• Adam Stubbings

Squad Goals Part 2: Transfer Targets

The transfer window is open and activity is starting to pick up across the EFL. In Part One of our 2022/23 Squad Goals feature published last week, we identified the key areas in which Gary McSheffrey and James Coppinger needed to focus their attentions on this summer. Now, we take a closer look at each position and name some of the players who could be on the radar of Doncaster Rovers over the coming weeks.

Completing the Rear-guard

There is no more pressing position than that of the left full-back in McSheffrey’s squad. With Branden Horton released and Ben Jackson having returned to Huddersfield, Rovers are without a dedicated player at the position. Tommy Rowe was deployed there last season but, despite Richie Wellens’ desire to utilise Rowe in the back four, the former Bristol City man is much better off in the midfield unit and that is a fact that McSheffrey appears to have acknowledged.

Ideally, any new arrival at the position will be able to perform solid defensive duties whilst keeping an eye on attacking down the flank, to complement the work of Kyle Knoyle on the opposite side. The club will either opt for a player with strong league experience, or a diamond in the rough that they can develop – as the club could sign two players in this position, it is paramount that somebody with knowledge of the level and games under his belt is prioritised first.

One name who fits that description to a tee is Myles Kenlock. The 25-year-old has been released by Ipswich after making over 100 appearances for the club, nearly half of which came in the Championship. Kenlock is a dynamic player who frequently gets forward, providing crosses and popping up at the back post, and though he fell from favour at Ipswich, he is coming off a six-month loan spell at Colchester in League Two in which he demonstrated all of these qualities.

Greg Leigh is another name bandied around by plenty of fans of clubs at this level, and would be a good option if Rovers are willing to wade into a competitive auction. Leigh was released by Morecambe last month after a stellar season, and is another who loves to get forward. Leigh impressed in his side’s 1-0 defeat at the Eco-Power Stadium back in September, and at 27 is entering his prime with bags of EFL experience to his credit.

Alternatively, Rovers could opt for the versatile Joe Rafferty to add some real nous to the back-line. Rafferty played over 200 games for Rochdale in the bottom two tiers before a move to Preston in 2019, where he has been a team mate of Ben Whiteman. Rafferty is naturally a right-back, but has been deployed frequently on the left side at PNE and would bring a physical streak which the team could sorely do with. He hasn’t played much in the past 12 months but is a proven commodity at this level and would be an interesting signing.

It seems plausible that the club will sign a younger left-back at least as development cover, with links made to Sunderland’s Cieran Dunne in the press. Dunne has never played an English league game however, and similar profile players who have are available, such as released Burnley defender Anthony Glennon. Glennon was popular in a loan spell at Grimsby a year ago and played further League Two football at Barrow this season, with schooling at Liverpool a plus point.

The Elusive Playmaker

The lack of a firm replacement for Ben Whiteman proved a real downfall in Rovers’ recruitment a year ago. John Bostock was tasked with fulfilling the playmaker role but he was only fit enough to start 17 league games last term however, and under Gary McSheffrey the midfield philosophy appears to have changed somewhat. Rovers will likely deploy Adam Clayton as a clean-up #6 in the mould of Paul Keegan, with a mobile duo alongside drawn from the pool of Rowe, Ben Close and Harrison Biggins, meaning this may not be a key area for strengthening.

That said, there are a couple of players who could be added to provide linking play and offset some of the qualities lost in the departure of Bostock. On the older end of the scale, 32-year-old Luke Murphy has years of experience in the Championship and was a player of high standing at Leeds and Crewe, where he was released this summer after a consistent second spell. Murphy was the Alex’s captain in 2021/22 and has quality on the ball, even if his age means he is no longer as explosive as when deployed further forward at Leeds.

20-year-old Olly Pendlebury is a different prospect altogether, having played only a handful of games for Wycombe in his debut season. That included a brace against Cheltenham however, and while he didn’t force his way into the starting picture for a side who finished in the top six, Pendlebury was around the squad and showed flashes of the ability that Rovers need to ensure their new signings have this summer.

Creative Spark at #10

Scope may be limited as far as deep-lying creators goes, but there is an abundance of players capable of fulfilling a more attacking central role. McSheffrey and Coppinger need to find some guile and bravery in the final third, especially now that Josh Martin has gone back to Norwich, with an individual able to face-up defenders and link the midfield to the front three a must for any side hoping to score goals.

