Rovers Report Card 2020/21: Sep - Nov
A dozen competitive games into the 2020/21 season, Doncaster Rovers look in decent shape. Darren Moore’s side have won half of their league matches, enjoyed a comfortable evening in front of the BBC cameras in the FA Cup 1st Round and have managed okay with a clutch of injuries in attack. Still, there are clear areas where improvement is needed and that is as much what a Report Card is about as it is to highlight the things being done well.
Assessing the season so far in four key areas – results, signings, player performance and the manager – here is our view of the opening couple of months in this unusual season.
It hasn’t exactly been the picture of consistency from Moore’s men throughout the opening 12 games of the campaign, but nonetheless there have been some noteworthy scorelines. Rovers made a bright but fruitless start in their Carabao Cup exit to Championship side Blackburn at the end of August. The 3-2 loss represented a learning experience as well as coming with the caveat of taking place before the team had completed their pre-season preparations, plus the squad was nowhere near complete thanks to the extended transfer window.
Rovers then went unbeaten through their first three League One outings, shaking off a rusty start against Milton Keynes to register back-to-back wins against Charlton and Bristol Rovers, scoring seven goals in the process and playing some superb football across both games. Defeat at Wigan was a blow considering the sheer dominance Rovers enjoyed in general play, but that blip was soon forgotten thanks to Reece James’ deserved late winner at Portsmouth and another big win, this time in a 4-1 demolition job of promotion favourites Ipswich.
Every time the team threatens to get on a roll however, things seem to come unstuck. That proved true after that impressive pair of victories against contenders was followed by successive defeats to unfancied Crewe and Plymouth, with the performance in the latter loss a particularly poor one. Rovers just haven’t found the recipe for consistency yet in 2020/21 but have hopefully turned the corner after a home win against then-leaders Lincoln and non-league FC United of Manchester, with a last-gasp draw away to Wimbledon sandwiched in between.
17 points from 10 games is a decent return whichever way you slice it, and the fact that it probably should have been a few more stands Rovers in good stead for the challenges of the months ahead.
Going into the campaign off the back of the strangest off-season ever meant additional hurdles to vault over for Darren Moore and his recruitment team, with many fans more accepting than usual of a potential need to cut corners to bring players in, or operate with a smaller squad. With dramatic reductions in revenue and spending power in the market, it would have been no surprise to see the stars of last season go unreplaced and a bigger reliance on academy players, yet the club found a way to give Moore what he needed across almost the entire squad.
Although it took until the very end of the extended window in mid-October to do it, the club ended up bringing in ten first team players to strengthen the ranks from front to back. Starlets like Matt Smith, Tyreece John-Jules and Josh Sims represent the cream of the crop as far as League One loan signings go, whilst Moore also brought back former loanees Cameron John and Jason Lokilo on permanent deals to add much-needed depth to key positions.
These additions have had varying impacts, with the absence of Rayhaan Tulloch since the opening day marking things down and the likes of Lokilo and Ed Williams yet to have a big impact, along with question marks over the consistency of goalkeeper Joe Bursik, but Deadline Day additions Sims and Smith have been instant hits providing quality and end product in spades from the get-go, and John putting in some strong showings too. It’s worth mentioning Andy Butler too, who hasn’t played in the league since re-joining but has stepped in to lead the team from the dugout in the last fortnight due to Darren Moore’s enforced absence.
If not for injuries to attacking trio Tulloch, John-Jules and Taylor Richards leaving the team short up top, this section may well have been an A+ report. Depth is strong across the squad and there is quality in every position on the pitch when at full fitness, quality players like Kieran Sadlier and Ben Sheaf have been sufficiently replaced for this season and the team is shaping up for a promotion push which must represent success for Moore and Adam Henshall.
Player Performance: A-
Nobody typifies the sheer effort to improve and bring quality this season than Madger Gomes, who walked away with the September Player of the Month award for League One after an explosive run of form that saw him score in each of Rovers’ first three games in addition to a goal in the Carabao Cup opener. Each of them were fine strikes from around the edge of the area and his sudden potency in attack underlined the improvement the Spaniard has made since last season.
He is far from the only player to show that development either, as the defensive unit continues to impress thanks to gradual steps forward for Joe Wright, Brad Halliday and Reece James, along with the sheer consistency of Tom Anderson, who remains a formidable presence up there with the best defenders in the third tier. Tyreece John-Jules started brightly up front before suffering injury on international duty, and Fejiri Okenabirhie has started to find his feet again after returning to the side and is the team’s top scorer with five goals to date.
Midfield is where the highest praise must go though, as captain Ben Whiteman continues to shine as an accomplished playmaker and leader. His ability marks him out as a player with a very high ceiling and he is now turning in the sort of performance on a regular basis that makes him a clear stand-out against any team in League One, and he has added four goals to the excellent passing, movement and tackling skills he brings to every game. Loanees Sims and Smith have slotted in around him with ease creating a triumvirate of threatening players performing regularly at an enviable level.
Rovers fans can’t ask for much more than what the players have given them so far this season, and if not for a lack of rotation options on the wing and up front due to injuries it would probably be even better.
Darren Moore is a universally popular man around Doncaster Rovers both with the club and the fans, which is a rare feat indeed. The way he carries himself with the utmost professionalism and openness, along with his warm, positive demeanour make it easy to praise the man, but his actions as manager have very rarely steered Rovers wrong in this past year-plus and the 2020/21 season has been no different to date.
He has added key players to the squad to enhance his tactical approach, favouring strong ball-players with pace and movement to bolster the 4-2-3-1 formation, shown a willingness to adapt in games with alterations and substitutions at key times and ensured the team has the willingness to fight for points in games they go behind in, as noted recently away at Wimbledon and against Ipswich in a show of impressive resilience.
The big debate around Moore’s choices has been his decision to try players in new positions, with varying degrees of success. Full back Reece James has begun to show more to his game as a makeshift left winger and Joe Wright proved capable enough at right back in the win over Lincoln, but Cam John has not been too comfortable as a left back himself and a number of players failed to adapt to a more disciplined midfield role before the arrival of Matt Smith solved that issue.
One thing you cannot accuse Moore of is being set in his ways, and his bold tactical choices have paid off more often than not at Rovers. The team plays progressive, positive football and has secured results against top League One sides. Rovers are on course for a successful season and a lot of that can be attributed to the manager.