maja, Donald and his staff scrambled to find replacement strikers and, in the midst of an ultimately successful but costly pursuit of Wigan’s Will Grigg, an exasperated phone call with recruitment head Tony Coton shone some light on just how committed Gavin Baldwin and the Doncaster Rovers hierarchy were about keeping their own star man.
“Marquee is 10 million. What a fucking joke. But I’m going to offer them one and a half, and tell them that’s the best we can do.”
Ignoring the obvious naivety on display from Stewart Donald throughout this fascinating hunt for a striker, this brief moment spoke volumes for Rovers fans. Although he botched the name, Donald was clearly talking about John Marquis who, in the midst of Grant McCann’s relentless push for a Play Off place, was scoring goals for fun in the red and white hoops last season.
Sunderland’s interest in Marquis was common knowledge in the winter transfer window, but so was their overall lack of cohesion in the search for Maja’s replacement. They went after Grigg whole hock and eventually got him, paying more than double their original asking price for a player who has gone on to score only five league goals in a year plus for his new club. They even tried to sign Shrewsbury’s in-form striker Fejiri Okenabirhie for a six-figure fee, but the Shrews held firm and Okenabirhie became a Rovers player himself 12 months later.
Okenabirhie may be Marquis’ successor in the Rovers #9 shirt now, but selling the Lewisham-born forward in the midst of the 2018/19 season was unthinkable. At the time, Marquis was League One’s top scorer and his goals and role in the team played a big, big part in the successful run to the Play-Offs. Some Rovers fans doubted the club hierarchy’s true desire to win promotion, but if any doubts lingered, this little snippet of the Netflix show should put that to bed.
Then-manager Grant McCann stated on Deadline Day that his phone was off and he had sent the club secretary home in the afternoon, so any more offers would fall on deaf ears. Whilst this statement was probably more about the intention than practical reality, it told supporters that Rovers were not budging on their stance of keeping their best players until the summer, and so it proved.
Donald, who looked throughout the series like a man somewhat out of his depth in running such a big football club at this level, was furious that Rovers refused to just roll over and let Sunderland solve their striker problem at their expense, as it seemed Donald expected, and in rejecting two bids firmly with a stance that said “give us silly money or go away”, the club showed they were no pushovers.
Why is this relevant now, some 15 months after the fact? It is relevant because, at an undetermined time in the near future, Rovers will face this dilemma again. When the transfer window eventually re-opens – once this pandemic has passed and football matters are back in focus – Rovers face a fight to keep hold of captain Ben Whiteman, and this strong negotiating hand will be crucial to whether the club come out of any potential sale stronger or weaker.
It is inevitable that Whiteman will attract significant interest from Championship clubs. It is probably inevitable that he will leave to test himself at a level he deserves to and whilst that is something we must reluctantly accept, we shouldn’t presume that Gavin Baldwin and co. will roll over and accept anything less than what the playmaker is worth to Rovers as a valued asset and member of the team.
In fact, back in August the club’s resolve over Whiteman was tested, with Grant McCann coming back in for his former player as Hull manager. The Tigers’ efforts were rebuffed however, with Baldwin backing Darren Moore by rejecting a “substantial seven-figure bid” and Whiteman subsequently signed a new contract which gives Rovers an even stronger hand in future.
The fact of the matter is that Whiteman will depart for pastures new at some stage. When he does, getting a high transfer fee for him will give Moore and Adam Henshall ample ammunition to go out and replace him properly, and allow for strengthening to the squad in other areas. Football is an ever-changing business and, even in the current shutdown, these matters will not be far from the minds of those most closely involved.