Pre-Season Ponder: Spennymoor 1-3 Rovers
Doncaster Rovers are fully into the swing of pre-season now, with three friendly wins under their belt and some tough tests ahead prior to the opening League Two fixture at Bradford City in a little over two weeks.
Living in the North East as I do these days, Wednesday evening’s trip to Spennymoor Town presented a good opportunity to lay eyes on the new-look Rovers team and assess where things stand with the new campaign fast approaching. Spennymoor are a handy non-league side who have enjoyed success in recent years, and their position as an upwardly mobile National league North team presented a sterner challenge to Rovers than previous opponents Armthorpe Welfare and Nuneaton Borough.
Slow Starting Reds
Spennymoor’s Brewery Field ground is a credit to the level, and conditions could hardly have been better for the game, with a pristine pitch bathed in evening sun seeing its first action of the 2022-23 slate. Manager Gary McSheffrey deployed a 4-3-3 formation from the outset, with Reo Griffiths acting as the focal point striker in the first half and new arrival George Miller in the role after the break.
This set-up allowed Rovers to push their full-backs up the flank when in possession, whilst midfield duo Adam Clayton and Liam Ravenhill sat in the centre of the park allowing Tommy Rowe to play in his more favoured #10 role further forward. This gives us a good indication of how Rovers are likely to set-up in games this season, with the addition of a creative attacking midfielder to replace Josh Martin imperative to getting the best out of a potentially fluid and fast way of playing.
Spennymoor led for almost the entire first half courtesy of a well-taken early strike from Mark Anderson, with familiar errors from the Rovers defence as Joe Olowu misjudged a bouncing ball on halfway and Ollie Younger, playing at right-back in the absence of Kyle Knoyle, unable to track his man resulting in Anderson having the freedom of the penalty area to finish.
A lacklustre opening 45 minutes was compounded by Adam Clayton needing to go off injured after half an hour with a hamstring injury, although Ravenhill slotted into his deep-lying role seamlessly and Harrison Biggins got his first run-out in the hoops. With Biggins and Rowe in the midfield three, the unit operated with a directness more reminiscent of the Grant McCann era although chances were still primarily created from out wide and Rovers were unable to fashion an equaliser.
New Faces Make Their Mark
The second half saw Luke Molyneux on for his debut and he made an immediate impact. The former Hartlepool winger showed why he is expected to be such a threat from the right by jinking past the Spennymoor full-back onto his left foot before cutting into the area and playing the ball across the box for Ravenhill to net the equaliser just a few minutes after the restart, and Molyneux continued to pose problems for the opposition from there as a lively winger expecting the ball to feet.
Fellow summer acquisition George Miller also entered the field for the second half and he was a breath of fresh air compared to the forwards we have had to suffer through in recent times. Miller operated along the Spennymoor defensive line and sprung the offside trap multiple times to latch onto balls over the top, getting a couple of shots away with mixed results before coolly despatching a penalty to give Rovers a 2-1 lead. Combining Miller and Molyneux is surely a recipe for an improved goals output this season, as the pair should complement each other with their differing approaches to attacking play.
It was also refreshing to see the team prove capable of threatening at set pieces, with Ro-Shaun Williams putting the exclamation mark on the second half improvement by scoring a looping header from a Molyneux corner. The arrival of new coaching staff in the summer should help areas lacking last season such as set piece work, whilst fitness issues which have plagued Rovers of late may also be put to bed on the evidence of this game, with the squad overall looking a lot further along in their physical work than at the same stage last year.
Pick of the Trialists
One thing that fans always look out for in pre-season games is the inevitable clutch of trialists donning red and white in the hopes of earning a contract. The stand-out at Spennymoor was undoubtedly Lee Tomlin, a veteran of some 300-plus EFL games, mostly at Championship level. Tomlin operated as a winger for much of this match, demonstrating clear technical ability and a willingness to put the work in across the attacking third. He had an excellent chance to score after the break before smartly forcing a foul out of the Spennymoor goalkeeper to earn the penalty which Miller scored.
On paper, Tomlin is not the sort of player we might want to be looking at – 33 years old, his best years behind him and having barely played any football in the last two years – but if signed on a low-cost deal for a six-month spell say, he may prove a useful pick-up for squad depth in an area that McSheffrey undoubtedly still needs to add a body or two to his squad. Tomlin was solid here and if he impresses against Rotherham or Huddersfield, he might just earn a contract.
There were two new faces in the starting line-up, reported to be former Rangers left-back James Maxwell and Birmingham academy winger Kyle Hurst. Hurst was lively in the first half, dovetailing with Tomlin to support Reo Griffiths, but it was Maxwell who really impressed across 70 minutes on the pitch. The Scotsman got forward with aplomb and showed positional awareness to boot and if not for a poor finish by Griffiths, Maxwell would have had a quality assist to his name too.
Hurst impressed at times too, with some neat touches and good link-up play, but he didn’t have as much of an impact on the game as he might have liked, nor did second half substitute Jack Degruchy, who also plays on the wing.
All in all, this was a decent work-out for Rovers but we should learn far more from the upcoming friendly matches with EFL sides Rotherham and Huddersfield. Not only will the two pose a proper test due to their Championship pedigree, Gary McSheffrey should be looking to play a team as close as possible to the one he is hoping to put out as his first XI at Valley Parade on 30th July, giving fans the chance to really see how he wants his Rovers team to operate in games.
On the evidence of this 3-1 victory against Spennymoor Town, allowing the caveat that the opposition plays at a level two leagues below Rovers, both Miller and Molyneux look ready to step in as attacking mainstays right away, and young prospects like Liam Ravenhill and Bobby Faulkner should see their path to first-team minutes much easier now that they have developed into young men with an idea of how senior football can be compared to academy play.
Recruitment remains crucial however – this team is still short a creative attacking midfielder, even if Tomlin is signed, and with the chances of a return for Josh Martin surely very slim considering how much he impressed in League One last season, Rovers must find a suitable replacement. At time of writing we are also still without a recognised left-back under contract, a situation that must be remedied in time for the league opener, along with the need to sign a centre half to cover the latest injury setback for Tom Anderson, so clearly there is still work to be done behind the scenes ahead of the big kick-off.