Doncaster Rovers Season Preview: attacking quality

Doncaster Rovers secured an instant return to League One as early as the 8th April last season. Given that the long-term bearer of off-field stability, John Ryan had left to make way for two relegations in three years, a campaign of this manner was much-needed at the Keepmoat. Did that promotion restore some trust from fans? The Football Lab speaks to supporter Adam Stubbings of the excellent Into The Empty Net blog ahead of the new season.

Absolutely. The club had to re-evaluate its approach to pretty much everything on and off the pitch so dropping to League Two and building a new foundation for success looks like it’s going to turn out to be a good thing. Our long-term aim is to get back into the Championship and the powers that be seem driven enough to make that a realistic target.

In the games The Football Lab saw, you looked far better in spells when you controlled the ball than when you took James Coppinger off and tried to defend deep. A common theme?

I’d say so, Coppinger remains our creative force but he is 36 years old now so Darren Ferguson knows that he can’t be expected to play 90 minutes every week. We are far better at attacking, controlling proceedings than when we are forced to defend which is something we really need to work to improve if we are to have any success at this level.

If so, how should the team adapt tactically to a higher level? Do you stick to what you’re good at, or get better at absorbing pressure?

It’s a case of refining our play at both ends of the pitch I feel. We need to learn to defend better, more cohesively and certainly with better concentration. We’re still searching for another centre half to play in the back three but we can do well playing the way we did last year. We’re irresistible going forward when we want to be and I think we’ve added the required quality in the attacking third to still be a very dangerous proposition in League One.

The club released five players and transfer listed five more within three days of full-time at Hartlepool. Do you think swift transfer activity was influenced by the last four defeats?

It absolutely was. Fergie doesn’t mess around and I think he learned some things in those poor performances at the end of the season. He can be really ruthless in the market as we saw with aggressive early recruitment last summer, a strategy that ultimately led to us getting promoted, and certain players just did not show enough to warrant a place in the squad for this season.

One of the players leaving was going to be Andy Williams, only for Ferguson to do a U-Turn later in the summer. What do you think made him change his mind?

There are two big reasons from what I’ve seen and read. Fergie said he was very impressed with the determination and fitness Williams showed in the first week of pre-season, it’s clear he never wanted to leave as he’s settled in the area with a baby on the way and he did have a decent goals return last season despite an inconsistent year.

The other reason is that we missed out on our main striking target, apparently a Premier League player who has instead opted to move to Holland, and from what was left available Fergie felt Williams was a better option. He knows him well, he’s got a good record at this level and looks keen to show that this was the right decision. We as fans are happy for him to stay as he’s a crowd favourite.

One striker who hasn’t cleared up his future is last season’s top scorer, John Marquis. Would he have spoken out by now if he was staying?

This is the story dominating local press and chatter, unfortunately I’m as clueless as we all are. It emerged last week that he has so far refused to sign a new contract but he’s part of the squad, a key part of our plans and should be putting pen to paper if we offer him decent terms. Apparently there hasn’t been any official interest shown in him anyway from other clubs and there’s been no significant media talk of a move bar some debunked Twitter nonsense so it makes sense for him to stay, sign a new deal and prove this season that he deserves a big move to a club in the Championship.

You’ve got arguably five of the most creative players from League Two last season, with Benjamin Whiteman and Alex Kiwomya joining the usual suspects. Which of them do you think will step up most capably?

I really like what Alex Kiwomya brings to the team, he was the dangerman when we played Crewe last year and his sheer pace will be a valuable asset. Aside from Matty Blair we really don’t have much in the way of properly quick players so if we want to be urgent in our play and have a quick transition into attack then Kiwomya will be invaluable.

I haven’t seen anything of Whiteman really but he comes with a really good reputation, clearly had a good season at Mansfield and is expected to go on to big things at Sheffield United. He will have to step up straight away and show that he can share the burden that currently lies on Coppinger.

Jordan Houghton returned to Chelsea in February after picked up a knee injury, while the long-serving Paul Keegan has been released. Is Luke McCullough good enough for the holding role, or are re-enforcements needed?

We absolutely need somebody to fill that role, desperately. McCullough is fine as a stop-gap at this point, he has shown promise in the position but spent almost the entire last year injured and can’t be expected to fill that position every week just yet. There is talk of Houghton returning once fit and if he does that would be a big boost for us, but even if the move doesn’t come off we need somebody else in to play holding midfield. I always find it to be one of the most important positions in the team and whilst Mason can also play there, neither he nor McCullough are on the same level as Houghton.

Andy Butler looked his aerially dominant-self last season, starting 44 league games. Would you like to see a more mobile centre-back come in?

Yes, we need to sign another centre half because Butler is not much of a technical player and if we are to play a three-man defence regularly then we need somebody more mobile to play alongside Baudry and Alcock. Butler is a tremendous leader and wins his fair share of aerial battles but I’d be surprised if he starts as often this year as he did last. When we played in League One the season before, Fergie didn’t seem to fancy Butler as much as a starter and I can see that being the case again. He’s also got young Joe Wright to contend with for a place, he is a big, strong lad with a bright future.

New left-back Danny Andrew brings with him Grimsby’s Player of the Year accolade. Do you see Niall Mason once again being used as a utility man?

I do, Mason proved he can competently fill-in anywhere along the back line and in central midfield so Fergie will no doubt want to use him as that dependable figure. I fancy his best position is on the right side of the back three but that position should be Craig Alcock’s. He doesn’t have the pace to play wing back but he has remarkable poise and maturity so he has a role to play. Danny Andrew on the other hand will probably be used on the left side of the 3-5-2 and we are looking forward to seeing his versatility and dead ball skill, been crying out for a solid left back for a very long time now.

Marko Marosi only played three league games after returning from his January injury, struggling to regain his place from Ian Lawlor. Are you surprised he’s been given a two-year deal?

Not at all, Marosi is something of a ‘Comeback Kid’ and did really well when called upon last season. He’s earned that new deal, if not for such terrible luck with injuries I’m not sure we’d have even signed Lawlor, although I’m glad we did as he is a fantastic keeper. This is the first summer in years that we haven’t had to worry about the goalkeeper position, with Lawlor and Marosi along with young Louis Jones in the ranks. The big reason Marosi staying is not a surprise is that he massively outperformed Ross Etheridge last season, and Etheridge is now on his way out of the club after an absolutely miserable campaign despite much being made of his signing last summer.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I feel that, with Bolton and Sheffield United going up last year that it is pretty wide open. Blackburn have recruited well and are surely the clear favourites, but I’m not convinced by Wigan or Rotherham, or indeed any of the clubs who were up here last season. I don’t know if Fleetwood can replicate that brilliant run again, and whilst Bradford have made some good signings the last week or so they have also lost a lot of talented players. It’s anyone’s guess, but if I were to single out a team to surprise us and push for promotion then I would go with Southend.

The bookies have Donny 5/6 for the top half – where will you finish?

Finishing in the top half has to be aim for us this season. Consolidate and show that we should never have been in the conversation for relegation last time, nevermind actually going down. I think with the squad assembled to this point we should be able to finish around 10th, especially if those final two pieces of a holding midfielder and a centre half can be put in place.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

With the technical quality provided by new boy Kiwomya, old boy Coppinger and Marquis if he stays, Doncaster will pose a huge attacking threat. Play-off hopes though could be hindered by defensive imperfections, which may be brought to light in a higher league. Expect goals – at both ends. 9th

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