Wellens Sacked: Reflecting on the Downfall of Richie's Rovers
Doncaster Rovers are searching for their fifth manager in less than three years, following today’s news that Richie Wellens has been relieved of his role. Wellens’ departure felt inevitable at this point, and events of the past few days felt like the last throes of a desperate slide into the mire.
Everyone would agree that it has been a difficult time to be part of the Rovers fanbase of late – and it will likely still be for some time yet, as changing the manager is just one of many actions that needs to be taken at the club. At least now however, one of the symptoms of disease present in the club has been dealt with.
Of Mice and Men
Before anything else is said, Richie Wellens gave his best efforts as manager of this club and surely wanted to succeed. He was one of the finest players most of us have seen in a Rovers shirt, and the idea behind “getting the band back together” and assembling a backroom staff with strong ties to the successful history of Doncaster Rovers seemed a good idea in the summer.
Indeed, Richie Wellens was my personal first choice for the job when he took over…but it wasn’t long before the cracks started to appear in the club’s bright new era. In early July, club legend and previous manager Andy Butler was suddenly released from his contract, despite it being made clear during the process to appoint Wellens that Butler would have a place on the playing staff for the following season.
To some, this move was a sign of things to come, but for many it felt like a logical step. Butler had failed to earn the job that Wellens had taken over, and he pair’s past relationship was not a solid one from their time as team mates in the Rovers dressing room. Something didn’t seem right about the whole thing, particularly as Wellens initially said he had a place for Butler in his squad, added to the fact that Butler remains Doncaster Belles manager under the much-maligned Club Doncaster banner.
Wellens also stated that he couldn’t have members of his coaching staff who weren’t “fully committed” to their role, specifically in reference to Butler potentially holding a player-coach role, yet then went on to hire fellow former Rovers midfielder Paul Green to be the new Fitness Coach, all the while still maintaining his playing career at Boston United meaning he would be unavailable for Rovers’ Saturday fixtures.
His Way, or the Highway
As the dust settled on Butler’s departure, it began to appear as though Wellens had frozen his most experienced player out and then shown him the door for no good reason. The reality is that this team needed experience, and it needed minds with a strong connection to the club. Buts had this in spades and proved down the stretch last season that he could still perform at League One level. As the summer wore on and injuries, a Covid-19 outbreak and struggles in the transfer market hindered Wellens and the club’s preparations, Butler’s absence was keenly felt.
For those thinking it was a one-off, they were to sadly be proven wrong soon after as well. Despite initially handing a fresh start and increased role to striker Omar Bogle, Wellens suddenly banished both Bogle and midfielder Ed Williams to the fringes. The pair had failed to live up to expectations after signing under Darren Moore, but a very public freeze-out added to the discontent building in the fanbase, and the move has been questioned in the months since as the team struggled for fitness and goals.
Whether you think that either Bogle or Williams should be playing regularly or not, it is a sign of poor motivation and management to actively isolate members of your playing staff, and there is no way that this move didn’t have an impact on the mentality of those still among the first team ranks. Added to the Butler situation it becomes the start of a pattern – Wellens’ strong-headedness coming back to bite him in some ways.
A Recruiting Disaster
More so than these occurrences though, the club’s recruitment of new players in the summer has been the biggest cause of the failure that this season has been so far. Following the collapse from a Play-Off position in 2020-21, it was pivotal that Rovers sorted the squad out and a new manager seldom has the chance to impart his own will on the playing staff as readily as Richie Wellens was able to in the summer.
Fourteen new players have been signed since Wellens was appointed, and the Rovers team this season has largely consisted of those arrivals other than defender Tom Anderson, yet the problems that plagued the side on the field last term have remained. Confidence and quality have been in short supply and any notion of a defined playing philosophy or tactical strategy have been hard to find in most games, and approaching the halfway mark in the campaign that is inexcusable.
Wellens had the chance to put his own stamp on the team immediately – with a reportedly similar budget to the one that Darren Moore got much more out of previously – yet it never materialised. Too many of the new players have disappointed and a good number of them already look like lost causes. Fans must hope that whoever the new manager is, he can get more of a tune out of misfiring individuals like Kyle Knoyle, Ben Close and Ro-Shaun Williams for instance.
This isn’t all down to Wellens, of course. Graham Younger was hired at the same time to oversee this area of the club, and has questions to answer, particularly over the additions of young loanees Tiago Cukur and Rodrigo Vilca who look well short of the ability needed to compete in League One.
Wellens though clearly had a strong influence in who was signed, with Knoyle, Dan Gardner, Matt Smith and Aidan Barlow all playing under him at previous clubs, and both Ethan Galbraith and Ro-Shaun Williams coming with Manchester United academy pedigree that Wellens is well versed in, having a son playing in the same team as Galbraith. Wellens also admitted that he spent a good chunk of his budget on early signings Tommy Rowe and Ben Close, leaving him unable to find room for a crucial addition in defensive midfield.
The First Domino
All of this leads me to a conclusory point – Wellens being sacked does not come close to solving the problems that Doncaster Rovers face. My thoughts on the state of the club have been well documented in previous articles that you can read on the first page of this website, and whilst I firmly believe that removing Wellens was the right decision for all the reasons outlined above, by no means do I think it will lead on its own to a sudden upturn in the club’s fortunes.
David Blunt and Gavin Baldwin are the men who make the big footballing decisions at the club. They appointed Wellens, Hunt and Younger and presided over one of the biggest catastrophes in the transfer market that I personally have ever seen in over two decades of support. The collective failure of those in place to set the team up to compete this season ultimately lies at their feet, and they will need to do a hell of a lot now to turn around their perception with the fans who pay to watch Rovers every week.
Replacing the manager was the only thing that could be done right now to give the club at least some chance of getting out of the difficult position they find themselves in League One. Six points from safety and boasting only one win in the last nine league games, coupled with an atrocious record of only 11 goals scored in 19 games and only three clean sheets, tells you how bad this team really has been.
The next manager must be brought in quickly, they should be someone with a track record for motivating players and succeeding in tough situations, and they absolutely have to be backed in the January window to bring in a clutch of new players that have the experience and desire to lift Doncaster Rovers out of the sorry situation they are in today.
After that, whether survival is achieved or not, the positions of those in the very top positions of power at the club need to ask if they themselves are the right people to take the club forward, and if they cannot finally learn from the mistakes that led us all to this point, then they should answer with a resounding “No!”.