Rovers Rising

Up to second in the League Two table, Rovers head into a stretch of tough fixtures in confident mood, but can we keep it going?

Man of the Hour, Month…Year?

Back-to-back wins have seen Fergie’s boys dispel the worry brought on by the 2-1 defeat to Crewe that we can’t put enough chances away to compete in this league, and the man at the centre of proving that theory wrong is James Coppinger. The veteran midfielder is enjoying a vintage run of form and has deservedly taken all the headlines at the club in the past couple of weeks. Copps was the starring man as Rovers put Morecambe to the sword on a glorious afternoon on the west coast, justifying his award of the division’s Player of the Month for August by having a major hand in two goals then scoring a peach himself to wrap up the 5-1 win on his historic 500th appearance.

The club legend continues to be a record-breaker with every passing appearance in the shirt and if he keeps up his current outlay this could easily end up being his most successful of thirteen seasons playing for Doncaster Rovers, and that is no mean feat considering the huge part he played in the promotion campaigns of 2007/08 and 2012/13. The 35-year-old produced the goods again on his first home outing after reaching the big 500, netting a sumptuous free kick to put us on our way to victory over Newport last Saturday on his way to yet another Man of the Match award. As long as Coppinger continues to have this kind of impact on games, Rovers are always an even bet at worst to win games.

Attacking Harmony at Last

Barnes and Blundell, Sharp and Diouf…”The HeffnHayter” (okay, maybe not)…it has been a while since we could say our front two are in-sync with one another. Indeed, it isn’t something that Rovers squads through the ages are known for, but in the opening six weeks of this season we have seen strike partners Andy Williams and John Marquis strike up quite a rapport. Of course this isn’t just down to the two of them, but in amongst a terrific team effort we have seen excellent results out of both forwards, and a goal return of nine from 8 games is impressive in any league.

Indeed, we currently boast three of the top ten goalscorers in League Two with Williams, Marquis and Coppinger netting thirteen goals between them, and the Reds are now the outright top scoring team of all. The understanding between these men, along with fellow attacking talents Tommy Rowe, Matty Blair and the improving Harry Middleton, mean we should not fear any side in the league and that is a message worth conveying by Darren Ferguson as we prepare for away trips to pre-season favourites Luton and Portsmouth, either side of a home game against undefeated Carlisle.

Where is our ceiling?

Most would answer that question quite easily: we don’t have one. Rovers should be aspiring to top the table and are now just two points off of doing just that, but the highest praise you can give this team in the early months is that they have dealt with adversity pretty well. The treatment room has had to deal with nearly as many players as the full training sessions have, and Rovers’ run of five wins in the last six games has come with an increasingly depleted squad. So if a team missing a number of first choice players can perform this well, what might they be capable of if and when everyone is fighting fit again?

A makeshift defence has coped very well with continual losses over recent matches, and whilst Matty Blair should be commended for his displays as an emergency right back, the return of Frazer Richardson is needed to allow Blair more freedom going forward again. Mitchell Lund is also missing, whilst the arguable first choice in that position, Craig Alcock, is also still a few weeks away from a starting place. Add to that the yet-to-debut Mathieu Baudry, loanee Niall Mason also in defence, tough nut Paul Keegan and forward Gary McSheffrey, and suddenly the manager could have a huge selection dilemma on his hands come October. Imagine having that dilemma whilst sitting top of the table already? It’s entirely possible.

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Three: The magic number for Rovers

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The first month of the season is all but done with and, as we sit back and reflect on our first half dozen games of 2016/17, it’s comforting to know that we currently occupy an automatic promotion place even at this early stage.

Yes, the Rovers are up to third after a thumping 4-1 win over perennial shadow Yeovil Town, and within a week or two sitting at the very top of the pile is a distinct possibility.

Three wins on the spin

The fact we can even talk about being top of the table is testament to the change in atmosphere at the club. For the past three years being anywhere near the top has been a mere fantasy, and whilst it may be down to our recent failings that we can now tilt at the top, it is still refreshing for us fans. Whether you play in the Premier League of the Northern Counties East League, every supporter starts the season hoping his or her team can finish in that coveted first spot.

