Relegation Week: Will the big Doncaster Rovers U-turn pay off?
Doncaster Rovers began the season with Sean O’Driscoll and will end it with Dean Saunders. They changed their entire footballing philosophy early in the campaign. So will this transformation pay off? Glen Wilson, editor of Doncaster’s Popular Stand fanzine, speaks to Joe Harrison about the big Donny U-turn.
It has been a tumultuous season at Donny, with changes at all levels of the club. Ignoring the Willie McKay in the room and beginning with the managerial change: has replacing Sean O’Driscoll with Dean Saunders seen the sort of improvement the club were looking for?
It’s very difficult to talk of Dean Saunders’ management without drawing reference to Willie McKay, as the ‘experiment’ – as the latter has dubbed it – is pretty much central to both the players at the club’s disposal, and arguably Saunders presence at the club in the first place. The end of Sean O’Driscoll’s tenure was marked with a horrible run of form which brought nineteen winless league games, though he was without many key players in that period, it was still quite difficult to watch. But throughout all that time I could see what the team were trying to achieve, what the gameplan involved and even where it was falling down, be it a lack of luck, confidence or personnel.
Under Saunders, it’s been hard to discern a genuine tactical approach or strategy. Performances have varied wildly, solid positive victories over Southampton and Nottingham Forest have been undermined by woefully abject defeats to Notts County and Millwall. Has there been an improvement? I don’t think so, and certainly not to the extent the club suggested, when there was talk of pushing on for the play-offs from within in October. On Saturday a supporter threw their season ticket at the dugout, Tuesday saw the first Saunders Out chants at a Rovers game, and many say he is out of his depth. The crux of the matter is that he has a three year contract that Rovers are unlikely to be able to pay off, so we have to stick with him and find a way to disconnect him with the baggage he arrived in.
On the field, there has been a large turnover of players at Rovers this season. Has this been a help, allowing the club to bring in better individuals, or do you think the lack of stability may have had a negative effect on the team?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the club’s best runs of form over the years have come at times when the starting line-up has been stable and steady. Of course El Hadji Diouf and Habib Beye are both very talented individuals who should be playing at a higher level, but there is a reason both are turning out for us. Diouf’s indiscipline remains an issue; it looked like the club had harnessed it for a spell, but it rumbles beneath the surface continuously, there was the tunnel bust-up at Leeds, and then on Tuesday he stormed off down the tunnel after being substituted. This remember, is our captain.
Beye has been performing on the field, but he only trains with Rovers a couple of days a week, spending the rest of his time in the south of France. What sort of message does that send to someone like Mustapha Dumbuya? A player who always gives his all on the field, puts in the effort in training all week, only to be left out the squad as a player steps off his plane and into the side. Beye is talented of course, but I can’t imagine that this is a good set-up for morale.
We were told that players were being brought in on short-term deals to help save money, which is understandable and tolerable to a degree, but in recent months we have begun signing players for the sake of signing them; despite five available full-backs, Saunders moved to bring back Herita Ilunga recently. Lamine Diatta arrived for a second spell despite not making it onto the pitch in his first spell. It’s a perplexing model which can’t be doing anything for the confidence of long-term players who have already proved themselves at this level and now find themselves kicking their heels as the revolving door spins open yet again.
Billy Sharp was Doncaster’s talisman and remains their top scorer by a distance. Will the loss of his goals prove to be a crucial blow to the team’s chances or are the signs that others like El Hadji Diouf are stepping up to compensate for his departure?
As mentioned before Diouf is a notable talent, and between huffs he has been key to a significant number of Rovers goals in recent months, if not scoring them being involved in the build-up. But, he is not the goal-getter that Sharp is. From October through to January we always had that hope that if we could just get the ball into the box then Sharp would be in the right place to put it in the net. Whilst there is talent in the side still, that knack of a natural goalscorer is certainly missed and at times since Sharp’s departure we have looked concerningly toothless.
Despite a recent defeat at home to Millwall, within the remaining fixtures Donny host Portsmouth as well as facing a trip to Coventry in the season’s penultimate game. Will these matches against fellow strugglers prove vital, or will it be picking up points in other games that are eventually more significant?
At this stage of the season every game is crucial, Rovers have become anything but predictable; creditable draws at West Ham and against Reading have been followed by a woeful defeat to fellow strugglers Millwall. The key is to keep picking up points, keep the last column ticking over. Last season, in that awful run from January that saw us win just three games from New Years’ Day we were at least securing the odd draw here and then that would ultimately keep us up. We could beat Coventry, but it’ll mean nothing if we then lose every other game.
Before two defeats in their last two games, Rovers’ form seemed to have improved recently, do you think this can return and will Donny do enough to overhaul one of the teams currently ahead of them and avoid the drop?
In the latest edition of our fanzine, one of our contributors John Coyle highlighted the following quote from Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game?, which is perfect for the situation:
The last result, that is all. If Palace win on Saturday they will feel great. Now, if you had asked them at the beginning of the season how they would feel if they were seven points adrift at the bottom and they won a game making it five points adrift, they would have been speechless. Probably not able to envisage how awful they would feel. But if they win on Saturday, they will feel great. One win and you are away. The dream is on again and off you go.
Momentum and belief count for a surprising amount at this end of the season. When Rovers survived Ian Harte’s corner kick air-raids for a 1-1 draw last Tuesday they were unbeaten in five games and belief was high that we were on course to stay up. A week later, and we’ve lost two games with terrible performances and the writing is on the wall, we’re doomed, and we’re already trying to remember things we liked about Stevenage. Our place in the second tier is dependent on which Rovers turn up for games from here on in; if it’s the Rovers who secured a point at West Ham then the rest of the Championship will be facing “the likes of Doncaster” again in August. If it’s the Rovers of Saturday or Tuesday, then we’ll see you in League One.