One name in the frame who can play centrally or out wide is Solihull Moors’ Joe Sbarra, who enjoyed a break-out campaign for the National League finalists. Sbarra netted 18 league goals in 2021/22 and was a driving force for his team, either cutting in off the right flank or gliding through the centre to affect play constantly. However, the Burton academy product had an option activated in his contract recently meaning it would cost a transfer fee to prise him from Moors, and he will no doubt be a man in demand for league clubs this window.

There are several players available on a free with a similar profile, though. Davis Keillor-Dunn is only a year older than Sbarra at 24 and was a rare bright spot for Oldham as they dropped out of League Two, netting 17 goals and showing a willingness to move across the front-line. Primarily a #10, Keillor-Dunn also operates off the wing and as a second striker at times, and could be a true focal point for Rovers’ attack.

The club could also look to former Rochdale and Fleetwood man Callum Camps, who has an eye for goal and has been a consistent presence at this level. Whilst perhaps more of a mobile central midfielder, he would fit well with the likes of Close and his former team mate Biggins. Callum Cooke is also available after three solid years at Bradford in League Two, in which he showed leadership and a willingness to adapt having been deployed deeper in midfield as well as in the #10 role.

If McSheffrey opts to utilise the loan market, as has been reported for the more forward-oriented positions in the squad, Rovers could do a lot worse than looking to teenage Premier League prospects Charlie Whitaker and Alfie Devine. Devine in particular would be something of a coup, as a teenager earmarked for big things at Tottenham and who is currently with the England U19s squad.

Devine turns 18 in August and will likely be heading out on loan after a strong season in the PL2, registering 9 goals and 3 assists in 17 games, appearing in the EFL Trophy and as a substitute in several Premier League games. Spurs refused a loan offer from Leyton Orient in January but will now look to send him out, and a place in a Doncaster Rovers side aiming to play with the ball on the floor would be beneficial for his development.

Whitaker meanwhile is an 18-year-old Everton academy player with a lot of qualities to admire. He likes to get into physical battles as much as craft the play, operating on the edge of the area or as a makeshift striker. Whitaker managed 5 goals in 15 PL2 outings for the young Toffees in 2021/22, played all three of the U23s EFL Trophy matches, and appeared on the bench for a Premier League game against Manchester United. An energetic and exciting player, Whitaker is very much in the mould of Josh Martin and looks ready for an EFL loan spell.

Wing Wonders Needed

Rovers have a real dearth of quality out wide going into the summer. Jon Taylor is a sure bet when fit, but has missed most of the last 8 months, whilst question marks remain over whether Aidy Barlow or Jordy Hiwula have what it takes to contribute to the cause. At least two new wingers are needed, and the club are almost certain to dip into the loan market for at least one of these signings.

To that end, West Ham starlet Daniel Chesters is among the best options in the loan market. At 20 years of age, Chesters is more than ready for first team football and has even made his Premier League debut, albeit briefly at the end of a game with Liverpool last season. He can provide assists from wide or cutting back from the right flank, where he was mostly utilised in PL2 through 22 appearances, and is not far off breaking through for David Moyes’ side.

Scott Banks is another young right winger who could do with an EFL loan, having cut his teeth in spells with Alloa and Dunfermline in his native Scotland before a fantastic campaign in PL2 for Crystal Palace U23s this year. Banks also plays primarily on the right wing, and netted 10 goals and 4 assists in just 15 starts for the young Eagles – a dangerous goal threat from wide and at #10, Banks is exactly the sort of player that Rovers should be looking at.

If Rovers wish to sign a similar profile young player but on a permanent deal, they may want to explore the acquisition of free agent Fin Thorndike. Thorndike, capable of playing across both wings and at #10, was snapped up by Aston Villa a year ago but was released this month despite a solid season in PL2, and could fulfil a role not too dissimilar to that of Jason Lokilo in previous seasons.

A more seasoned pro will also be needed to augment the ranks, and another Oldham stand-out is likely to be the hot name on many club’s lists: Dylan Bahamboula. The Frenchman is a real firecracker of a player - think Mallik Wilks - who is hard for defenders to pin down, and impressed for the Latics in 2020/21 after a journeyman career before backing it up at the start of last season. Now aged 27, Bahamboula is about as refined as he is going to get but he would be well worth a gamble despite not being the type of player Rovers are usually in the market for.