Rovers have won three games in a row for the first in Darren Ferguson’s tenure, building momentum through a trio of differing performances. Cambridge United, who now sit rock bottom of the EFL after a poor start, were the first to taste defeat at the hands of Fergie’s men a fortnight ago, thoroughly outplayed and left chasing shadows for much of a tense encounter. Whilst that showing didn’t reflect in the scoreline, we did do just enough to secure a 1-0 win and it was a performance uncharacteristic of recent Rovers sides. We controlled the game and held firm at the back when needed, and it was this mindset that took us forward to another win the following weekend, again by a single goal, away to Cheltenham.

The Robins won the National League last season to return to League Two at the first attempt, and their unbeaten record at Whaddon Road stretched back to last September. By the same token, we had not registered a single away victory since beating Southend 3-0 on January 2nd, right before the wheels came off our season in horrendous fashion. John Marquis popped up to net the winner as he had four days earlier, and by the time Yeovil came to town on Bank Holiday weekend the new strike partnership of Marquis and Andy Williams was in full flow. More on that shortly.

The stats only get better from there. We have managed to score in every game, including in a tough EFL Cup defeat to Championship big guns Nottingham Forest, managed to keep back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since last November in 1-0 wins over Cambridge and Cheltenham, and after putting the Glovers to the sword this past Saturday are now the – yes, you guessed it – third highest scorers in League Two. The club and fans expect nothing less than a promotion challenge this season, but it is still very encouraging that we have managed to make such a strong start as we are not traditionally strong starters and it should not be underestimated how difficult it is to turn around a side with a losing mentality.

Williams at the treble

Three wins in a row sealed by three excellent goals, a first career hat trick for talisman Andy Williams against his former club undersigning our biggest win of the campaign so far. Yeovil Town competed gamely with us for 80 minutes or so but in the end footballing finesse won out over brute force and the Glovers were sent packing with nothing to show for their physical tactics. Williams was the centrepiece of it all, netting three goals in the 4-1 win that sent us into the automatic promotion slots. The first a crisp strike from a knockdown after only 34 seconds, then with the game in the balance at 2-1, superb work down the right flank by James Coppinger teed Williams up for his second. Now playing with freedom against ten men, Rovers crafted another good move down the opposite flank and this time Tommy Rowe lofted a ball in for Williams to head home and seal the match ball.

In truth it has been a tough start to the season for our #11. Signed with a big reputation for scoring goals last summer, Williams took his time to get up and running and we have seen him fall victim to confidence issues during his time in South Yorkshire. Just two minutes into this campaign his head was down again after seeing a penalty saved at Accrington, and since then he has huffed and puffed up front with little to show for it bar a fortuitous goal later in that opening game owing to a colossal goalkeeping error from Aaron Chapman in the Stanley goal.

By contract to that showing and his performances in games since then, Williams hit the front against Yeovil and never looked back. His early goal gave him renewed vigour and he ran tirelessly at the Somerset side’s back line all afternoon, his late flurry just reward for his endeavour throughout. One of the pre-season favourites for the Golden Boot with bookmakers, Williams’ hat trick here has put him joint top of the scoring charts with Notts County’s veteran Jon Stead and Grimsby forward Omar Bogle, who himself netted a treble in a comprehensive home win on Saturday. The question remains whether Williams can not harness this form into the coming weeks and months, but he is well capable as we all saw in this game and if he can then surely few will be able to challenge him for that top scorer accolade.

Three areas of concern

I have unfortunately been laid up injured the past couple of weeks and you can be forgiven for thinking it might be sympathy pain for the Rovers squad, as Darren Ferguson contends with an alarming injury crisis. At time of writing eleven (ELEVEN) players are suffering from injuries of varying degrees, and this was not helped by Yeovil’s “kick them off the park” tactics and a spineless referee facilitating them. Mitchell Lund and Matty Blair both ended the day in hospital and the first concern has to be the lack of fit defenders.

