Doncaster Rovers Season Preview: seamless transition?

With the 2018-19 League One season coming shortly, The Football Lab spoke to Doncaster Rovers fan Adam Stubbings (@apstubbings).

Darren Ferguson has left his post as manager this summer after one relegation, one promotion and a midtable finish. How do you reflect on his time in charge?

Flattering to deceive is probably an appropriate phrase to describe Fergie’s tenure. We played some wonderful football in League Two but should never have got relegated and didn’t quite put it together last season. I think he built a good squad and fostered a much better playing style than we had under the previous two managers but was too stubborn in his methods and I believe has hit his ceiling as a manager. I don’t believe that history will regard him as a very significant manager for Rovers and he has left us just about where we were when he arrived albeit on an upward trajectory rather than a downward one.

Most new managers come into a club at a time of upheaval, but it looks like Grant McCann inherits a stable squad that already has a clear playing identity. Could it be a seamless transition?

I believe that is exactly what the board is going for with the appointment of McCann and I can’t say I blame them. Our squad is mostly capable of competing in this division, is young and in a period of increasing development. There is a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to that in my view. It does look like McCann wants to build on our established possession-based playing style by making us quicker and more expansive going forward which is a welcome change to the often ponderous, always narrow manner of Fergie’s style.

Marko Marosi found some promising form towards the end of last season. Do you see him keeping out Ian Lawlor this term?

Marko is improving all of the time and has every chance of keeping the #1 shirt. I guess it depends what McCann thinks of them both in pre-season because they are of a similar level ability-wise. Marko appeared last season to be better at distributing the ball and was much more commanding of his area, but Lawlor is clearly the superior shot-stopper and definitely has a bright future. We are in good hands, pun intended, with a pair of goalkeepers both capable of playing at a high level. Plus youth graduate Louis Jones looks a top prospect behind them too.

Andy Butler has always been an aerial beast at this level and Joe Wright seems to be developing nicely too. Do they have the capacity to form one of the best centre-back pairings in the division?

They were both excellent last season. I truly believe Joe Wright will earn senior caps for Wales one day, he has all of the tools to succeed at a high level. This needs to be his year, he and Butts are a solid partnership at the back and complement each other well. We appear to be back to using a traditional back four under McCann and this will only help the duo succeed. As far as I am concerned they are already one of the best central defensive partnerships in League One, we had an excellent defensive record last season and it was down to these two because our full backs have been a problem area on both sides.

I got the sense last season it would make a big difference if you had natural full-backs capable of attacking the flank as soon as they received the ball, rather than looking for options inside. Is that something McCann will look at?

I do hope so. We were unlucky last season in that Danny Andrew was signed to be our starting left back and provide width, attacking drive and dangerous crosses/set pieces but he got a season-ending knee injury in a game at Wimbledon in August and the plan was thrown out the window. We haven’t got a traditional right back which I hope will be remedied before the season starts but the return of Andrew will be key to getting the most out of the full backs, as will the aforementioned return to a back four. I’m happy with our lot at left back as Andrew is joined by exciting youth team graduate Danny Amos who has impressed every time we’ve seen him and is a Northern Ireland youth international. It’s the other side where I worry.

Jordan Houghton has gone to MK Dons. Are there midfielders in the squad with similar discipline and ball retention qualities?

Not really. Replacing Houghton is the main thing we currently still need to do in the transfer window as we currently only have one dedicated defensive midfielder and that is Luke McCullough. I like McCullough’s physical attributes but he is rarely fully fit and not much of a player to aid transitions through the field. I don’t particularly mind losing Houghton as he was not consistent last season but we do need a player who fits the same position as him. I know we have looked at Anthony Grant of Peterborough but I’m hoping we are looking elsewhere for the solution to this problem.

Ben Whiteman appears to offer alternative creativity and movement, which looks especially useful when opposing teams block out your more advanced players. Could he be a key man this year?

Time will tell. We certainly hope that’s exactly what he will be, at times he has been the match winner for us but I don’t think Fergie used him in his best position enough. McCann seems to favour a three-man bank in midfield and this could really help Whiteman to unlock his potential and become an influential player more often for us. A midfield trio set up in this way needs one defensive player, covered above, one attacking player – of which we have many good options – and one like Whiteman who can find those additional spaces, link to the front line and control the play. I hope he can kick on into this role because he is tailor-made for it and we spent good money to bring him to the club permanently in January.

Stalwart James Coppinger started 34 games last season. Did you feel you relied on him as much as you did in the 2016-17 promotion campaign?

Absolutely. He is evergreen, we are always a more composed and dangerous outfit when Coppinger is in the side. He possesses skill that I don’t believe more than half a dozen players in League One do, he’s never relied on pace anyway and his maturity and leadership qualities have really come to the fore as he has hit his mid-30s. The arrival of Ali Crawford might mean we don’t need to rely quite so much on him this term but he remains a key player and rightly so. We are blessed to be able to call on Copps, Crawford, Tommy Rowe, Matty Blair and Alfie Beestin to provide attacking flair and impetus behind the strikers as it is a rich crop from which to choose.

John Marquis has hit 41 goals for you in all competitions over the last two seasons. When the support and service is there, you must feel he looks a real threat?

He is unplayable when he’s on it, which is most games, and is probably the only player more important to how we play than Coppinger. He is a born goalscorer but has developed into a proper all-round threat, he brings the whole team into play, leads from the front and puts in 1000% every week. If we can hold onto him for another year then we have a chance of hitting the top 6-8 places in League One. We definitely have to provide him with better service and make his job easier, Fergie often failed to do this but the arrival of Crawford, the return to full fitness of Alex Kiwomya and hopefully a key signing up front will do this for him. After the central midfielder then the other position we need to fill in the window still is the support striker for Marquis. Andy Williams was a high earner and his position has not been replaced yet by McCann.

Alfie May made 31 appearances last year while Max Watters signs from Ashford United. With Andy Williams gone, will it be those two forwards challenging for a place alongside Marquis?

May certainly should be aiming to win the starting berth alongside Marquis, Watters however is one for the future. He’s only 19 and from what I’ve read isn’t an out-and-out striker, more of a #10 who presses the back-line like Alfie Beestin. May though has provided the role of Marquis’ foil before and can do it again. I hope he can get a new lease on life under Grant McCann as his progress faltered a bit last term, and I put that down to Fergie’s tactics not suiting him. Too often we were getting him to run on to lost causes or forcing him to challenge big centre backs for high balls when he’s 5’6″ on a good day. He’s scored in every pre-season game to date so I’m hopeful. As I said in the previous question though, we still need somebody more experienced, probably a bit more physical, to complement the striking ranks.

Donny aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

With the World Cup going on I’ve struggled to be as informed on other sides as I usually am by this point, but Sunderland have to be the clear favourites for the title. They have resources most sides in League One could only dream of. I’m expecting good things from Oxford this season too, and both Luton and Portsmouth might be in the mix more than some might think. At the other end, I really worry for Bradford with the way their club is set-up under the new ownership, and Shrewsbury will do very well to repeat their success of last season.

Where will you finish?

I’m an optimist, so I’m going to believe Grant McCann when he says he aims to get us promoted this season or next. We need to show distinct progression as last year we finished a bit lower than we’d hoped and want to be among the Play Off contenders. I will trust that we sign the 2-3 players we still need to complete the squad and based on that predict us to finish just outside the top 6 – 8th.

Thanks to Adam for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Doncaster can be found on We Love Betting from late July.