Doncaster Rovers' problems laid bare as they are swept aside by Sunderland

It was as if someone had compiled a concise dossier detailing all the problems facing Doncaster Rovers for them to carry into the decisive second half of the season.

Tuesday, 28th December 2021, 2:38 am
Tommy Rowe battles with Sunderland's Tom Flanagan

A campaign filled with plenty of woe and strife was perfectly summed up in one afternoon that was painful to endure before a ball had even been kicked.

An inexperienced Rovers side were swept aside with ease by one of the division’s strongest outfits, who barely got out of second gear as they strolled to a 3-0 triumph.

Thankfully, for Rovers’ frequently fragile mental well-being, Sunderland were happy to coast through rather than going for the kill, because there was potential for a real massacre.

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There was nothing softened however about the message delivered of where Rovers are currently at - and the incoming permanent manager will need only a single viewing to know exactly the size of the task awaiting him in the second half of the campaign.

The need for experienced reinforcements in January could hardly have been laid any more bare in a game where it was very much men against boys.

So too was the need for organisation, concentration and backbone - all of which would go some way to preventing matches like this being so much of a foregone conclusion.

It was hard not to fear the worst when glancing at the teamsheet an hour before kick-off, which showcased an incredibly inexperienced back line and midfield.

The familiar story of injury impacting the squad reared its head again as captain Tom Anderson was sidelined heading into the game - about as big a blow as it is possible for Rovers to receive.

And the impact of Covid bit too, with Ethan Galbraith out as he struggled to shake off the virus.

Kyle Knoyle’s 191 senior appearances comfortably outnumbered those of Joseph Olowu, Ben Blythe, Branden Horton, Liam Ravenhill, Lirak Hasani and Matt Smith combined.

Without meaning to be too harsh on those assembled for the task, it was as though Rovers brought a butter knife to a sword fight.

Though the quality of the opposition will not be as strong in the majority of games to come, the ferocity of the fight facing Rovers will hardly diminish and they must quickly equip themselves with the right tools for the task.

The most pressing matter is the appointment of the man to lead them through the fight.

If that is to be caretaker Gary McSheffrey, it would be more than a little harsh to judge him on what he oversaw on this occasion, particularly with the side he was able to select.

Rovers’ downfall on the day ultimately came down to a string of individual errors.

Indecisive defending set the scene for the opening goal, which disastrously came just seven minutes in.

Leon Dajaku was given far too much space to run into and built up a head of steam as he charged into the box, where Horton stuck out a sloppy leg. Though there was no contact, with Dajaku tumbling, the manner of the challenge brought the inevitable spot kick, with Ross Stewart slotting in from the spot.

The second goal, four minutes from the break, was even more simple for the visitors. Alex Pritchard was afforded so much space to claim a long ball out from the back in the final third and send a pass inside, where Elliot Embleton had time to bring it down and prod the ball beyond Louis Jones.

Rovers were scythed through again for the third on 50 minutes. Lynden Gooch powered to the byline and drilled into the centre where Pritchard flicked the ball on and sent it ricocheting in off Blythe, into his own goal.

Three goals that were preventable and highlighted the presence of naivety that inexperience brings. They made it far too easy for Sunderland to play through them.

Such was the comfort of the opposition, they never really looked willing to turn the screw on Rovers.

Even when the lead was just by one, they were happy to allow Rovers to have the ball and drop plenty of men back.

Here was arguably the most disappointing aspect of the afternoon from McSheffrey’s side.

The centre halves and Smith saw plenty of the ball on half way but had so few viable options ahead of them that the majority of their passes when sideways or backwards during the opening half.

The movement off the ball from Rovers was so, so poor, making them so easy to snuff out by Sunderland. Players did not drop deeper to make themselves available or pull a marker out of their shape. Nor was there any outlet balls in channels.

So threat was so minimal to be entirely absent in the first half with Rovers failing to muster even a shot, nevermind one on target.

Things improved after the break, with Omar Bogle coming off the bench at half time to bring some presence to the Rovers attack.

But Sunderland remained incredibly comfortable in their lead and always looked capable of stepping up their efforts if they really needed to.

There are games to come soon that will be more important in terms of taking points from. The next two, against Morecambe and Fleetwood Town, definitely fall into that category.

So it is vital that the wounds from this outing are quickly healed.

More important however is that lessons are learned because Rovers can ill-afford learning curves stretching on for too long, even if that has been one of the stories of the season so far.


In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.