Editorial: Where did it all go wrong for Doncaster Rovers in 2021-22?

Doncaster Rovers get ready to attack a corner in front of their fans at Fleetwood Town whilst a red flare burns in the six-yard box

At the end of the summer I sat in the same spot I’m writing this editorial, whilst Richie Wellens looked back at me and my decor via Zoom, and told me that he didn’t foresee Rovers being in a relegation battle come the second half of the season. A couple of weeks later Gavin Baldwin told the BBC that ‘we are nowhere near [a relegation battle] at this stage’. 

Looking back now, as the dust settles on a terrible season there’s an argument to suggest they were both right. We were never in a relegation battle, because ‘battle’ suggests we offered some sort of resistance. We were very much accomplices to our relegation.

To cut Wellens and Baldwin some slack here, it would’ve done neither of them any favours to have told their respective interviewers that yes, Rovers were very much in a relegation battle, at a time when as a club we were desperately low on confidence. Our own James McMahon has told the story of when he bumped into Paul Dickov outside The Den ahead of a crunch game with Millwall in 2014, and he asked ‘Can we do it Paul? Can we stay up?’. Dickov’s response of ‘I don’t know, maybe,’ was hardly the reassurance he’d been seeking. Better a bit of bravado and belief from those at the top when you’re up against it.

So where did it all go wrong for Rovers this season? Someone needs to try and surmise it, and as editor I naturally pull the hypothetical short straw.

When Wellens and Baldwin gave those respective interviews in September our biggest hindrance was injuries to key players – many of whom were expected to make an imminent return to action. The reality was, we got a handful of games from Jon Taylor, John Bostock only really hit full fitness in the season’s dying months; Cameron John made a one-game camero in the penultimate match and poor Fejiri Okenabirhie may well have been scrapped and sold for parts for all we know. Such was the dearth of talent among the division’s bottom six, I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that with just half a season of Okenabirhie at number nine, we would’ve stayed up.

But it wasn’t just injuries that did for Richie Wellens; he also made poor decisions. At a point when our squad lacked experience he forced out Andy Butler, and then exiled Omar Bogle when we were desperate for goals. He also recruited poorly, particularly in midfield and attack, and kept faith in players who weren’t delivering; he told me in that Zoom interview that Jordy Hiwula was someone who he ‘knew for a fact could score 15 goals in this league’. In the end he fell a mere 14 short.

Hindsight is of course an easily manipulated thing. Wellens fared poorly here, but that doesn’t mean he is a bad manager – he’s certainly performed much better at Leyton Orient in recent months. Nor does it mean his appointment was a failure of the Rovers board; look back at the point he sat in the red plastic seats with a scarf above his head and you’ll see few dissenting voices. Sadly he proved not to be the right fit. That happens, and unfortunately for us it happened at a crucial point of needing to reform a near full squad owing to departures and injuries.

That we were in the position of needing such a squad overhaul at all is arguably the biggest contributing factor to a season spent not so much hovering over the division’s trapdoor as wedged in it. The jumping ship of Grant McCann and Darren Moore, with no clear club-defined player recruitment strategy, left us with a greater than healthy reliance on loanees, a rolling problem that snowballed into an avalanche of contract expirations in close proximity. You can’t rebuild a whole team every summer and expect to be competitive. 

The recent creation of the Head of Football Operations role at least points to the board’s realisation of, and attempt to address, this very problem. Yet the appointment of the unproven James Coppinger to this role is fraught with risks. Whilst there is no doubting Copps’ passion and commitment for Doncaster Rovers, nor his knowledge and understanding of the club and its community standing, I’d argue that right now what we need more than anything is fresh perspectives and solid experience. It feels like a missed opportunity to be frank, and you hope that Coppinger makes it a success not only for the sake of the club’s future, but to avoid any diminishing of his own legacy.

I felt that same sense of a missed opportunity to bring in experience and fresh eyes when Gary McSheffrey had his huge bunch of keys and long beige coat taken off him (this presumably being the ceremony when a caretaker manager becomes a permanent one). Among confusing team-line-ups, more haphazard player recruitment, and lack of fight in crucial games I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from this feeling. Would a more experienced manager have kept us up? It’s anyone’s guess isn’t it really, but it’s also not unrealistic to suggest someone else might’ve steered us to show an ounce of capability at Fleetwood, to potentially nick a winner at Wimbledon, or to not chuck away a three goal lead at Morecambe. And any of the above would’ve kept us up, no matter how much we deserved to go down.

How Doncaster Rovers came to be relegated in 2021-22 is ultimately a perfect storm of unfortunate injuries, mistaken appointments, haphazard recruitment, poor planning and errors of judgement. The one hope that remains going into League Two is that lessons have been learned, because it can’t be this bad again. Can it?

by Glen Wilson

This article was first published in print as the editorial of popular STAND fanzine issue 108, which reached subscribers from 9 May 2022

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