Teenagers Reece Fielding and Danny Amos have had to sit on the bench in the last few games due to this, and with both Lund and Joe Wright suffering blows on Saturday they may be called upon to start in the meaningless “Checkatrade.com Trophy” fixture at Mansfield tomorrow night. The manager has stressed he is assessing his options ahead of the closure of the transfer window in two days time, and if Lund is set to be out for any length of time he must surely act and bring in another body or two. Aaron Taylor-Sinclair remains out with a knee injury until 2017, Craig Alcock is not yet near returning to training and Niall Mason, Mathieu Baudry and Tyler Garratt are all still several weeks away from being available too, meaning we are dangerously short at the back.

Another potential problem, perhaps not right now but down the line, is lack of depth up front and, whilst Dany N’Guessan remains on the books he is actively looking to be moved on leaving us with only Williams and Marquis as senior recognised forwards. Fergie knows this isn’t enough and has repeatedly stated his intention to bring in a Keshi Anderson-esque pacy forward to add to our options, but will he now be able to do this with the injury problems mounting in other areas of the squad? My hope is that he still brings in a forward along with a defender despite our growing squad size, as you can never be too careful and our injury problems don’t seem to be going away. If one of the first choice forwards picks up an injury we are left having to throw Joe Pugh in at the deep end, or asking Liam Mandeville to move back up front after impressing in an attacking midfield role this season.

Finally, Fergie has mooted the possible need to bring in an experienced goalkeeper to bolster the gloved core. Whilst this may not be seen as a concern to many fans, going on into the season without knowing who our firm #1 is is not something we should be allowing to happen. Ross Etheridge was brought in to claim that role but mistakes littered his first few appearances and as a result he has already lost the shirt to Marko Marosi, a man who was on his way out of the club in the summer until the last minute of negotiations. Marosi has been solid in the last three games, keeping two clean sheets and really deserving of a third against Yeovil, scuppered only by the brainless backpass of Matty Blair that put Ryan Hedges in for the visitors goal, but whether he is capable of keeping the shirt for the rest of the season remains a mystery at this point.

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Rovers squeezed out of EFL Cup: 5 Takeaways

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A short stint in the EFL Cup for Rovers this season, but there are signs of encouragement despite another late defeat.

Toe-to-toe with the Tricky Trees

A few short years ago we were on a level playing field with Tuesday’s opponents Nottingham Forest, but hard times have fallen on Rovers since then and this meeting would be a stern test of our abilities. Unlike in Saturday’s flaky performance at Accrington, we stood up to that challenge and did very well to match our opponents throughout most of the game, growing in stature as the minutes wore on. Forest may be a team in transition, but they are still an established Championship side so it was pleasing to see us keep up with our rather more illustrious opponents, particularly after the familiar inconsistencies we witnessed at the Crown Ground last weekend.

Whilst there was some sloppy play in the opening 45 minutes, Rovers probably edged the play after half time and would have been well deserving of the extra time that beckoned until Jamie Ward slammed home the 91st minute winner on the counter for Forest. Yes, it as another late goal that sunk us as concentration levels dipped and the rain poured down, but ultimately the quality of the visitors showed and it was probably not a bad thing that our players were spared an extra half an hour of football with several league games coming up in the next couple of weeks.

The Wright Stuff

Joe Wright was back from injury to make his competitive debut in the back line here and he demonstrated throughout exactly why Darren Ferguson fought hard to bring him to the club in the summer. Wright is strong, tall and young, but crucially he isn’t afraid to go forward with the ball at his feet. The much feted “cultured centre half” is not something we are used to seeing in the red and white hoops, but things may be about to change and if Wright can cement his place in the starting line-up then the prospect of playing 3-5-2 for the rest of the season may not seem such a daunting one for fans any longer.

Wright was composed, looked to get the ball forward in an effective rather than rushed manner, and he was also solid without the ball. The defence looked miles better for his inclusion, and watching him play against Forest had me thinking about just how formidable our central trio could be in League Two when Mathieu Baudry is back from his achilles injury. With these two strong, skilful players either side of Andy Butler, we can be a force to fear in the fourth tier this year.

