2020/21 Preview – Doncaster Rovers

Host of Express FM’s Football Hour and pundit on Pompey Live, Jake Smith continues the build-up to the new season with a look at Doncaster Rovers.

Intro: Formed 141 years ago in 1879, Doncaster have spent the vast majority of their professional history playing in the third and fourth tiers of English football.

Rovers turned professional in 1885 and are proudly one of only four clubs to have won the fourth tier on three occasions, Pompey denying them the opportunity to make it a record-breaking fourth title in 2017 thanks to a dramatic final day victory over Cheltenham Town at Fratton Park (Doncaster also lost at Hartlepool and ended up finishing in 3rd position, despite being well clear at the top with just three games remaining).

The club’s original colours were actually blue and yellow, their first ever home strip featuring a navy shade of blue shirt with a yellow cross on the front, with white shorts and navy socks to compliment. However, since turning pro, Donny have traditionally kept to the red and white style they wear today, with the hoops first making an appearance in 1930.

Doncaster are also proudly associated with Doncaster Rovers Belles LFC, one of the most successful women’s clubs English football.

In 2007, Rovers won the Football League Trophy, beating Bristol Rovers 3-2 after extra-time in the last Trophy Final at the Millennium Stadium in Wales.

The South-Yorkshire side have spent a total of just 5 years in the English second-tier, winning promotion to the Championship in 2008, where they remained until their relegation alongside Portsmouth in 2012.

Doncaster are aiming to reach those heights once again – it’s been over 8 years now since they last featured in the Championship.

Home Ground: Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster (South Yorkshire), 232 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 15,231

2019/20 Table Position: 9th (League One) – 54 points after 34 games with an average of 1.59 points per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: Doncaster Rovers Wins: 6 – Draws: 6 – Portsmouth Wins: 11

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Doncaster Rovers 1-2 Portsmouth, 5th October 2019, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Saturday 17th October, 2020 – Fratton Park

Tuesday 2nd March, 2021 – Keepmoat Stadium

Manager: Former Pompey defender and now member of the management committee at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), Darren Moore, is the man tasked with commanding Doncaster Rovers forward.

Moore, 46, featured 59 times for the Blues between 1999 and 2001, scoring twice before making the move to West Bromwich Albion (who he would go on to make his managerial debut for 17 years later).

As well as representing the PFA and coaching Doncaster, Moore serves as a well-respected ambassador for Black and Ethnic footballers and managers, constantly appearing on the radio, television and at speeches campaigning for equal opportunities for minority groups in the sport.

Furthermore, he is a devout Christian, heavily active in the charity ‘Faith and Football’ alongside ex-Portsmouth men Linvoy Primus and Lomana LuaLua. Outside of his playing and managerial lifestyles, Moore has raised money for children’s causes by walking the length of the Great Wall of China, helped to raise thousands for Oxfam and Christian Aid and has recently started to raise awareness about helping children in third-world countries.

In 2004, he was presented an award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Grass Roots and Community Football Projects as part of the PFA’s ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign.

Darren Moore, known as ‘Big Dave’ by West Bromwich Albion supporters, was handed his first managerial job at The Hawthorns at the expense of Alan Pardew, who had been relieved of his duties by the West Midlands Premier League club on account of a poor string of results leaving them bottom of the table. He became the first ever Jamaican manager in the Premier League as a result of his caretaker spell.

Although the Baggies were still relegated that season, Albion supporters had warmed to Moore, who was a club centurion as a player during his spell in the noughties. He had guided West Brom to an entire unbeaten Month in the April and results had begun to pick-up, with a more attractive brand of football implemented in the meantime.

Moore was appointed as permanent head coach on the 18th of May, with the club trusting him to guide them back to the top-flight at the first time of asking, but was sacked in March 2019 with the Baggies in 4th position in the Championship and set for a Play-Off campaign.

He dropped down to League One and became the Rovers manager on July the 10th, 2019, with former West Ham boss Slaven Bilic succeeding him at The Hawthorns – he replaced the Hull City-bound Grant McCann (who ended up leading the Tigers to Championship relegation).

