The Big Interview: Doncaster Rovers boss Grant McCann on the challenge ahead in League One
Looking for inspiration of just what can be achieved in League One is hardly a difficult task.
Just last season, Shrewsbury Town confounded all expectations by powering to the play-off final on one of the division’s lowest playing budgets.
Widely tipped for relegation, instead they were neck and neck throughout with Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers, whose financial might dwarfed most of their other rivals in the third tier.
Though the Shrews fell agonisingly short of capping one of football’s most remarkable tales, Paul Hurst’s side cemented their place as a benchmark.
And, as he plots success with his new Doncaster Rovers side, Grant McCann is looking to reach that same standard.
But he wants Rovers to do it even better, both with the ultimate outcome and the style used to get there.
“It’s not always the club with the highest budget that gets promoted,” McCann told the Free Press.
“I remember getting promoted with Scunthorpe until Nigel Adkins and the budget was £1.2m.
“It’s about whoever has got the boys in the dressing room that want to work.
“Look at Shrewsbury last year with their hard work and endeavour.
“We want to be a bit more than that. We want to have the attitude they had but with a bit more quality and excitement, more goals.
“That’s what I’m about and what I like to deliver.
“That’s what we’re working for every day and we want to get as high up the league as possible as quickly as possible and try to stay there.”
While Shrewsbury undoubtedly overachieved last season, there are some suggestions that a 15th placed finish for Rovers was an underachievement.
On many occasions they threatened to produce much better and even late in the season there was enough to suggest they really ought to have secured a top half finish.
Ultimately no one was happy with the final placing, least of all former boss Darren Ferguson.
Reflecting on the squad he inherited from his predecessor, McCann says he has been able to see the disappointment among the players - and he only sees that as a good thing.
“I feel as if, speaking to the boys, that they feel they underachieved last year,” he said.
“That is incredible coming from a team that has just come up from League Two.
“When I walked into the building I said there are loads of strong foundations to build on.
“I think the group wants to do well. They’ve done well before and a lot of them know what it takes to be successful.
“The step up from League Two to League One, yes there is a difference but it’s not a lot.
“The boys need to understand that – that they are good enough for this level.
“If they weren’t then they wouldn’t be here.”
He may not be flush with managerial experience but the entirety of McCann’s experience in the hot seat has come at League One level.
Add to that close to 150 appearances as a player in the third tier, and the 38-year-old is well-placed to judge the challenge ahead.
“I think it’s going to be tough,” McCann said.
“I don’t think it will be as tough as last year but I still think it’ll be tough.
“I look, budget-wise, a lot of the big teams went up with Wigan and Blackburn. Really strong teams have gone up.
“League One was very strong last year. Rotherham went up, another big club with a big budget.
“Of course, Sunderland are a big club.
“I don’t think it’s as strong but I think it’ll be as tough.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re up there as quickly as possible and stay there.
“We’ve just got to stay on level ground really.
“We don’t want to be getting too high or too low. We’ve just to make sure we concentrate on us in every game.
“We’re going to go through good spells, we’re going to go through bad spells - hopefully not many of them.
“We’ve just got to make sure we are doing what we can to compete at the top end of the table, which I’m sure we will.”
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Keeping a level head, managing expectations and staying grounded appear to be key mantras for McCann’s approach to management.
In his short time at the Keepmoat, he has spoken regularly of not getting too high from victories or too down from defeats.
It brought out of him an eyebrow-raising statement on his first media appearance as Rovers boss when he insisted poor performances or losses would not see him move away from his core playing philosophy.
Rovers will stick to the plan, no matter what.
As strong a statement as that may be, it seems the ideal was forged during his time in charge of Peterborough and the learning experience of a first job which that proved to be.
“I think you have to know the league first and foremost,” McCann said.
“There’s a lot of teams with different styles, formations.
“I think one thing I have learned is probably making sure we keep our identity.
“We maybe drifted away from it a little bit at Peterborough at times.
“Never ever go into a game worrying about the opposition. I’ve never done that.
“But we go in making sure we understand the opposition.
“It’s difficult to stay on a level ground at Peterborough because if you lose a game, it’s the end of the world there.
“No disrespect to [chairman] Darragh MacAnthony or [director of football] Barry Fry because they’re brilliant. But it is the end of the world if you lose.
“We’ve just got to make sure, when we win we stay level, when we lose we stay level and the same when we draw.
“And then we go into the next game and that is the way I work.”
Peterborough are a side McCann expects to see challenging for honours this season.
He said: “I think with the money that Peterborough have spent, if they’re not challenging for the title then Darragh McAnthony will not be happy.
“I think Sunderland should win the league with the size of the fanbase and the finances there.
“Barnsley have come down from the Championship with a really good Championship squad.
“I think those three will be up there challenging.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re up there with them.”
The goal handed to McCann for this season is to challenge for promotion.
Achieving promotion does not seem to be the be-all, end-all for McCann or the club’s hierarchy.
But a real, concerted challenge for a top six finish must be there.
And the Belfast native is confident that goal can be achieved.
“Definitely,” McCann said.
“The group are sensing that it’s a good chance for us this year.
“We’ve got to go for it, give everything.
“If we don’t go up, we don’t and we move onto the season after.
“There’s a real good togetherness in the dressing room.
“In every session the boys give everything.
“I know nothing is won on the training ground but it does help when you have that hard work and endeavour on the training ground.
“The more you work and learn, the more chance you have on the weekends.
“Me and Cliff [Byrne, assistant], we’ve been really impressed by the level of commitment on the training ground.
“Hopefully we can build on that in games.”