Managing expectations: Big interview with Darren Ferguson ahead of Doncaster Rovers’ League One return

Doncaster Rovers manager Darren Ferguson and assistant Gavin Strachan
Doncaster Rovers manager Darren Ferguson and assistant Gavin Strachan

Twelve months ago there was no doubt over the aims and aspirations of Doncaster Rovers.

Promotion, promotion, promotion.

Staying in League Two for more than a single season was simply not an option.

Thankfully, everyone at the club read the memo and after a blistering campaign, they now find themselves back in League One.

In the third tier, the aspirations are less clear - and you get the impression that is just the way Darren Ferguson likes it.

This year, there will be no bold statements.

In fact, when asked about expectations for the coming campaign, the Rovers boss offered just one line;

“I expect us to be competitive in the league.”

League One is a division which Ferguson knows well after spending four seasons of his ten year managerial career in the third tier.

But he admits plenty has changed in the division recently – even in the last 12 months while Rovers have been out of it.

“Even in that small window, that one year we were out of League One, the budgets of clubs have gone up big time,” Ferguson said.

“There is a big difference now, where clubs are spending money I’ve never seen before at this level.

“It makes it difficult.

“The clubs are having a right go and spending a lot more money.

“I’ve been surprised. When you see some of the figures bandied about, it’s the first time when I’ve been in League One that I’ve seen such high budgets.

“You don’t know if the figures are exact but some of the clubs that wouldn’t normally do it are doing it.

“Whether it’s a good thing, you don’t know.

“Is it a gamble? Is it a one season thing? You don’t know.

“All I know is this club is run brilliantly and my job is to make sure we finish as high as we possibly can.”

Expectations of Rovers supporters seem to vary wildly, from those dreaming of back-to-back promotions to doom-mongers fearing the worst.

Whatever the view, something which sticks in the craw of many is the finish to last season.

Rovers had coasted to promotion and their name looked to be on the champions’ trophy only for a horrendous slump which saw them lose their final four games and drop to third in the table, missing out on medals all together.

Ferguson flatly dismisses any suggestion there could be a hangover carried into the new campaign.

“It’s a different season and we start again,” he said.

“There’s one or two things I looked at and thought ‘maybe that was the reason’.

“Maybe it was just the reason the lads were physically finished. The injuries from the start of the season caught up with us because I couldn’t rest players in the middle of the season.

“But for 42 games we were by far the best team in the league and unfortunately we fell away at the end.

“That would never come into my thinking for this season.

“My only thinking would be of the positives from last season.”

Looking on the brighter side he may be, the Rovers boss has a key area in mind where he feels his side needs to improve.

Rovers blitzed opposition teams out of sight time and again, topping European goalscoring charts at several stages throughout the campaign.

In trademark Darren Ferguson fashion, it often appeared they lived by the mantra of ‘you score, we’ll score one more.’

But he is calling time on that trait as he prepares for the new season.

“You won’t get away with 3-2s in this league,” he said.

“A lot of the time we just outscored teams.

“We need to do certain things better.

“As a challenge it was a big one last season, certainly in terms of expectations.

“Not many teams come straight back. We handed that fine.

“I think it’s a much bigger challenge because it’s a tougher league. It’s a different sort of league and I’m sure a lot of the teams would expect to do well.”

Rovers’ recruitment this summer has undoubtedly come in for some criticism.

While the vast majority are pleased with the new faces which have arrived at the Keepmoat, plenty expected a few more to be joining them.

The arrivals number should rise to six by the time the season begins but the centre half which many crave will not be among that group – and may yet not arrive at all.

Ferguson has long stood by his decisions on where to spend his budget, and feels the squad in its current form is more than capable of competing.

He said: “Do I think the players that have come in have improved us? Yes.

“I look at Danny Andrew, Ben Whiteman, Niall Mason – who we knew about – they’ll all improve us and Alex Kiwomya will add a new dimension to us.

“In terms of that, we will see improvement in the team.

“Where we are as a football club, I think what we’ve done over the last 18 months in terms of the recruitment has been excellent, in terms of quality of player and also the actual cost of the squad.

“It’s definitely risen, there’s a value to the squad now.

“Also the market we’ve dealt in, in terms of the quality we’ve got for the cost has been excellent and I’ve been delighted with it.

“Some of the players we’ve got are more than comfortable at this level.

“We can’t get away from that.

“And it’s about keeping a core of players fit through the season. That gives us a chance.

“If you start losing three or four of your key players, it can become difficult.

“We had injuries at the start of last season but the core of the team stayed – Andy Butler, James Coppinger, Niall Mason, John Marquis, Tommy Rowe, Matty Blair.

“They became the consistent mainstays of the team.

“You need to keep that consistency if you can to a degree and manage the team, because it’s not the biggest group but that’s not a bad thing if you look after it properly.”

Given the fiercely competitive nature of the man, it is likely that Ferguson will have at least one eye on a place within League One’s top six this term.

He is, after all, chasing a fifth career promotion as a manager.

While he refuses to let on just what would be his expectation for his squad, Ferguson is certain about one thing.

“It’s going to be a very hard league,” he said.

“It’s going to be very competitive, I’m not going to set any targets.

“We understand to a degree where we feel we’re going to be around.

“It’s certainly going to be a difficult season, no doubt about that.

“When I say it’s going to be difficult, I don’t mean that I think we’re going to struggle.

“The games will be really competitive.

“I think it’s a league where almost every game you could win but also almost every game you could lose.

“You need to be really consistent. That’s what we’re looking to do.

“It’s going to be tough but then again, I would say anyone coming here and playing us would say it’ll be tough playing us.

“On any given day, I feel we could beat any team in the league if we’re really at it with the players.

“It’s about the consistency though and consistency over the course of the season.

“That’s what we need and that’s going to be the most important thing.”