Road to Glory: Moore's Steps to Rovers Success
Defeats in consecutive games for the first time this season represent a reality check for Darren Moore and his brave new Rovers, with the abject manner of the 3-0 loss at Oxford particularly striking. It goes without saying that the players and coaching staff will be doing their all to put the reverses at Kassam Stadium and at home to Portsmouth right, but how can Moore and the team ensure sustained success beyond the next few games?
Trust in youth to start firing
Goals are the obvious deficiency in the team at present, with only 13 scored in 11 league outings. That is tied for fifth lowest in the division alongside struggling Southend, who host Rovers in a week’s time, which tells the story of why we sit towards midtable rather than pushing on the top six. In reality, Moore has already crafted a very positive attacking style of play and Rovers are hitting 15+ shots on goal with regularity in games, but the conversion rate is low and many efforts are being hit from outside of the area due to a lack of incisive forward options.
Conversation surrounding the lack of reinforcements in the wake of John Marquis’ departure has dominated the discourse around the club and fanbase for the entirety of Darren Moore’s brief tenure at the helm of the club, meaning he and all the rest of us are well aware of this problem. There are a full 11 weeks until the January transfer window opens, presenting Moore with a golden opportunity to spend some money and bolster his striking roster, so another quarter of the season has to be navigated with those players already at his disposal.
Niall Ennis has made a solid start without lighting up the goalscoring charts, whilst Kazaiah Sterling has been limited by injury to less than 90 minutes of League One action to date. This pair of 20-year-olds come with Premier League pedigree but are being asked to shoulder a bigger burden than they should be. Relief options Alex Kiwomya and Kwame Thomas are, for a multitude of reasons, unlikely to muster up enough of an impact to displace them, so trusting in these young talents is necessary. Moore has leaned into that faith in prodigious youth talent before with some success, and the performances of fellow loanees Ben Sheaf and Cameron John are testament to that strategy as well.
High profile players must step up
However, we cannot blame a lack of experience entirely for our failure to maintain a run of top form so far this term because the young strikers are supported ably by experienced pros with proven ability at this level. James Coppinger is having a vintage year already whilst new captain Ben Whiteman looks every bit the game-changing talent touted upon arrival from Sheffield United a couple of years ago, but there is a clutch of players who are not yet contributing decisively on a consistent level and Moore must strive to eke out that extra level from them to augment our attacking potency until a bona-fide striker can be signed.
Kieran Sadlier made a fine start to the season, netting twice in two games starting as the central striker. It is not his favoured role and it shows, he is much better at working through the final third to provide for others or create space to use his considerable ability but Moore is yet to unlock the key that turns the Irishman from a contributor to a decider. He has scored only once when playing in his preferred wide role, and even dropped out of the team for two games during our only real winning run so far in 2019/20, demonstrating that Moore has an extra switch to flip to make Sadlier the match-winner we know he can be.
As well as Sadlier, the auxiliary attacking midfield position is currently being shared by both Alfie May and Jon Taylor. May put in some superb shifts in the opening weeks of the season and looks comfortable playing in a deeper wide role but is yet to find the net in League One under Moore and has drifted out of the starting line-up. Moore is onto something with May, who remains extremely popular with fans, but without an end product it is hard to see where he fits in to a Rovers team pushing for the Play Offs. If he can finally start scoring it could make a huge difference to the team’s fortunes.
Likewise, the diminutive Taylor is perhaps only one ingredient away from being a big player for Rovers. He has tremendous experience at this level and is the most direct attacker in the squad, but he has proven wasteful in front of goal and hasn’t yet backed up the ability he shows in midfield in the penalty area. His sole assist of the campaign came on debut at Rochdale when he put a whipping corner on Sadlier’s head, but Darren Moore has preferred to put Coppinger on set pieces for the most part. Taylor taking over this role could improve our accuracy from the dead ball and free up Copps to make a difference from the edge of the area, shifting the emphasis of a key element of the team’s attacking play.
Guarantee long-term vision with new contracts
Off the pitch, the club is run extremely well. Gavin Baldwin has fostered a positive, measured approach to managing Doncaster Rovers and the proof is there in our last two managerial appointments. Darren Moore was the consensus choice to replace Grant McCann and someone that the wider football world found an impressive coup for a League One side, whilst McCann himself justified his appointment with a superb run to the Play Offs in his one season in charge.
One area that has left fans worried though is the approach to player contracts. Usually opting for a two-year term, it leaves the squad in a state of flux every summer and we saw how that can work against us when the bulk of the side that reached such heights last year left for pastures new this past June, leaving Moore with an uphill task to put a competitive squad together. If the club is serious about challenging for promotion, that must involve a long-term vision that needs linchpins on the field to build around.
At time of writing, only a handful of first teamers are contracted beyond next summer – captain Ben Whiteman, goalkeeper Ian Lawlor, defender Joe Wright plus recent signings Brad Halliday, Reece James, Madger Gomes and Jon Taylor – leaving the bulk of our existing squad in need of a new deal. There are clearly players deserving of an extension already and we cannot afford to waste time and risk losing our best assets for nothing next June, just as we did when the likes of Tommy Rowe, Andy Butler and Marko Marosi departed on Grant McCann’s watch.
Gavin Baldwin, Darren Moore and David Blunt should act swiftly to tie down the likes of Kieran Sadlier, Tom Anderson and James Coppinger to make a statement about the intentions of the club beyond this season. Coppinger remains productive at the age of 39 whilst Anderson has progressed into a certain starter, stepping up to lead the back line both physically and mentally since Butler’s move to Scunthorpe, helping Rovers to the joint 6th best defensive record in the division.
Add an improved deal for the in-demand Whiteman to this and Darren Moore would have a key core of players running through the side to build on no matter how this season pans out, instead of having to worry about the high number of loan players and out of contract senior members of the squad for the rest of this campaign.
Recruit to solidify core of the team
Looking to January and next summer, Darren Moore and his scouting staff will be desperate to mould a successful side in his own vision after difficulties due to time constraints and a tough transfer market this past August. Depending on how injuries shape thinking over the next two and a half months, the obvious priorities for January are to sign a striker of proven pedigree and to assess the situation with our loanees, three of whom are currently set to return to their parent clubs in January.
Permanent deals or extensions may well be sought for Ben Sheaf and Seny Dieng as they are both currently first team regulars, whilst the jury remains out on Daniels after he was signed as cover for defensive injuries. The squad looks short of depth in central midfield and at right back, but if the form and fitness of Whiteman, Sheaf (should he stay beyond his initial loan) and Halliday sustain then that is less of a worry.
Darren Moore has repeatedly expressed his desire to add to the numbers in his ranks and the club hierarchy should be able to accommodate those desires, especially if last January is anything to go by. They provided the funds to Grant McCann to sign Kieran Sadlier, extend the loans of both Mallik Wilks and Herbie Kane plus bring in three loanees, including the influential Paul Downing. These moves boosted a Play Off push and bore fruit when the side reached the post-season and came within a penalty kick of Wembley, and the current squad would have every chance of emulating that feat if the same happens again this winter.
Next summer, Moore can commence the next phase of his squad reshape with a full three months to put it all together, rather than the truncated period of time he had this year owing to his relatively late appointment in pre-season. A better balance to the squad as a whole will need to be found, but he will know each and every player inside out by then so fans should be optimistic, whether we find ourselves still in League One by then or even back in the Championship, as tall an order as that may feel at the moment.