Oh, Mandy

Liam Mandeville again made an impact from the bench against Forest, the 19-year-old forward netting our equaliser and injecting some much needed energy into the attacking third. He did the same thing at Accrington on Saturday, adding some guile and intelligence to our attacks and bringing the goods to boot, crossing for Andy Williams to turn home and make it 2-2 in that game. Here, he showed tenacity to put away a close range effort from a corner that brought us deservedly back on level terms with our opponents, and looked threatening throughout.

Mandeville was deployed on the right hand side in the Accrington loss, but instead played at the point of the midfield three on Tuesday night, setting up attacks for the forwards. He isn’t blessed with great pace, but has intelligence to find space and could be an asset if he continues to improve. We are crying out for a versatile goalscorer, and based on his words in interviews Fergie clearly believes Mandeville can fulfill this role so that we don’t have to dip into the loan market again. He has a couple of weeks to prove we don’t need attacking reinforcements, and he’s going about it the right way so far.

Safe hands, please

After Saturday’s defeat I singled out Ross Etheridge for criticism. Fergie may be unsure over his goalkeeping choice at the moment but after watching Marko Marosi get his chance against Forest, I am no longer unsure. Marosi is yet to demonstrate much when called upon in his brief appearances since signing two years ago from Wigan, and he looked suspect again here. His kicking was alarming in the first half, and his handling not all that much better either. Whilst I can’t fault him for either goal, and thought he had a very good half in the Newcastle friendly, I don’t believe he will make it at the club and stand by my assertion that we should have released him in the summer instead of giving him a new deal.

Etheridge made some big errors against his old team in our opening league game, but I believe he can develop into a superb goalkeeper for us and would like to see him restored to the starting line-up against Crawley. It will do nothing for the young man’s confidence if he is dropped after only one appearance, but it isn’t something that would surprise me either given Fergie’s track record. Perhaps the gaffer was too hasty in ditching Thorsten Stuckmann altogether, as Etheridge would surely benefit from prolonged training alongside an experienced pro, rather than somebody he actually has more professional experience than despite only making his professional debut in January of this year.

Fergie’s had a look, what’s the verdict?

Darren Ferguson said he wanted to get a look at a couple of his players by giving them run-outs in the EFL Cup, so what has he gleaned from doing this? Marko Marosi failed to impress when given the chance, but another given his opportunity here was Tyler Garratt. Garratt comes highly rated from the Bolton academy, and was asked to play in two different positions against Forest. In the first half he unfortunately struggled to cope with the high demands of playing in the troublesome left wing back position, and looked out of his depth. Shifted inside to play in the back three after half time however, he looked much better and helped keep our defensive shape well.

As a result of this, Riccardo Calder was brought on to play left wing back instead and, unlike his performance against Accrington, Calder looked much more comfortable fulfilling his defensive duties in that position here. Perhaps applying a more cautious approach due to the higher standard of opposition, Calder too stuck to his role in the defensive line well and only broke forward when the opportunity really presented itself. It was encouraging to see him improve so quickly, and bodes well for the Aston Villa loanee. Harry Middleton also got a start in midfield, but looked like a passenger and may need some more time before reaching full fitness. His replacement Liam Mandeville did a far better job at contributing to attacks and tracking back.

Two games down and still no victory, but our first home league game of the season awaits on Saturday as Crawley Town come to the Keepmoat. Despite being one of the favourites for relegation, Crawley won their opening fixture against Wycombe so will be in confident mood so won’t be laying down for us. Rovers need to finally show what they are capable of and get that vital first victory, and add three points to the board before our slow start becomes an early slump.

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Stumped by Stanley: 5 Takeaways

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Doncaster Rovers began the season with a narrow defeat away to Accrington Stanley, who finished fourth last season in League Two. It wasn’t the start we’d hoped for at all, but for better or worse here are five things we can take away from the curtain raiser.

2 + 2 = 4, not 3-5-2

Darren Ferguson loves the 3-5-2. This is clearly his preferred formation, but the problems with it last season cost us dearly. Back then, he had a great excuse for why it wasn’t working however, and that was that he was deploying it with the wrong personnel, not players he had signed himself to fit the system but rather a team he had inherited and therefore would need time to adapt to the new formation. Now he has had an entire summer to recruit appropriately and teach the ways of 3-5-2, but injuries have meant that we are still plugging squares pegs into round holes.

