Not-so-friendly Newcastle: 5 Takeaways
Rovers welcomed Championship big hitters Newcastle United to the Keepmoat Stadium on Wednesday night, but a chance to test our new-look squad against quality opposition ultimately proved to be a costly exercise for Darren Ferguson’s squad as no less than four players went off injured, causing serious problems just weeks before the opening game of the season.
It was my first chance to see the team in action this pre-season, so for better or worse here are five talking points for the team following the 2-2 draw.
Bad Luck, or Bad Tackles?
In truth, probably a bit of both. Joe Wright looked assured and capable in the back line for the first half hour of this game but took a bad tumble when he got his feet caught up in the turf, and despite a valiant effort to carry on eventually had to be substituted. It appears to be a recurring toe injury that won’t trouble the former Huddersfield man for too long and hopefully he will be fit for the start of the campaign. Young Joey McCormick also suffered an injury seemingly innocuously, dislocating his shoulder and causing the Reds (or All Blacks as they were last night) to finish the game with ten men. This is a harsh blow for the youth team prospect who only recently returned from a bad injury to his other shoulder, but in truth this isn’t much of a blow to the first team ranks.
The same cannot be said for the loss of Craig Alcock or Harry Middleton however. Unlike the seemingly incidental injuries to Wright and McCormick, two first team regulars were victims of reckless, unnecessary challenges from Newcastle players and now face prolonged periods on the sidelines. Perhaps borne out of frustration out of what was a very poor, disjointed and slack performance by their team, Newcastle flew in to tackle after tackle and it was Middleton who suffered first. Pulling out of the impact of a 50-50 challenge near halfway but wasn’t afforded the same courtesy by the opposing player, who collided full force with the midfielder. Darren Ferguson says Middleton will miss the start of the season and could have damaged his knee ligaments, which would mean a lengthy spell out.
The stretcher was called back into action only minutes later when Craig Alcock was hit with a bad challenge from behind, scythed down unnecessarily. Ankle ligament damage is reported to be the verdict which again will mean a lengthy lay-off, which comes as a huge blow to the back line. Alcock is easily one of the better players in the squad and is also versatile, capable of playing anywhere in the back 4/5. With Mathieu Baudry already out due to an achilles injury, Fergie now has no choice but to go into the transfer market for additional reinforcements at the back. The only plus from this game is that Mitchell Lund, Alcock’s essential understudy, stepped up and played superbly on the right hand side after coming on as a first half replacement for Wright, and might be able to carve out a spot in the starting XI once the season gets going.
All in all, a disastrous night for the club on the injury front despite the positive performance and result against strong opposition. The club moved today to unfortunately cancel our next game away to Kidderminster due to the injury crisis, but still have games against York and Coventry to prepare for before we head west to Accrington Stanley for the first league fixture.
Tactically, Rovers looked like they are beginning to gel, with real evidence of training ground work being applied on the Keepmoat playing surface. The team kept their shape really well both in and out of possession, and the 3-5-2 formation which has been derided for much of the last year by Rovers fans looks like it might be able to work. The one caveat to this is that the right personnel are deployed within it, as Matty Blair struggled in the right wing back slot in the first half and Tommy Rowe was somewhat nullified as part of the three man midfield. These are the kinds of things that can be worked on between now and the trip to Accrington though of course.
The defence held together strongly and their were clear outlets for the players to utilise with the shape employed. After a switch to our other recognised formation, the Diamond, Rovers were able to play some intricate passing sequences and create chances, although the personnel largely consisting of youth teamers at this point in the game lessened the effectiveness. The defence proved it could be adaptable in the face of the formation switch and the injuries forcing changes to personnel every few minutes, but there are still kinks to work out.
Whilst this was only a friendly and not a true marker of our level of competition, Rovers competed for every ball with a much more capable side than themselves and weren’t afraid to try and play football when they had the chance. The players were always looking for options, trying to make things happen and matched their opponents physically at both ends of the field. If these qualities can be taken forward into the real thing, then we will already be on a much better footing than we were for most of last season. Leaders were absent throughout the last campaign, but the permanent signings of Tommy Rowe and Gary McSheffrey, as well as Baudry and fan favourite Andy Butler, mean we have some experience and leadership back in the ranks.
Although Andy Williams netted twice in the game (one an excellent penalty past the clearly insane Matz Sels), and the match sponsors electing to ignore all rhyme or reason to give Blair the accolade, my Man of the Match pick for the game was a joint decision between the two men who guarded the goal for Rovers, Ross Etheridge and Marko Marosi. Etheridge has a presence about him, showcased his shot-stopping abilities and, save for one brainless moment in the first half, demonstrated good distribution to set up attacking plays. Marosi, a man I considered done at the club six weeks ago on this site, showed he could still be a capable stand-in by pulling off some excellent saves in the second half. He was mightily unlucky to concede both goals that got Newcastle back into it, making a tremendous save from Isaac Hayden only to see the same player score a deflected effort from the resulting corner, then falling foul of another wicked deflection to let in Ayoze Perez’s late equaliser, which came against ten men.
I was not the biggest fan of Thorsten Stuckmann, who departed the club today, but feel some apprehension about us not having an experienced keeper around to help bring Etheridge and Marosi along. However on this showing I am happy to relax and be satisfied that we are okay for now on the goalkeeping front.
Calder: Pre-Season MVP?
Arguably too early to slap that tag on anyone, but loanee Riccardo Calder has impressed in both games this week against high level opposition. Calder showed plenty of desire in his spell at the club last year but offered little-to-no end product. In these last two games he has looked a threat and was always the most likely to make something happen in the second half against the Magpies. Calder is versatile and looks well suited to the left wing back position, more so at any rate than Cedric Evina, whose defensive capabilities are lacking to say the very least.
On we go then, the season now in sight. Reports last week said the club were in the process of bringing in three more players to round out the squad – two Premier League loanees and one permanent addition – but one or two more may now need to be brought in to solve the club’s mounting injury crisis. Sadly it appears unlikely that any of these players will be former loanee Keshi Anderson or club legend Paul Green, but we will have to wait and see who Fergie, Gavin Baldwin and co. manage to entice to join us in our push for promotion out of League Two.