Q&A: Gabriel Sutton on Rovers, the EFL and the impact of Coronavirus
As the football season continues on hiatus due to the global pandemic, ITEN sits down with some of our regular contributors. This week, EFL guru Gabriel Sutton discusses the EFL, Covid-19's impact on the schedule and gives his thoughts on Doncaster Rovers from the neutral perspective.
ITEN: I suppose we should start by discussing the current situation. Do you envision the 2019/20 season being completed at some stage or will we have to call it off and look to next season before too long?
Gabriel: Good question.
The fact the Euros have been postponed until 2021 allows for more time in the summer, certainly towards the top level, to complete the fixtures – but then again, that news also re-affirms how serious Coronavirus is across the world.
We’ve seen recently the news that seasons in the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th tiers will not be concluded and the organisers will decide to either provide outcomes to the campaign based on PPG or void it entirely (Note: The FA announced this afternoon that they are expunging records from the Seventh Tier down, rendering the 2019/20 season null and void).
Could we see this situation happen further up the pyramid as Spring moves on? Possibly, because non-league footballers, especially those who work part-time, may not be able to commit to playing two or three games a week for a period to conclude the season.
In terms of the EFL and Premier League, players who work full-time probably will be able to play those games, but it could be difficult for a club like Wycombe Wanderers who don’t have a reserve team or an academy to lean on.
Also, there’s obviously issues with contract expiry dates – will they be extended until the end of the season? Will players be free to leave their club and join another before the season ends? It opens up a can of worms.
I wouldn’t like to predict exactly what will happen, but I do feel as though it could be a sense of football being put on hold while we’re dealing with a much bigger problem. A lot depends on how we as a country respond to Coronavirus.
The camaraderie and social communion we should see across the sport when this period finally ends should be quite something. Can football itself come through the crisis in a better place in some ways? Hard as that may be to imagine in this moment.
I think it could go either way.
On the one hand, the crisis period may make us all appreciate football more, show the inclination to help lower league clubs in their time of need and generally be kindly-spirited.
On the other hand, there’s the danger that it could give more impetus to eSports and computer/TV based games, which have their place (I’m playing a fair bit of FM20 at the moment) but should not oppose real football.
FM and FIFA bring some enjoyment, but virtual clubs don’t act as a hub for their local community in the same way that real clubs do and I hope we remember that.
Let’s move on to the Rovers then. From what you’ve seen of us this season, what do you make of Darren Moore’s impact on the team and division in general?
I like Darren Moore.
He seems a caring, down-to-earth guy with the right principles and we’ve certainly seen evidence that he can make your lot competitive.
It would be very easy for an outsider to look at Doncaster in ninth, three places below last season’s finish, and conclude that there has been regression – but that’s not how I see it.
Considering the loss of Andy Butler, Danny Andrew, Tommy Rowe, Herbie Kane, Mallik Wilks and John Marquis, as well as the slow recruitment due to Grant McCann’s exit, it was always a big ask to get Rovers back in contention.
In fact, you’d be on course to get 73 points, the same as your 2018-19 tally, so this league placing drop is not down to the key players leaving as much as a difference in standards.
Last season, you had to be brilliant to reach the top two – Luton and Barnsley were - but below fifth, I felt like there was a modest gap in quality between the top half teams.
This year, it’s only very recently that Coventry have pulled away as a dominant force – but you’re seeing massive clubs like Portsmouth and Sunderland having some difficulty in nailing down a top six berth, so some good teams would miss out and I put yourselves among them.
Ben Whiteman has been a stand-out in League One this season, and will be difficult for Rovers to hold onto in the future. What have you made of his progress this last 12-18 months?
I watched you a few times in Darren Ferguson’s last season in charge and he seemed willing to play Luke McCullough and Jordan Houghton in the same XI - McCullough sometimes in a back-three – and I wasn’t quite sure you needed both of them.
In a possession system, you want someone at the base of the midfield who can switch play and dictate proceedings, which I think Ben Whiteman can do well.
It seems like in the early stages of his Donny career, there were concerns about whether he had the defensive nous to anchor a midfield – maybe he had the odd off-day to go with that strong display in the win at Blackburn early in the 2017-18 campaign.
McCann though, was clearly a bit braver with his selections in that position and gave Whiteman the opportunity to get a run of games there.
It looks like he has reaped the benefits and the fact Ben is now captain would suggest he has learnt the defensive aspects with that bit more experience, guiding the likes of Ben Sheaf and Jacob Ramsey.
I would put Whiteman among the best midfielders in the division.
Aside from Ben, who else has caught your eye in this young Rovers side?
With the aforementioned players leaving, I think you needed players from the 2018-19 squad to step up another level – on top of recruiting correctly.
