• Adam Stubbings

Strike Out: Assessing Moore's moves in transfer market

The summer transfer window slammed shut on Monday afternoon, bringing to an end long-running debate among Rovers fans about where the club has been going right and wrong in its recruitment of players. With Donervon Daniels becoming the 11th new arrival just minutes before the 5pm deadline for deals to be made, does Darren Moore have a squad at his disposal with which he can feel confident in pushing for a return to the Play-Offs this season? Or will questions surrounding firepower and depth come back to haunt the team down the line?

No New #9…Yet

The glaring deficiency in the Rovers squad comes in the shape of a marquee centre forward. John Marquis was the main goal-getter for the past three seasons but departed for League One rivals Portsmouth at the end of July and efforts to replace him failed to materialise. The lack of an experienced, physical presence up front is something that many have raised concerns about despite a strong start to the season, and manager Darren Moore has had to face down questions about the issue in every press conference since Marquis’ sale.

Claims in the days following that transfer were that we had bids in for players of a comparable pedigree, but deals did not progress. The hunt for other targets also proved futile despite positive words on the subject right up to deadline day, notably a much-mooted move for Sheffield United forward Leon Clarke that simply never bore fruit. Replacing Marquis and his goals was always going to be a daunting challenge but to fail to bring in anyone at all is baffling, especially with reputable forwards such as Matt Godden and Jason Cummings heading to divisional adversaries.

Whether those particular names would have been the right fit anyway is debatable, but the manager clearly knew what sort of player he wanted to bring in and just couldn’t make it happen. We will likely never know the reasons behind this – although some well-placed questions from fans at tomorrow’s Meet The Owners event wouldn’t go amiss – so can only be left to speculate whilst hoping that the failure to bring in a true #9 allows our young forwards the chance to excel.

Niall Ennis looks the part already despite his tender age, whilst Alfie May and loanee Kazaiah Sterling both got off the mark for the campaign in last night’s EFL Trophy opener. Kieran Sadlier netted in the opening two games playing as a makeshift striker, plus academy products Max Watters and Rieves Boocock may get more of a chance to show what they’re made of at senior level than they might have been expecting going into this year.

Talk continues surrounding the potential arrival of Victor Anichebe but the question marks will remain even if the former Everton man comes through the door owing to his lengthy spell without a club. Through half a dozen games so far Rovers have not struggled to create chances or score goals, but the propensity for a very young group of players to consistently perform to the standard required in front of goal may be a tall task.

Shallow Depth

The strange departure of Ali Crawford to Bolton on deadline day underlined the other pressing concern when assessing the current squad, that being the relative lack of depth. Darren Moore faced a huge challenge in revamping a squad that had largely been gutted at the end of our Play-Off run last season and although it is too early to tell how much quality has been replaced, there’s no denying the bulk of our first team squad has been ripped out.

Crawford was the eighth player who played in 40 games last season to leave (of eleven departures who played more than a handful of games) whilst nine of eleven new signings this summer are aged 25 or under. In fact, only six of the squad are over 25 now including the injured Alex Baptiste meaning experience has made way for youth in a big way since the end of last season. A 24-man senior squad contains four academy graduates who have played little-to-no league games for the club, plus Baptiste, meaning we are always one or two bad injuries away from a serious shortage.

This cannot be something that Moore is happy with. He has spoken of a ‘skeleton squad’ that needed more additions than he could get and knows he will have to rely heavily on players who are lacking in senior experience. Although he clearly relishes working with young players and developing them, it is a tall task to manage a squad with 75% of its players still in the developing stages of their career so this must be kept in mind as we progress through the next few months into January.

Another matter is that of loans, with six now in the squad – one more than can be included on a match day – and all of them among the 25-and-under crop. Developing your own players for future gain is one thing but developing half a dozen from other clubs feels short-sighted by the club. Our strategy was undoubtedly compromised by the surprise departure of the previous manager, but that does not excuse the inability to successfully replace Marquis or ensure the squad was complete to the satisfaction of the manager.

Are We Capable?

The bottom line in any assessment of transfer business is whether or not the squadhas improved. Last season was excellent, one in which expectations were exceeded. High turnover was always likely as in-demand players left and the manager followed suit, and the club can be commended for responding by appointing a top coach in Darren Moore but it is fair to say we haven’t rolled with every punch well enough. The failure to replace Marquis could cost us dear between now and January, as could injuries forcing us to throw in players who aren’t ready for it.

We won’t know how many of these young prospects can step up until they get their chance though. Cameron John and Niall Ennis have made very encouraging starts to life in senior football, whilst the signs are there to suggest Ben Sheaf and Kazaiah Sterling can be big players for us too. The jury is out on the likes of Madger Gomes and Brad Halliday, but the chance to seize more responsibility has clearly suited established players Ian Lawlor, Kieran Sadlier and Alfie May since the start of the season. If Moore can pull this team in one direction and maximise what he has, we may be pleasantly surprised once again.

Moore himself keeps using the phrase “work in progress”, a term that amplifies the need to give this young squad time. Time to gel, to understand one another and hopefully to thrive in a fresh and exciting set-up that has already reaped rewards against solid opponents. Doncaster Rovers are no strangers to fighting from underneath, so what’s another year of doing just that and trying to prove everybody wrong?

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