• Adam Stubbings

The Return

Football is back. “Proper” football as well, not the soulless experience of watching games play out in empty stadiums from the distance of the sofa. Fans cheering the team on, meeting up with friends and family and taking in the sights and sounds of a true match day event. It’s been a long time coming.

Granted, it is still only pre-season. For another fortnight the players and staff at Doncaster Rovers will be dusting off the cobwebs of another disrupted summer courtesy of that dreaded virus, preparing for the League One campaign and putting the finishing touches on a squad and style that will hopefully feel refreshing for the supporters who have been starved of watching their beloved team for well over a year.

Third Time’s the Charm

Where else to start than with Richie Wellens? The former Rovers midfielder is back for a third spell at the club and this time he is in the manager’s chair. Wellens, who managed both Swindon Town and Salford City last season, won a race featuring Stephen Robinson and John Eustace to take on the role succeeding Darren Moore, who was the man in the dugout when fans were last welcome inside the Keepmoat some 16 months ago.

The side that ran out for that 3-1 win over Wycombe in February of 2020 is almost entirely gone now, with only captain Tom Anderson remaining from the starting line-up and Jon Taylor the only substitute named on the day still playing at the club. Even the legendary James Coppinger has hung up his boots, although he remains a key figure at the club, and club legend Andy Butler has returned, taken the manager’s job and left again in this period.

It is safe to say then that this Doncaster Rovers team is a new-look proposition for all of us, right down to the kit the players will sport for the 2021-22 campaign. In Wellens though, the club hierarchy feel they have found a man to bring this team closer to the fans and the modern Golden Era that the new manager played in under Sean O’Driscoll. CEO Gavin Baldwin stressed that they needed to find the “Rovers identity” again and this appointment was a good start on that front.

Squad Churn

Moore’s abrupt departure triggered another period of uncertainty for Rovers, who seem to have been scrambling for stability constantly for several years now, but Richie Wellens has jumped straight into the task of rebuilding the squad and seems to have relished being able to put his stamp on things from the off with personnel. Indeed, there are players who supporters never even got to see play in person before they left, such as Tyreece John-Jules or Ellery Balcombe, but the make-up of the squad is – at time of writing anyway – coming together well with only a few more pieces of the puzzle to put in place.

Ben Close was the first through the door as the manager prioritised sorting the midfield out, and the further addition on loan of Matt Smith (not that one, or the other one) from Arsenal means Rovers have good options in the centre of the park now, even if they are maybe still one body short. The defence has been reconfigured around Anderson with the additions of Kyle Knoyle, Ro-Shaun Williams and former player Tommy Rowe, whilst attack has been bolstered by the signing of Jordy Hiwula and loan starlet Tiago Cukur from Watford.

Wellens wants players who can come in and adapt to a technical playing philosophy quickly, and who have experience at EFL level, and all of these signings bar the prodigious Cukur fit that bill to a tee. There have been some missed opportunities with other players now departed, whilst others flattered to deceive after showing early promise, but all in all there is clearly reason for optimism this season even if nobody is really expecting Rovers to rip the division apart in the coming months.

Work in Progress

Expectations and speculation surrounding them can wait for another day though, for now let’s just enjoy having some semblance of normal back. On Friday evening, thousands descended on Lakeside for the first time in far too long to watch this fresh Rovers team take on Premier League side Newcastle United. The game resulted in a spirited 3-2 defeat to a very strong Magpies XI but was surely a worthwhile experience for the many unable to go to a game in over a year, something we used to take for granted as a weekly or fortnightly occurrence.

The ITEN team was unfortunately not able to attend despite having tickets, mind. Ten days ago, one day after the cancelled Spennymoor friendly that we were due to attend here in the North East and the day on which this article was supposed to be written and published as our “return” after a three-month hiatus, I was rushed to hospital by Abbey with breathing difficulties. It wasn’t Covid-19 but it was rather serious and necessitated a stay in the hospital and I have since been recovering at home, unable to attend any of Rovers’ pre-season friendlies.

It means the wait goes on, hopefully only until the season opener against Wimbledon two Saturdays from now, to see live football again, and reminded me that we are not yet back to true normality. Society has opened up again and we can all go about our business as we used to, but the pandemic still goes on and can still take its toll, as it has on Wellens’ pre-season preparations to date for his Rovers squad.

As we move through what should be the final months of the pandemic, it is worth remembering that the 2021-22 season will not play out without disruption. So let’s not take having “proper” football back for granted, at least for the time being, and let’s enjoy seeing packed stands, hearing songs from those stands and seeing players going into tackles full-blooded for the enjoyment of those roaring them on. Let’s enjoy trying to work out who this trialist and that trialist is, deciding where to sit in the ground and just being able to actually get excited about something to do with football again. It’s been a long time coming.