Fergie cannot be blamed for the injury crisis, but he can be blamed for his stubbornness causing a detriment to our performance at Accrington. The 3-5-2 was used despite the lack of several players key to the set-up, and it showed. Riccardo Calder had an impressive pre-season but struggled mightily in his defensive duties whilst playing in the pivotal wing back role, whilst captain James Coppinger looked muddled and helpless in the centre of the park playing in the midfield three. Both were hauled off after 66 minutes for their ineffectiveness, but by then we were 2-1 down. The defence struggled to deal with the fast pace of Accrington’s attacks, and without two new signings brought in to play in a back three – Mathieu Baudry and Joe Wright – as well as Craig Alcock, Fergie should have played safe and opted for a flat back four.

The manager needs to play to the strengths of what he has available, not ask players to do things they aren’t capable of. We saw this with Calder and Coppinger, whilst Mitchell Lund in particular also struggled with his positioning on the right hand side of the defensive three. In addition to the losses of Baudry, Wright and Alcock, Luke McCullough is also out meaning that Fergie is realistically without four of the players he has planned to play this 3-5-2 with. On Saturday this meant academy graduate Lund and three young loanees filling the positions vacated by the injured quartet, and it showed as we were vulnerable time and time again from Stanley’s attacks.

Keep it tight

Time and time again last season, Rovers were caught cold by goals at the very start and end of games. Such problems downright plagued us, and led to costly defeats in the run that ultimately consigned us to relegation. Late goals caused defeats at home to Blackpool and Peterborough along with an agonising 96th minute goal costing us victory at Rochdale. These all add up and despite a summer of training, the players still seem incapable of keeping things tight both at kick off and when trying to close out a game.

The opening few minutes were a disaster for Rovers at Accrington. First a great opportunity to go in front inside the first two minutes was squandered when Andy Williams saw his penalty saved by debutant Aaron Chapman, then we were undone minutes later by a through ball as Rommy Boco broke the defensive line and slotted home coolly to put the home side in front. Then, having fought back to level twice, Rovers failed to hold out for a draw by conceding a 91st minute winner from Sean McConville that meant all our efforts on the day were worthless.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Williams

Andy Williams was our top scorer last season, notching 16 goals after a highly anticipated move north from Swindon Town. Williams stated that he wanted to be playing in the Championship, and clearly has the finishing ability to do so, but having found himself leading the line for Rovers in League Two this season, this match proved a microcosm of his time at the club so far. Williams missed a penalty early on, not the first time he has done so, and from there seemed to do his regular ‘gone into my shell’ act.

The head goes down so quickly for Mr. Williams, one setback can knock him off his stride for weeks on end, and so it was again at the Crown Ground. He hit several tame shots at goal when we had carved out good opportunities, and had a constant tendency to stroll back from an offside position taking himself out of potential counter attacks on more than one occasion. Despite this Williams did score his first goal of the season, but it was another tame effort that only just crossed the courtesy of a ridiculous fumble from Accrington keeper Chapman.

Williams is a very talented player and is one of the national favourites to win the Golden Boot in League Two this year. He is fully capable of doing just that, especially in a team with as much attacking intent as the new-look Rovers seem to have, but his biggest enemy remains his own mindset. He needs to learn to shake off knock-backs much better, and keep his concentration for a full 90 minutes. If Gary McSheffrey is fit soon, then Williams should at least be released from the burden of penalty taking, something he never looks wholly confident in doing, and if you couple this with a good scoring run early in the season, then Williams will be a huge asset for Rovers in 2016/17.

Bright Spots

It was not all doom and gloom in the summer sun this weekend, far from it in fact. We did manage to score two goals and had lengthy spells of dominant possession against one of the better teams in the division last term, and several players earned rightful praise at full time. Tommy Rowe has been hailed as a major coup for the club, signing on a permanent deal after an encouraging loan spell in the spring, and he showed what he is capable of here, netting Rovers’ first equaliser with a very well taken strike into the corner early on.

