Squad Goals Part 1: Evaluating the Rovers Ranks
This is a big summer for Doncaster Rovers. The true test of whether or not the club have learned from the myriad mistakes that were made in last season’s disastrous relegation season will come with the business done over the next few of months, and with the transfer window due to officially open this Friday, it feels like the right time to kick off coverage of the 2022-23 campaign.
The debate over manager Gary McSheffrey and new Head of Football James Coppinger is shelved for now, as supporters look to them to jolt Rovers back into life, with some key pieces clearly needed to augment a misshaped squad at present. Now that John Bostock has confirmed his departure, all of the club’s outstanding contract business for the close season is complete, leaving us clear in what we have to build on going forward.
Here we take a look at the players that we know will be turning up to Cantley Park for pre-season in a couple of weeks, and try to identify the key areas that the management team will be looking to strengthen during the summer months.
After triggering an option on young stoppers Louis Jones and Ben Bottomley, Rovers move forward with three contracted goalkeepers for the 2022-23 season. This is a rare thing for the club in recent years, as an overreliance on the loan market in this area led to inconsistency at the position. None of those rotating figures were a patch on Seny Dieng over the past two years, and Gary McSheffrey made it a priority in his first transfer window to sign somebody on a permanent deal to fill the role, opting for Jonathan Mitchell.
Mitchell was somewhat maligned upon arrival due to his track record, but after a shaky start he proved his worth in winning the shirt from Jones and putting in a number of strong performances – most notably a Man of the Match display in the 2-1 win at Sunderland – that earned him the #1 shirt going into the new season. Mitchell is far from the perfect keeper but he is a good shot-stopper whose distribution and communication outstrips that of Jones at this stage.
It would be a surprise if a new shot-stopper was at the top end of the recruitment team’s Wanted List for the summer, and both Mitchell and Jones should prove capable enough at League Two level for the time being.
By contrast, the left full-back position is surely one of the chief focuses for Coppinger. One of the glaring omissions by Richie Wellens in his business a year ago was the lack of a genuine replacement for Reece James, with Tommy Rowe brought back to fulfil a position which is not his strongest. Rowe has primarily been utilised in his more advanced midfield role under McSheffrey and the hope is that that continues going forward, as he is simply too good a presence over the halfway line to be stuck marshalling the back four.
With Ben Jackson returning to Huddersfield, Rovers are completely devoid of a first team left back, meaning signing an established player to fill that position should be top priority. Ideally, Rovers would find a permanent solution on a multi-year deal, and potentially look to the loan market for a younger player with versatility either across the back-line or along the flank in order to provide depth. Joe Olowu can cover the left side if needed but hopefully he will be developed purely as a centre half having shown promise in his first season.
On the other side, Rovers appear set with Kyle Knoyle and Charlie Seaman as the right-back options. Knoyle flattered to deceive at times in his maiden Rovers campaign, but clearly has the quality and knows what it takes to earn promotion from the fourth tier, having done so with Cambridge a year ago. He is also a valuable player going forward, providing width and threat from crosses that forwards will relish getting on the end of.
At first glance, Rovers appear very well stocked in the middle of defence. Captain Tom Anderson – who got married this week – has had an option in his deal taken up by the club whilst academy starlet Bobby Faulkner has also agreed new terms. Ro-Shaun Williams, Ollie Younger and Joe Olowu meanwhile are a trio of young players who all got significant game-time in 2021-22 and should be looking to push on in the new season.
However, there are issues when you look deeper. Anderson has not played since December due to a troublesome plantar fascia injury and, in truth, he was not on top form prior to being sidelined. He is a true leader though and should be an invaluable complement to the young cohort alongside him. Olowu was impressive in 38 senior appearances and at this stage probably has the edge on both Younger and Williams, but time will tell which of the three can make the position their own.
If everyone can stay fit and find good form, Rovers need not worry about their central defence in League Two. Any additions will likely have to be bonuses at the end of the window if there is money remaining, or if an injury or transfer weakens the group.