Kieran Sadlier seems to have relished a run of games… I feel like when your play gets a bit congested in certain areas, you can pick him out with a reverse ball which opens things up and Sadlier can be very exciting to watch.
I’d say the same about Jon Taylor, especially when he plays on the right; he can give you that pace and width.
I’m a bit torn on Devante Cole as on the one hand, he’s clearly got more of a goalscoring instinct than Niall Ennis, but when Ennis leads the line I feel like he gives you that tenacity and link-up play that maybe Cole doesn’t have…
I can see why the Wolves loanee has gone to the left though, with Sadlier sometimes on the right, as Taylor won’t give you much of a goal threat in a front-three as he’s more of a classic winger.
I guess that’s why Ramsey has been a big addition: he has that intelligence of knowing when to break into the box as he did for those two goals on his senior debut at Tranmere.
Cameron John I like, and obviously there’s Tom Anderson, who I know Adam (Stubbings, our editor) is a big fan of.
What do you think are the keys for a club in Rovers’ position to push on and win promotion from the division?
I’d say adding a bit of depth in certain areas, but then you’ve got five players on loan and another six including Sadlier out of contract, so a bit like last summer, you’d be doing well to get the squad back to current strength, let alone strengthen.
You’re probably looking at a right-back to rotate with Brad Halliday, a left-back to compete with Reece James as I’d expect John to play in the Championship next season, then the midfield may need to be re-built entirely.
Ben Whiteman will get Championship offers from clubs who can afford to pay a fee and I don’t know how confident you’d be in retaining Ramsey or Sheaf, so as well as recruiting correctly you’ve got to hope that somebody like Madger Gomes can step up.
I feel like there could be some technical ability in him if you let him off the leash a bit, maybe as a left-sided playmaker (or “Mezzala” to be exotic), although I don’t know if he has the work rate to step into James Coppinger’s mantle… that’s a toughie by anyone’s standards!
I’ve not seen enough of Max Watters to be confident in saying whether he could fill Sadlier’s boots, but if you’re going 4-3-3 next season then maybe Fejiri Okenabirhie could play wide left in a narrow front-three a bit like Ennis, who is obviously going back to Wolves.
I don’t know how good the academy is at Donny but hopefully some players from the youth setup can adjust to the senior game well next season, to reduce the reliance on recruitment.
I’d also say go for two or three loanees next season, rather than four or five.
The loanees have done very well for you over the last couple of years, but when you lean on them so heavily, the disadvantage is that you then give yourselves a lot of work to do just to stay at the same level the following season.
That then makes it hard to strengthen the squad and elevate yourselves into the promotion mix.
I would look to offer players with high sell-on value long-term, permanent contracts, in order to grow the squad sustainably – once a reliable core is in place, I’d look for the loanees who can add those touches of quality.
Looking at League One as a whole, who do you think deserves to go up this season?
Coventry and Rotherham.
I’m very impressed with how Mark Robins has evolved the Sky Blues stylistically over the last three seasons.
They went from being a counter-attacking side with real difficulties scoring at home last season, to a possession-based outfit that can really dominate games in their home away from home… I love all of their midfield options, too.
Rotherham, meanwhile, have a bit of everything to their game.
They have a fantastic working culture in place that Paul Warne has created, they have physicality in Michael Ihiekwe, they can be aggressive at the right moments – Daniel Barlaser is fantastic from that perspective - but they also have that natural ability that every promotion-contending team needs, so I’d be really excited to see if they could stay up in the Championship this time.
Finally, which players and/or teams do you think are ones to look out for next season? Presuming of course that we see next season beginning reasonably close to its traditional starting point.
Very early to say.
Realistically, I’d need to know what will happen with the retained list before forming any early judgements on next season.
Ipswich, theoretically, should be strong for this level but there’s major question marks over the leadership of that club.
I think Steve Evans has done a good job at Gillingham but with them, a bit like Donny, a lot of their best players are loanees and they are likely to be playing elsewhere next season.
Neil Critchley has proved a world class youth coach, developing the likes of Curtis Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold – so how quickly can he implement his ideas at Blackpool?
Crewe and Swindon play some good stuff, so I’d be excited to see them test themselves at this level if they are promoted; I’d expect Barnsley to have a fantastic squad for this level, too, if they come down.
It’s difficult with players as you don’t know which ones will get snapped up, but assuming they’re in the same division, I’d predict good things for Anthony Scully at Lincoln, Jack Rudoni at AFC Wimbledon and Fabio Tavares at Rochdale.
We'd like to thank Gabriel for taking the time to go in-depth on these topics. Check out his website The Football Lab for terrific content covering the entire EFL and you can also find him on Twitter @_FootballLab.