Debuting striker John Marquis also committed himself very well, putting himself about and putting in 100% effort alongside Williams up front. Marquis showed excellent hold up ability and threatened with the ball at his feet in the penalty area too, and it should be noted that he followed up Chapman’s fumble for our second goal by slamming the ball into the bottom corner to make fully sure the goal stood. Matty Blair also demonstrated lightning pace down the right flank and adapted to unfamiliar defensive duties solidly.

Goalkeeping Woe

One man who did not have a good afternoon on his Rovers debut meanwhile was Ross Etheridge. Playing on the ground he had made his name at last season, Etheridge struggled to find his feet and was beaten too easily for Accrington’s goals. Matty Pearson’s long-range pot shot should not have troubled him, yet an awkward bounce fooled him completely, a flat-footed sprawl not enough to keep the effort out of the net, and in injury time the winning goal exposed a positional flaw for Etheridge. McConville’s hooked effort sailed over and past Etheridge into the far corner to snatch a point away from Rovers, and he will be hoping to improve from this point on.

The only consolation for young Etheridge is that he was still the best keeper on the pitch in this match. Aaron Chapman turned in arguably the worst goalkeeping performance I have seen in 17 years watching the sport, enduring a nightmare afternoon right from the get go. A sliced clearance in the opening seconds set the tone, and with the game barely a minute old Chapman bundled Matty Blair to the floor for a penalty. He did redeem himself to make a save from Andy Williams’ low effort, but his struggles were still not over. More dodgy clearances followed, along with a strange collision with one of his own defenders, and the icing on the cake came when he dropped Williams’ tame shot over the line to make it 2-2. All the work he’s done in pre-season to beat Elliot Parish to the #1 spot was undone in comical fashion here, but he did still end up on the winning side.

That is all that matters at the end of the day: no points for Rovers in the season opener. Fortunately the schedule means we have a great chance to put this defeat behind us and push on with four games in the next fortnight to prepare for. Tomorrow night we face Championship side Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup, and then it is on to our first home game of the league campaign when Crawley Town head to Lakeside. Let’s hope lessons are learned from our 3-2 loss at Accrington by that point.

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Not-so-friendly Newcastle: 5 Takeaways

Rovers welcomed Championship big hitters Newcastle United to the Keepmoat Stadium on Wednesday night, but a chance to test our new-look squad against quality opposition ultimately proved to be a costly exercise for Darren Ferguson’s squad as no less than four players went off injured, causing serious problems just weeks before the opening game of the season.

It was my first chance to see the team in action this pre-season, so for better or worse here are five talking points for the team following the 2-2 draw.

Bad Luck, or Bad Tackles?

In truth, probably a bit of both. Joe Wright looked assured and capable in the back line for the first half hour of this game but took a bad tumble when he got his feet caught up in the turf, and despite a valiant effort to carry on eventually had to be substituted. It appears to be a recurring toe injury that won’t trouble the former Huddersfield man for too long and hopefully he will be fit for the start of the campaign. Young Joey McCormick also suffered an injury seemingly innocuously, dislocating his shoulder and causing the Reds (or All Blacks as they were last night) to finish the game with ten men. This is a harsh blow for the youth team prospect who only recently returned from a bad injury to his other shoulder, but in truth this isn’t much of a blow to the first team ranks.

The same cannot be said for the loss of Craig Alcock or Harry Middleton however. Unlike the seemingly incidental injuries to Wright and McCormick, two first team regulars were victims of reckless, unnecessary challenges from Newcastle players and now face prolonged periods on the sidelines. Perhaps borne out of frustration out of what was a very poor, disjointed and slack performance by their team, Newcastle flew in to tackle after tackle and it was Middleton who suffered first. Pulling out of the impact of a 50-50 challenge near halfway but wasn’t afforded the same courtesy by the opposing player, who collided full force with the midfielder. Darren Ferguson says Middleton will miss the start of the season and could have damaged his knee ligaments, which would mean a lengthy spell out.

