Sadlier Stunner Gets Moore Off The Mark: Rovers 1-1 Gillingham
Darren Moore got his Doncaster Rovers reign underway with an encouraging performance against Gillingham in the League One opener yesterday, but had to be satisfied with a point from a game in which it was apparent his squad is still being put together.
Fans came away feeling they had seen a glimpse of what may be in store over the coming months and can certainly say they were entertained by a contest largely played with an enthusiastic spirit on both sides of the field, however it will take at least a number of weeks before we get a more complete picture of how far Moore can take this Rovers side in his first season at the helm.
The early stages of this contest saw both sides adopt the cautious approach often seen on the first day of the season, with two teams embarking on a new era under new managers – Steve Evans taking charge of the Gills this season – wary of throwing the preparation of pre-season in the bin immediately. Regan Charles-Cook, a constant menace to a Rovers defence including three debutants, almost snatched the lead for the visitors after quarter of an hour, getting in on the left hand side and rolling a low shot that had Ian Lawlor beaten but was kept out by the boot of Tom Anderson.
Rovers struggled to find any sort of rhythm in possession early on and were almost caught cold again moments later when Ben Sheaf was dispossessed outside his own area, allowing Mikael Ndjoli to flash a shot wide of the post, and aside from a couple of sighters from Ben Whiteman there was little in the way of goal threat from the home side. Indeed it was Gillingham who provided the danger going forward, their attacking line demonstrating superb pace and movement to keep Rovers on their toes with Charles-Cook forcing an excellent save out of Lawlor down at his near post.
A deserved lead for the visitors came on the half hour mark as Brandon Hanlan beat Tom Anderson to a flick on and Ndjoli bustled his way through two defenders to square for debuting Watford loanee Alex Jakubiak to tuck home. The pace of Charles-Cook and Ndjoli in particular was leaving the back four exposed time and again and here they were unable to cope after losing the initial header, Alex Baptiste clattering his own team mate in pursuit of Ndjoli and Sheaf unable to get back quickly enough to cover Jakubiak.
It was all looking a bit pedestrian for Rovers with a disjointed performance highlighting the lack of time this squad has really had to gel in pre-season, but a moment of quality made Moore’s half time team talk easier in stoppage time. James Coppinger, who had caused Gillingham’s defence the most bother with his typical skilful running throughout the half, popped a wonderful cross forward to Kieran Sadlier, who got across his man on the edge of the six-yard box and rifled a volley home to make it 1-1. Sadlier was lively if unspectacular playing as a makeshift lone striker but was lethal with his finish here to bring Rovers level.
The second half saw Whiteman and Sheaf dictate possession much more effectively, the two developing an understanding and supporting the defence better, and the wide play of Brad Halliday down the right flank proved useful. First he got to the byline and played in Madger Gomes, who shifted onto his left foot and shot, the deflected effort just clearing the crossbar. Then, Halliday got another low ball over which Sadlier was on the end of but unable to cleanly connect, firing wide. With Gillingham sitting deeper, Rovers were able to press higher and nullify the pace of their forwards, crafting opportunities for the front men.
Alfie May, who put in one of his best displays in some time, had the best chance of the second period when he cut inside across two players and unleashed a fierce effort that debuting Gills keeper Jack Bonham had to work hard to reach and push out, and in truth it was Rovers making everything happen at this point. Niall Ennis, impressing off the bench having signed from Wolves the day before, showed off his pace and strength before a lovely turn and cross-field pass laid on Whiteman, who slammed an effort over, before Baptiste went close with a header from a Coppinger free kick.
Ennis again carved out a chance late in the game to find May well placed, his shot saved by Bonham and the rebound from substitute Ali Crawford blocked strongly, and Whiteman could have won it at the death if not for a bad bounce causing him to skew a left-footed effort wide. It ended 1-1 with Rovers shading the play overall but undoubtedly fortunate to have stayed in the game in the first half under heavy pressure from a capable Gillingham side.
Just days after the sale of John Marquis, Rovers must be content with their attacking capabilities in this game playing without a recognised striker. Kieran Sadlier was solid and scored the crucial equaliser but is not a centre forward and can be a much more effective player either behind an out-and-out striker or on the wing. Alfie May could find a spot on the flank himself where his strengths in linking play, harrying defenders and cutting in are better utilised, and in Wolves loanee Niall Ennis, Darren Moore may just have found an able replacement for the youthful exuberance and quality of Mallik Wilks.
Tom Anderson was largely infallible leading the defence here but the side missed the calming presence of Joe Wright, with the fact of three new defenders debuting together evident in the lack of cohesion on show at times, particularly in the first half and notably for the Gillingham goal. Ben Sheaf, whilst naïve in possession on a number of occasions, has plenty of ability and could develop a vital partnership with new captain Ben Whiteman at the heart of a side keen to play possession football, but we may be a month or two off them being able to dictate games in the way we saw for brief spells after the interval.
Ian Lawlor justified his selection ahead of Seny Dieng with a pair of good saves from Regan Charles-Cook, but the competition between the sticks should benefit both going forward. Madger Gomes came closest to winning the contest for Rovers in the second half and had some nice touches, but overall didn’t impose himself on the game and will probably need some time to get up to speed with this level of football.
Oh, and James Coppinger? As good at the start of his 16th season at the club as he was in his first. A constant thorn in Gillingham’s side, the veteran midfielder picked up where he left off last season, making the assist for Sadlier’s goal look easy despite having to thread it through a narrow gap to put it on the forward’s toe and remind us, like we needed it, that he is capable of things very few others at this level are on a football pitch.
Check back with us here at ITEN tomorrow where we’ll take an in-depth look at five things we learned about the team from this match, before looking ahead to what promises to be another week of transfer speculation and intrigue before Darren Moore takes his side to Rochdale for the first away game of the season.