Where do Doncaster Rovers go from here?
Football is a fickle sport, changing drastically all the time. For Doncaster Rovers, the contrast between now and earlier in the season could not be starker.
Just two months ago, Rovers registered a run of nine wins in ten games under Darren Moore and looked set for an automatic promotion battle, off the back of a clutch of strong signings in January. Fast forward to now and Moore has gone, the players are not performing and the team has slid rapidly into midtable showing little prospect of being able to arrest their decline and maintain a Play-Off push.
The defeat on Easter Monday to lowly Bristol Rovers, along with the performance that caused it, has caused real anger and frustration to boil to the surface both in the playing camp and among fans, leaving us all to question where exactly it has all gone wrong for a team who looked on very firm footing just a short time ago.
Trouble in Moore’s Shadow
When news broke on the morning of March 1st that Darren Moore had left for Sheffield Wednesday, it sent shockwaves throughout the league with many questioning why Moore would abandon a project he had talked up so enthusiastically for a club in a sorry state and sure to be dropping out of the Championship by May. The hierarchy at Doncaster Rovers were as taken aback as anybody when Moore left so suddenly over the preceding weekend, and moved quickly to try and minimise the damage by putting Andy Butler in charge for the rest of the season.
It looked a sensible move for the sake of continuity, with Butler already an established member of the playing squad and an individual keen to further his coaching career after a solid spell in charge of Doncaster Rovers Belles. The majority of fans, dismayed by the manner of Moore’s disappearing act, were keen to get behind a hometown boy who has become a true club legend, and things started well with victories against Portsmouth and Plymouth.
However, those wins are the only ones of Butler’s tenure so far, with five defeats and two draws in the seven games since causing Rovers to go from near certainties for a top six berth to midtable also-rans. The performances in those games have been alarming to say the least, culminating in a truly abysmal display from a group of players who looked disinterested and devoid of confidence in the 2-1 reverse at the Memorial Stadium on Monday.
The squad looks a shell of itself with no comprehension of how to turn things around, and now the season looks lost entirely. Aside from James Coppinger and perhaps Louis Jones, no players have come out of games with any real credit during this run and the blame game has begun, both towards the manager and his players, as well as the board for electing to put the fate of the campaign entirely on Butler’s shoulders at a crucial stage of the run-in.
Moore leaving was a shock, no doubt, and the fact he was photographed stood in his Sheffield Wednesday tracksuit taking training barely 36 hours after overseeing a meek Rovers defeat at Ipswich had to rankle with the players as much as it did the fanbase. However, those players and the club as a whole have now had over a month to adjust to the new reality and yet it appears the hole left by the previous manager has derailed the entire 2020/21 season.
The form of almost the entire regular playing squad has gone off a cliff. Rovers look tactically inept and lacking in energy, desire and ingenuity. Andy Butler is beginning to look like a rudderless ship captain and his players appear to have downed tools on him, and it is hard to accept that the same group who were playing most teams off the park just a few months ago are now incapable of beating anybody they come up against.
Naivety in Abundance
This drop-off is so poor that it is now drawing comparisons to the disastrous 17-game run that led to relegation under Darren Ferguson in 2016, and it is something that must be addressed by those at the very top of Doncaster Rovers Football Club sooner rather than later. James Coppinger, the club legend retiring at the end of this season after so many years of wonderful service, labelled his teammates “naïve” and needing to “grow up” in the wake of the latest loss and that statement is a depressingly true one of this current crop.
This is a very young set of players on the whole. Between the academy graduates just making their first foray into senior football to the clutch of loanees that Moore chose to rely on so heavily during his tenure, there is a huge lack of experience and grit in the team and it is showing down the home stretch. It is always good to have potential in the ranks but having so few truly senior players on the field each week is having a detrimental effect.
It is no surprise that Coppinger is the form player in the team at the age of 40, because he has been here before and seen it all. It is also no coincidence that Rovers have become a defensive disaster since Butler took himself out of the side to focus on managing the team. That is understandable in the modern game but it has to be a factor in the sudden liquidity of the back-line, which has gone from being a solid, organised unit to a complete mess.