To date, Darren Moore has won 17, drawn 10 and lost 15 of his 42 competitive games in charge of Doncaster Rovers.

One To Watch: Fejiri Okenabirhie, a name I am almost certain my Pompey Live colleague Liam Howes is going to struggle to pronounce, is my pick for One To Watch for Doncaster this season.

The 24-year-old has English and Nigerian heritage, though only representing the former on the international stage. Okenabirhie scored 4 goals in 5 matches for England C when he was called upon during the 2017/18 campaign, when he was playing his club football at Dagenham & Redbridge.

His most recent club, Shrewsbury Town, handed him a Football League lifeline when they secured his signature in June 2018. He went on to record 55 appearances for the Shrews, scoring 12 goals from either the wing or up-top.

Okenabirhie’s biggest strength is his ability to play both out wide and to lead the attack for his new side, for whom he has already featured 3 times and scored 2 goals for. He made the switch to the Keepmoat Stadium during the January transfer window, however found game-time limited in the second-half of the season. His fee was undisclosed and a 2-year contract was signed.

The No. 9 shirt is the one in which you can expect the former Arsenal academy player to don for the upcoming season.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): Darren Moore has, at the time of writing, made just three signings during this summer window, with the salary cap likely to have influenced that. First through the door was Jason Lokilo on August the 2nd – the 21-year-old Congolese right-winger joined on a free transfer from Premier League outfit Crystal Palace.

The most recent arrival came on August 25th in the form of Taylor Richards, who is 19-years of age, plays as a midfielder and has yet to make his professional debut. He joins on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion.

With the help of Rovers fan Adam Stubbings, who you’ll see appear a little further down, I have named goalkeeper Josef Bursik as Doncaster’s most impressive summer signing so far.

The 20-year-old shot-stopper joined the club on a season loan from Stoke City, with the deal announced on the 20th of August.

Still very young and at the earlier stages of his career, Bursik has a lot to prove at Donny this season, that’s if Darren Moore is willing to put his trust in him to consistently start between the sticks. Fans are, however, encouraged by what they have heard about the youngster in reports from his previous loan clubs.

He joined parent club Stoke a week before his 17th birthday, spending his youth days at AFC Wimbledon, but has yet to feature in the Potters’ first-team. Loans at Hednesford Town, AFC Telford United and Accrington Stanley have helped Bursik to slowly rise up the English footballing pyramid.

Bursik was born in Lambeth, London and has a combined tally of 25 caps for the England youth teams – representing his country at the Under-17, Under-18, Under-19 and Under-20 levels. The promising keeper was the No. 1 for the England Under-17 side that narrowly lost out to Spain on penalties in the 2017 UEFA European Under-17 Championship Final. He was also fortunate enough to be a part of the squad that won the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in India.

Season Expectation: Much like the Blues, Doncaster are entering their fourth consecutive League One season, having been automatically promoted alongside Pompey from League Two in 2017.

Since coming back up to the third-tier at the first time of asking, Donny have finished 15th, 6th and 9th respectively, though the most recent position coming as a result of the implementation of an unweighted points-per-game system – Doncaster were looking strong to once again push for a Play-Off place.

Under relatively new manager Darren Moore, the team in red and white horizontal stripes have been known to play some decent football, with Rovers consistently finding themselves challenging for a top-six finish.

2020/21 will be no different for Doncaster, who are once again expected to put up a fight against the bigger sides in the division and become one of the surprise packages to go up, though with the likes of Charlton Athletic, Hull City and Wigan Athletic all coming down from the Championship, it appears even more unlikely (on paper) that the side will be able to get across the line, though will undoubtedly fight tooth and nail under Moore until the very end.

My Predicted Finish: 9th

Battling the Big Boys – The Interpretation of a Doncaster Fan

Website administrator Adam Stubbings, who runs Doncaster Rovers fansite IntoTheEmptyNet.com, is a big fan of manager Darren Moore and is adamant that he is the right man to eventually take his club back up to the Championship, whilst also acknowledging it may be some time before that is actually achieved.