The stretcher was called back into action only minutes later when Craig Alcock was hit with a bad challenge from behind, scythed down unnecessarily. Ankle ligament damage is reported to be the verdict which again will mean a lengthy lay-off, which comes as a huge blow to the back line. Alcock is easily one of the better players in the squad and is also versatile, capable of playing anywhere in the back 4/5. With Mathieu Baudry already out due to an achilles injury, Fergie now has no choice but to go into the transfer market for additional reinforcements at the back. The only plus from this game is that Mitchell Lund, Alcock’s essential understudy, stepped up and played superbly on the right hand side after coming on as a first half replacement for Wright, and might be able to carve out a spot in the starting XI once the season gets going.

All in all, a disastrous night for the club on the injury front despite the positive performance and result against strong opposition. The club moved today to unfortunately cancel our next game away to Kidderminster due to the injury crisis, but still have games against York and Coventry to prepare for before we head west to Accrington Stanley for the first league fixture.

Shaping Up

Tactically, Rovers looked like they are beginning to gel, with real evidence of training ground work being applied on the Keepmoat playing surface. The team kept their shape really well both in and out of possession, and the 3-5-2 formation which has been derided for much of the last year by Rovers fans looks like it might be able to work. The one caveat to this is that the right personnel are deployed within it, as Matty Blair struggled in the right wing back slot in the first half and Tommy Rowe was somewhat nullified as part of the three man midfield. These are the kinds of things that can be worked on between now and the trip to Accrington though of course.

The defence held together strongly and their were clear outlets for the players to utilise with the shape employed. After a switch to our other recognised formation, the Diamond, Rovers were able to play some intricate passing sequences and create chances, although the personnel largely consisting of youth teamers at this point in the game lessened the effectiveness. The defence proved it could be adaptable in the face of the formation switch and the injuries forcing changes to personnel every few minutes, but there are still kinks to work out.

Battling Qualities

Whilst this was only a friendly and not a true marker of our level of competition, Rovers competed for every ball with a much more capable side than themselves and weren’t afraid to try and play football when they had the chance. The players were always looking for options, trying to make things happen and matched their opponents physically at both ends of the field. If these qualities can be taken forward into the real thing, then we will already be on a much better footing than we were for most of last season. Leaders were absent throughout the last campaign, but the permanent signings of Tommy Rowe and Gary McSheffrey, as well as Baudry and fan favourite Andy Butler, mean we have some experience and leadership back in the ranks.

Safe Hands

Although Andy Williams netted twice in the game (one an excellent penalty past the clearly insane Matz Sels), and the match sponsors electing to ignore all rhyme or reason to give Blair the accolade, my Man of the Match pick for the game was a joint decision between the two men who guarded the goal for Rovers, Ross Etheridge and Marko Marosi. Etheridge has a presence about him, showcased his shot-stopping abilities and, save for one brainless moment in the first half, demonstrated good distribution to set up attacking plays. Marosi, a man I considered done at the club six weeks ago on this site, showed he could still be a capable stand-in by pulling off some excellent saves in the second half. He was mightily unlucky to concede both goals that got Newcastle back into it, making a tremendous save from Isaac Hayden only to see the same player score a deflected effort from the resulting corner, then falling foul of another wicked deflection to let in Ayoze Perez’s late equaliser, which came against ten men.

I was not the biggest fan of Thorsten Stuckmann, who departed the club today, but feel some apprehension about us not having an experienced keeper around to help bring Etheridge and Marosi along. However on this showing I am happy to relax and be satisfied that we are okay for now on the goalkeeping front.

Calder: Pre-Season MVP?

Arguably too early to slap that tag on anyone, but loanee Riccardo Calder has impressed in both games this week against high level opposition. Calder showed plenty of desire in his spell at the club last year but offered little-to-no end product. In these last two games he has looked a threat and was always the most likely to make something happen in the second half against the Magpies. Calder is versatile and looks well suited to the left wing back position, more so at any rate than Cedric Evina, whose defensive capabilities are lacking to say the very least.

On we go then, the season now in sight. Reports last week said the club were in the process of bringing in three more players to round out the squad – two Premier League loanees and one permanent addition – but one or two more may now need to be brought in to solve the club’s mounting injury crisis. Sadly it appears unlikely that any of these players will be former loanee Keshi Anderson or club legend Paul Green, but we will have to wait and see who Fergie, Gavin Baldwin and co. manage to entice to join us in our push for promotion out of League Two.

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