Division in the Camp?
Rumblings in some sections of the discourse surrounding the club are now suggesting that there is division in the camp – that some players are perhaps not motivated to represent the club now that Moore has gone, coupled with the temporary nature of many players’ contracts. This is unacceptable but sadly not unheard of, and hearing such things conjures bad memories of the 2011/12 “experiment” season in which Willie McKay’s cronies ruined the harmony of the established players and created an “us and them” environment that can only ever lead to failure on the field.
At time of writing, there are a dozen contracted players (including Butler) and seven loan players whose Rovers deals are up in the summer, meaning only a handful of individuals know they are likely to be at the club next season. Two of those are recent arrivals John Bostock and Omar Bogle, signed on 18-month deals having been specifically sold on the promise of playing a big role in Darren Moore’s plans, only to see Moore leave quickly after their arrival.
If the talk of dissent among the ranks is to be believed – and it must be stressed that none of this is anything more than speculation at this stage – it paints a picture that goes some way to explaining the sheer listlessness of recent performances, and the problems faced by the club at present. If certain individuals are not playing for the shirt or their new manager, then they should not be in the side and whilst it isn’t becoming to point fingers, there are clearly players not pulling their weight and both Butler and Coppinger alluded to this post-match at Bristol Rovers.
A True Rebuild?
Missing out on the Play-Offs this season will rank as a huge disappointment to the entire Rovers fanbase, up there with the failure to capture the League Two title in 2017, but it must be a lesson not to be repeated in the future. The responsibility to pick the pieces up in the summer lies with the board – with David Blunt and Gavin Baldwin specifically – as they plot a course for success in the future.
If they are serious about giving Rovers the platform to get into the Championship then they need to be taking steps now. They backed Darren Moore every step of the way with the players he wanted, but they perhaps acquiesced to his desires too much for a modern manager. An overreliance on loans, dithering over potential signings (particularly in the aftermath of John Marquis’ sale to Portsmouth) and a stubbornness in approach were all frustrations to the board on Moore’s part, but then it is them who give the man in the dugout such autonomy.
They have done it again with Butler, allowing him to lead contract renewals despite the fact he isn’t contracted for next season as manager himself. Baldwin and Blunt need not only to assess who they want in charge next season but they must re-examine their model for the playing staff now and consider changing the structure, whether that be by hiring a Director of Football or by simply realigning the responsibilities of the manager.
Rovers have something of a blank slate with which to do this too, since Butler is only in charge until May and Adam Henshall has also now left his role as Talent Identification Manager to join Aston Villa, meaning there is no internal manoeuvring to worry about in that respect. Butler may as well stay on until the end of this doomed campaign, but he has surely not done enough to just be handed the role for next season without a competitive hiring process.
On that note, perhaps the club should also alter their approach to hiring a new manager. Whilst the recruitment drive worked well in sourcing both Moore and Grant McCann, Rovers would do well to take a page out of other clubs’ books and go head-hunting for a specific target that they want. It was said that they were keen to hire Moore back in 2019, but they still waited for him to apply himself before putting him through the selection process – unlike how Portsmouth approached Danny Cowley recently, or Charlton with Nigel Adkins.
If the board spend the next few weeks scouting potential managers then they can realistically approach and hire their chosen candidate by the time May rolls around, giving them the whole summer to plan for what will be a massive rebuild of the playing squad and hopefully a change in approach. Even if Butler is put up against a preferred candidate to interview for the job or a coaching role, that still should not have any adverse effect on the remaining games considering the depths to which the team has plunged already in the past month.
Whatever the reasons for this decline, Rovers need to make sure this is a short-term failure and not a more severe, long-term issue. These problems can be rectified fairly swiftly but it will take decisive action and a bold approach to the summer and next season in the wake of this sorely disappointing collapse.