Eye Witness Assessment: Doncaster Rovers will miss Captain Jones
The reception from fans when Paul Dickov was handed the Doncaster Rovers job in the Summer was cautious and perhaps even a little underwhelmed. Following on from a couple of mediocre years at Oldham, punctuated only by some notable FA Cup exploits, it seemed that the Rovers hierarchy had been swayed by headlines rather than statistics.
Dickov arrived after a momentous few years at the Keepmoat. Sean O’Driscoll’s footballing dynasty had been punctured by the excesses of the relegation year when the temporary acquisition of a cluster of mercenaries had threatened to derail the club permanently; Willie McKay’s influence resounding all along in the corridors of the stadium.
The experienced Brian Flynn halted the slide last year after Dean Saunders (remember him?) had turned things round before Christmas and Doncaster’s experiment with surrealism abruptly ended – good decisions began to make their presence felt again and Rovers pipped Brentford to promotion in an utterly ludicrous season finale at Griffin Park.
Without wishing to in any way belittle that achievement, it was signalled from the off that this might be the year for a club less fancied by the bookies to prevail in League 1 and so it proved. After Tranmere faded, the residual experience gained from the Championship years helped Rovers prevail under the wily Flynn but Doncaster needed far from a record points tally to gain promotion and it was clear that this was a squad with a few flaws.
Saturday’s opponents Reading ascended to the Premier League eighteen months ago predisposed to much the same attitude but failed to carry out the surgery necessary to make the team competitive. Doncaster have been less complacent and, given the arrival of the tenacious Scot, would always look to improve the squad.
That was clear from the line-up that took to the field at the weekend with only James Coppinger remaining from the high O’Driscoll years. Coppinger is a player I have always liked and it’s been surprising to see him occasionally relegated to the bench this campaign. On Saturday, he was up against ex-England International Wayne Bridge – a difficult opponent indeed and one who certainly had the better of the duo’s exchanges on this occasion.
On the other flank, Mark Duffy, one of a couple of ex-Scunthorpe United players in the side, mirrored Coppinger in style as well as looks and, substitute Theo Robinson apart, made a case to be the visitors’ best performer on the day. Having spent most of his early career in non-league football on Merseyside, he ascended to the 72 with Morecambe and looks to be capitalising well on his first taste of second tier football.
Dickov started with something resembling a 4-5-1 formation, mutating into the fashionable 4-1-3-2; Irishman Paul Keegan sitting at the base of the midfield. Although industrious, he struggled with the energy of the fellow shaven headed Danny Guthrie, outstanding on the day and provider of the first goal after a whirlwind beginning had threatened to put Reading out of sight. Ahead of him, Richie Wellens, an excellent acquisition from Leicester, was always adept at forcing his way into the gap between Reading’ midfield and defence while South African Dean Furman, a player Dickov took with him along the M62 from Oldham in the Summer (after an earlier loan spell) was also enlisted to provide attacking thrust.
Last year, Brian McDermott’s 4-4-2 formation was continually exposed by the cleverer wiles and more modern formations of Premier league opposition so it was perhaps ironic that Dickov switched to the more traditional format after the game’s torrid beginnings.
That decision proved to be a good one with Furman sacrificed for Robinson on 23 minutes and the much travelled striker capped a superb match for himself personally by pouncing on Adam Federici’s save from Duffy’s free kick. His pace and agility was a stark contrast to fellow forward Chris Brown and far more effective against a Reading centre back pairing that would do a good job standing in for the statues on Parliament Square plinths. Brown looks a dead ringer in style to Steve Howard, another occasionally effective lower league journeyman and it would probably be unfair to judge him on this performance alone.
Before Saturday, it’s at the back that Doncaster have impressed and they had conceded only 12 times before the match. Much of the credit for that goes to Bongani Khumalo, formerly of the Mad Stad parish and a player perhaps jettisoned unfairly quickly a couple of seasons back – he had earlier been terrific in a match at the ground for Preston North End.
Khumalo went close with a free header when it was 1-1 and generally did well enough even if a reborn and revitalized Pavel Pogrebnyak – he of the rumoured £5 million signing on fee – caused him constant problems. With the hitherto solid Paul Quinn and Manchester City loanee Reece Wabara struggling against the trickery of Reading newcomer Jordan Obita and Garath McCleary on the flanks, the Donny defence was always stretched but that problem was as nothing compared to events in the latter stages.
Having stepped gingerly from the pitch with what looked like a nasty arm injury, captain Rob Jones, an absolute mainstay in the promotion season, looks like he could well be missing for a number of weeks at the minimum and entering the winter section of the campaign without such a key player will hit Rovers hard – as it did on Saturday when McCleary and Pogrebnyak promptly gave the score line an unfitting sheen – even if Reading had indisputably been the better team.
Much of that is down to money of course and while the phrase ‘the likes of Doncaster’ has been roundly lampooned by the Popular Stand Fanzine and others, battling with those endowed with parachute payments will always be a tough ask – even with as accomplished a goalkeeper as Ross Turnbull, very confident on the day as he has been all season.
So the defeat should take nothing away from the promising start that Doncaster have enjoyed back in League 1. The division is beginning to resemble the one above in that a mini-league is forming at the top among those with the most resources (the admirable Burnley apart) but there is no reason why Rovers cannot maintain their current position in mid table while achieving the odd notable win as they managed against Leicester. Losing Jones will be a problem though.