Elsewhere, former Fleetwood and Salford man Ash Hunter is among the best available wingers in League Two. Hunter is a creative left-sided player, registering 8 assists for the underachieving Ammies in 2021/22. At 26, Hunter still has his best years ahead of him and has several years of strong play in League One under his belt to boot. Similarly, Alex Newby has enjoyed two solid seasons in the EFL for Rochdale in which he provided goal threat from the right wing having stepped up from a prolific non-league spell with Chorley.

Youth the Best Bet for Goals?

Along with the left-back slot, there is no greater position of need for Rovers in this window than up front. The side’s strike-force was a pitiful joke last season, and the group of contracted forwards leave much to be desired at this point in time. Gary McSheffrey needs to add a pair of capable strikers with contrasting abilities in order to improve his team’s goal ratio, and a crucial aspect of the recruitment here will be how best to complement Reo Griffiths, who should be aiming for a break-out year in 2022/23.

There is no doubt that Rovers will opt for a loanee to fulfil one of these two roles, most likely that of an off-the-shoulder runner in-behind who can stretch defences and cause problems in the penalty area. Premier League clubs all have strikers of this type in their academy ranks, and one of the best around is Brentford’s Nathan Young-Coombes.

Young-Coombes netted 34 goals for the Bees’ B Team in 2021/22, was handed a Premier League debut against Southampton in May, and at 19-years-old is primed for an EFL loan. Brentford B played a wide variety of teams in their campaign but Young-Coombes proved capable against them all, and will be high on the radar of sides hoping for guaranteed goals in the coming year.

If Young-Coombes is maybe too ambitious a signing, Will Swan would be a solid alternative. Swan had 12 goals and 5 assists for Nottingham Forest’s U23s in PL2 and will likely find his path to the first team blocked by Forest’s promotion to the Premier League last season. Swan also has first team experience in the form of a brief loan spell at Port Vale in League Two and has made his Championship debut for Forest as well.

Swan and Young-Coombes both excel in the penalty area and would be enticing prospects to pair with Griffiths in a two-man front, or as interchanging wide forwards. Pacey striker Isaac Westendorf is another potential target, having hit the ground running with 5 goals in 12 PL2 outings for Newcastle after signing in January. Westendorf has senior experience in non-league with Barking and is one of the few youngsters around with clear physical abilities despite his young age.

A Galvanising Focal Point

If a lively youngster is added up front alongside Griffiths, the final piece of the puzzle for Rovers will be the addition of a more imposing centre forward. Whilst this player does not need to be an out-and-out target man, they need to be able to act as a reliable presence up front, someone who can bring others into play and chip in with goals as well.

The club may have to be shrewd with this signing, but if they are willing to push the boat out a bit then James Norwood lives up to the billing. Norwood has been released by Ipswich after an inconsistent spell with the Tractor Boys, but he is a swashbuckling striker with nearly 200 career goals to his name. Norwood netted 32 goals in his maiden League Two campaign for Tranmere before the move to Ipswich in 2019 and has been linked to Rovers before, but he would be a high wage earner if brought in.

Coppinger and McSheffrey may have to gamble instead on somebody with less pedigree, and could opt for Mani Dieseruvwe instead. Dieseruvwe has struggled to nail down a home in his career but, now 27-years-old and coming off a decent loan spell for National League Play-Off winners Grimsby, scoring 5 goals when used mostly as an impact sub. He is a tall handful of a player who would very much operate as a “Plan B” in any Rovers set-up, and is available on a free after Tranmere let him go.

The obvious answer to this particular problem is perhaps too sensible to be likely. John Marquis has been released by Lincoln after a six-month spell that resulted in 5 goals and a fading presence that may put League One clubs off bringing him in. Marquis had an indifferent spell at Portsmouth after leaving Rovers three seasons ago, but he has remained a nuisance of a striker who can score goals, and his last season in the fourth tier resulted in him netting 26 times en route to promotion in the red and white hoops.

Marquis is among the best goalscorers to ever play for the club, is in need of a career revival and has spoken of his desire to return to the club one day. The Lincoln move showed that he was willing to return from the south of England to play and he will not likely be a top target of decent League One sides after the last 12 months and the fact he has just turned 30. John Marquis would be a signing to kick-start Rovers’ resurgence and bring a bit of good-will back from fans to club.