State of the Squad: Rovers Beyond 2019/20
As clubs across the EFL continue to debate how to bring the current season to a conclusion – on the pitch or otherwise – the passage of time into summer brings the issue of player contracts back into focus. Whilst no firm solutions have yet been decided, it seems increasingly likely that we have seen the last of a number of players in the red and white hoops, so what will the squad look like when 2020/21 eventually arrives?
Here we look at the state of the Rovers squad and try to pinpoint what exactly Darren Moore will have to work with once the pandemic subsides enough for football to get back up and running again. Our only disclaimer is that we are not factoring in any potential one-off contract extensions or the implications of the mooted Salary Cap at this time.
Locked In, Past Lockdown
The best place to start is with those players whose contracts run beyond the end of the suspended current season. It is a small number, as has been discussed at length across the 2019/20 campaign, but it does give Moore and the club something to build on when attempting to assemble a team that can compete at the sharp end of League One next season.
At present Doncaster Rovers boast ten players tied down to professional deals running past 2020, and one player that they hold an option for extension on. You can almost assemble a decent starting XI from this group and some excellent foundations are in place but it’s by no means a complete side and will need extensive reinforcements adding to it, be that from the pool of out-of-contract players currently on the books or from new signings.
Darren will be delighted that his first-choice back four, on average, are all likely to remain with Brad Halliday and Reece James in the midst of two-year deals signed upon joining the club and both Joe Wright and Tom Anderson locked in, which spells success for Rovers after their excellent form together before the league was suspended. Goalkeeper Ian Lawlor is a serviceable stopper too whilst young prospect Branden Horton is also amongst this group.
Jon Taylor, Fejiri Okenabirhie and Madger Gomes are all relatively recent signings as well and should figure heavily in Moore’s plans going forward, whilst there is also an option to extend Devante Cole’s short-term which would give the manager a good base to build his forward line from. The pandemic may have improved Cole’s chances of staying with options elsewhere likely to be diminished for players lacking recent game-time, along with Moore’s willingness to give him a chance.
Sharks Still Swim In Uncertain Waters
We’ve intentionally hesitated to mention the one other contracted player until now. Ben Whiteman is the club’s captain and easily one of the best midfielders operating at this level, having enjoyed a banner year at the heart of the Rovers side. His technical ability allied to his leadership and maturity make him a name surely at the top of many Championship wishlists so the fact he signed a bumper new contract in the autumn means it will take a commanding fee to prise him from the club.
Transfer fees may well see an adjustment after the pandemic for obvious reasons, but that shouldn’t mean Rovers lose Whiteman for peanuts or anything of the sort. He has spoken of his pride and happiness at being captain but is ambitious too and has the ability to play at a high level. Although we’d still rate his chances of staying on the lower side of even, the impact of COVID-19 may actually boost the prospect of Whiteman remaining another year.
Prospects look different for Kieran Sadlier however, as all signs have pointed towards a departure for the Irish winger once the opportunity arises. He has had a terrific season, developing into a big goal threat and a creative outlet for the team, unsurprisingly bringing interest. Sadlier ran down his contract at previous club Cork City allowing Rovers to swoop in and snap him up, so we can’t be too aggrieved if the same happens again, but it would be a shame to lose such a talented player on a free transfer.
Clubs on this level should expect to lose at least one of their key players to higher ranking clubs each summer, so it may be considered a success if Sadlier is the only big name to depart. He, Whiteman and Anderson are probably the three best performers in the team through 2019/20 and Anderson’s consistently excellent displays have largely flown under the radar and he, like Whiteman, appears settled and enjoying life in the hoops.
Needs To Fill, Across The Board
That still leaves 12 other players out of contract (plus six loanees), the highest profile of whom is James Coppinger. The club legend would surely sign on for another year taking him past his 40th birthday if the club are in a position to offer him it, but those questions remain unanswered at time of writing. Cautiously, we feel reasonably sure the great man will still be at the club to see in his 22nd season as a professional but nothing should be taken for granted in the current climate.
Eight of this crop are Academy graduates who have enjoyed varying levels of first-team exposure. Danny Amos finally broke through into a regular berth at left back just before the pandemic hit, so one would expect he will be a priority for an extension once funds are available to act, whilst Max Watters and Louis Jones feel like safe bets due to their regular inclusion in Match Day squads under Moore.
The same cannot be said for the likes of AJ Greaves, Rieves Boocock, Myron Gibbons and Rian McLean, or even Shane Blaney, who have yet to make an impact at senior level and appear to be in a bit of a no-man’s land right now. If Rovers discover they will have to cut their cloth as far as money for senior signings goes, then this crop may well get another chance but time is perhaps running out for a few of them now.
Alex Kiwomya’s days as a Rover are surely over after a succession of missed opportunities hampered by injury woe, whilst Alex Baptiste is likely to be shown the door after spending almost the entire season injured. Matty Blair is the second most likely player after Coppinger to earn a fresh deal but he hasn’t figured too much this season, albeit also because of injury, an admired and popular presence inside the dressing room and with fans.
Loanees Beyond Reach
The biggest losses to the squad beyond the potential departure of Sadlier or Whiteman will undoubtedly come from the group of loan players brought in this season. Seny Dieng has been excellent in goal, so good in fact that his parent club QPR may well see him as their #1 for next season, whilst Ben Sheaf’s improving consistency will make him more of an asset for Arsenal. These two will be a big miss if they are to depart as seems likely, with sizeable transfer bids from Rovers the only real possibility of keeping them long-term.
Likewise Niall Ennis and Cameron John are two of the best prospects in the Wolves academy and have now both signed extensions with the West Midlands club putting them out of Moore’s reach. Whilst this is a shame, it was always expected especially when the duo hit the ground running with a series of accomplished performances, and Ennis in particular has only improved more and more as the season wore on. This is four first team places to fill and the club will have a tough task finding quality loanees of the same ilk in future.
January acquisitions Jacob Ramsey and Jason Lokilo both impressed in short spells before the pandemic – Lokilo doing so in just one substitute outing – and these both felt like players we could see stay into next season beforehand, and we feel little will have changed on that front. Ramsey would benefit from a season-long spell away from Villa Park at his young age, whilst Lokilo felt like a try-before-you-buy loanee when he arrived owing to the fact he is out of favour at Crystal Palace and reaching the end of his development phase as a 21-year-old.
Work To Be Done
From 30 professionals the club is facing dropping down to around a dozen or so in the near future then. That may well help short-term cash flow issues brought on by the pandemic but means a big effort needed to rebuild and rejuvenate the squad for next season, and not for the first time in recent memory. If Rovers can get the likes of Coppinger, Amos and Blair signed up once the 2019/20 season is officially ended, it will make the task a little easier to manage.
Moore, Gavin Baldwin and Adam Henshall will likely already be hard at work planning which areas of the team to prioritise and the reality is that several first-team places will need filling – replacements for Dieng, Ennis and probably Sadlier as an immediate concern – and work to bring those targets in will begin in earnest once the lay of the land can be established across the EFL.
The club must be desperate to enjoy an event-free summer for a change but they will have to meet the challenge of upheaval once again on the playing side of things. Staying afloat financially is obviously of paramount concern right now but the model the club follows to be sustainable each year should stand them in good stead on that front. The hope is that this can give Rovers a platform for a fruitful foray into building the squad anew for next season.