Success may well be determined by the make-up of the midfield this year. It is a crucial area of creativity, energy and organisation and the fact that all three of those areas lacked was a major factor in the team’s struggles of late. John Bostock’s departure is a blow but was not unexpected, and adequately replacing his ability to see the field and operate as a playmaker will be difficult. This should be a focus for James Coppinger in the market but the good news is that there are some defining pieces in place to shape how the team plays going forward.
Adam Clayton looked the part once he got himself fit – there is no question that he has quality in abundance and can operate in the holding role. Liam Ravenhill is not ready yet to back him up throughout the season but the thought of a quality addition alongside Clayton, screening the defence and distributing the ball to attackers, is an enticing one and it is to be hoped that Rovers can find the right man for the job.
Harrison Biggins has been signed from Fleetwood already as the box-to-box option, replacing Arsenal loanee Matt Smith, and his energy twinned with Tommy Rowe’s guile and drive should make Gary McSheffrey’s side a far more threatening prospect in the middle of the park, whilst Ben Close should be an effective pure #8 upon his return from knee surgery.
The loan market may again come in handy in this area if Josh Martin is to be sufficiently replaced as, whilst Rowe can operate as a #10 he isn’t quite as dynamic as Martin – or Coppinger before him – and the technical prowess usually needed in the modern game usually only comes from younger players schooled in Premier League academies.
Easily the biggest mystery at this juncture is what options McSheffrey is likely to have out wide. Supporters will be hoping to see a lot more of Jon Taylor this season, with the veteran winger restricted to a mere three games owing to a nightmare ankle injury which has now cost him 15 months of his career. Taylor’s direct play and tenacity were key in Darren Moore’s Rovers side and he can do a lot of damage in League Two if ready to play, in much the same way as Matty Blair did in the 2016-17 promotion run.
McSheffrey has also opted to extend the contract of Aidan Barlow, who failed to really find his place in the side last year after Wellens brought him in. Barlow has stated recently that he aims to make the left-side position his own, but he will need to unlock another level to his game if he is to find himself a regular feature in the team going forward. Jordy Hiwula also remains contracted but rumours have linked him with a move away after a shocking season that ended with him struggling to justify a place on the bench.
There can be little doubt that this is the weakest area of the team right now and at least two players will need to be brought in to improve matters. Coppinger and co. need to find a player with pace to stretch defences as well as someone who can cut inside and cause problems across the 18-yard line, or else they will struggle to be any more dynamic in attack than the limp depiction that fans were subjected to for most of last season.
Doncaster Rovers scored 37 league goals in the campaign just ended, a miserable tally by any metric. A recruiting shambles in the summer was never rectified and a dark cloud hung high above the attacking third on Lakeside all season long. Gary McSheffrey has at this point got three forwards under contract, but there are question marks over all of them. Reo Griffiths at least should benefit from a full pre-season and did show glimpses of what he might be capable of in time, but he can’t be expected to lead the line at 22 years old and barely a dozen games into his senior career.
Joe Dodoo was a much-maligned figure during a campaign in which he was on a hiding to nothing, as a post-window addition brought in because moves for several more established strikers fell through. Dodoo isn’t even really a central striker but more of a wide forward, yet he toiled as a line-leader in 2021-22 and scored only four league goals in 33 outings. He is another who has been linked with a departure but for now must be considered as a viable squad option up front.
Kieran Agard on the other hand barely got a kick after signing in January, as McSheffrey favoured other players until handing him a start against Fleetwood in March which saw him go down with a hamstring injury inside the first 15 minutes. Agard is a veteran who has scored plenty of goals in the past, but injuries have been his crux in recent years and he can only surprise us by doing anything of note after his inauspicious start at the club.
Rovers need at least a couple of forwards to build an attack alongside Griffiths, preferably including one proper target man who can win headers and give opposing defenders headaches. Failure to learn from what happened last summer can only lead to more struggles for the team, as Rovers simply will not compete for an immediate return to League One if they cannot score goals.
As the window swings open on Friday, June 10th, it is pretty clear what the team needs to kick-start a revival on the pitch. Look out for Part 2 of our Squad Goals feature in the coming days, as we cast an eye over potential signings to try and answer the questions raised here.