Adam told me: “We simply need the players to realise Darren Moore’s vision. There was a lot of progression throughout last season and just as things were beginning to click across the team, the season was curtailed.

“We have a big rebuild job on this summer so it will take excellent recruitment to take us back into Play-Off contention, which is about the level we have been at for the past two seasons.” – He underlined.

Despite controlling a popular club fansite, Adam stresses the importance of maintaining that supporter’s passion as opposed to treating every match as a chore: “I’d always class myself as a fan first. Into The Empty Net is dedicated to covering Doncaster Rovers and is run as a journalistic outlet, though I pride myself on covering the club from a fan’s perspective in contrast to the local press.”

A big loss for the side this summer was Irish winger Kieran Sadlier, who refused a new contract in July to sign for newly-promoted Championship side Rotherham United. Adam reflected on the departure, claiming it could prove costly for his side this season: “I expect us to be solidly mid-table this season.

“Whether that’s good enough or not, most around the club probably would say not, but whilst I’m confident we can compete in the league, I feel we are missing the real ‘X-Factor’ players in the team without last season’s top scorer Kieran Sadlier or loanee Jacob Ramsey, who hasn’t returned.”

Fejiri Okenabirhie was mentioned previously within this piece and Adam is confident that the 24-year-old can deliver the goods in 2020/21: “I think he (Fejiri) is set for a really good season.

“We signed him in January and he fit right into the team. He has power, pace and movement and can finish really well.” – The Doncaster fan told with excitement, before underlining the importance of keeping the attacker injury-free: “If he can be fit and firing all season, I expect him to hit 15 goals at least.”

“I think it’s money.” – Adam revealed, explaining his thought process behind the difference of Doncaster flirting with the Play-Offs and going on to be recognised as a solid promotion contender.

“There are some big clubs in this division now – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Hull – and we can’t compete financially with them. If anything though, the salary cap suits us at the moment because we rely heavily on loans and only had a skeleton squad under contract at the end of last season. We have a pretty stringent wage structure to I’m not envisioning the cap presenting many problems, like it may for teams with larger budgets.

“Little over a year ago we came within a penalty shoot-out of the Play-Off Final because we maximised the ability of the squad and last season we were getting there too. Everything would have to align for us to be genuine title contenders at this point and I just don’t see that happening.” – he expressed, not getting too ahead of himself.

“We can do enough to compete for a Play-Off place but, unless there’s an increase in investment at board level, I think that is as far as we can go as a League One club.”

Adam is looking forward to seeing new goalkeeper Josef Bursik in action: “Josef is one of the highest rated young keepers in the country. He plays the modern way which Darren Moore likes in his No. 1 and has an excellent amount of experience on the international stage, so he could be an exciting addition.”

Club legend James Coppinger, who signed in 2004 under Dave Penney for a reported figure of £30,000, is set to bring an end to his Rovers career at the end of the campaign.

The 39-year-old midfield maestro has been an ever-present figure within the Doncaster line-ups throughout his 16-year career at the club, barring the odd loan spell at Nottingham Forest in 2012 that is.

The fans, rightfully, think very highly of Coppinger, who has made almost 700 appearances for the club, and Adam Stubbings can relate to those calling his praises: “It’s hard to put into words how much Copps means to the club.” – He said.

“He is arguably the best player ever to play for the club – perhaps second only to the great Alick Jeffrey – and the fact he has maintained such a consistent performance level well into his late 30s is testament to the man’s ability and character.”

Adam continued to pay tribute to the Football League veteran, saying: “He has played a key role in so many of our big successes over the past 16 years and his departure is going to leave a massive void in the squad and around the club.”

The chat between myself and the Doncaster supporter concluded with me asking Adam for his predicted league finish, to which he revealed: “Right now, I’ll go for a pragmatic 11th.”

You can follow Adam on Twitter – @apstubbings

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