The Big Rebuild: An extended end-of-season interview with Doncaster Rovers boss Darren Ferguson

Darren Ferguson celebrates promotion with his players.
Darren Ferguson celebrates promotion with his players.

This was always going to be a pivotal season for Doncaster Rovers.

A club which had established itself with a minimum standard of top end League One suddenly and unexpectedly found itself in the bottom tier.

Though overwhelmingly tipped for promotion and with a budget to achieve the goal, football has told us for long enough that nothing can be taken for granted.

And enough teams have been caught in the mud after failing to bounce back at the first attempt.

Promotion was pivotal for Rovers, as was getting the house in order for a brighter future.

Arguably it was equally pivotal for the man tasked with driving Rovers back out of League Two.

The high points of Darren Ferguson’s managerial career were growing worryingly distant, particularly on the back of an unthinkable relegation.

It was a situation not lost on Ferguson himself, though not one he was ever keen to publicly acknowledge.

“I never came across that way because it’s not about me,” he told the Free Press. “It’s all about the football club.

“But certainly in the back of my mind, I felt it was important to put my stamp on the club straight away.

“It doesn’t matter what division you’re in, if you’re successful, you’re successful.

“Certainly I feel I’ve got a good control of the club in terms of my bit, the football bit. I’ve got a lot of control of that, in a good way.

“The players trust in what I do and I trust in what they do.

“There was an element of needing to be successful.

“And through the last 12 months it’s been done.

“The most important thing was to make sure we played the right way, we entertained and scored goals.

“I felt if we did all that, we’d probably be successful.

“We need to continue that now and develop the players.”

The journey to success with Doncaster Rovers has been an unexpectedly long one for Ferguson.

It involved a significant backward step, but one which allowed the club to press the reset button and assess all aspects from top to bottom.

And it opened the door for Ferguson to show a ruthless streak with personnel, both on and off the pitch.

A raft of changes were made with positive and intelligent recruitment key to getting Rovers off on the right foot.

The addition of Tommy Rowe early after the end of last season certainly did that.

But Ferguson believes the groundwork for good recruitment was laid in the months before.

“I’ve generally been quite pleased with my recruitment full stop since I’ve been at the club,” he said.

“Looking back to last season, we brought in Craig Alcock who won player of the year.

“Conor Grant made a difference, Felipe at wing back from Everton, Tommy Rowe and Gary McSheffrey.

“I actually felt the players we brought in last season improved us, and I think the board felt that as well.

“It made it a bit easier for the summer recruitment.

“Certainly the ones we brought in this season have been outstanding. Really good for us.

“The recruitment period is such an important time. You have to sell it to them.

“Signing Tommy Rowe early was a big statement and I think it helped get others in.

“The recruitment, I’ve been pleased with and we really need to keep focused on it.

“It’s important now going into next season.”

When it came to getting off on the right foot in results terms, Rovers struggled.

The 3-2 defeat at Accrington Stanley on the opening day was a harsh welcome to League Two, with the manner of the loss raising fears some of the mental fragility of the previous season was still present.

A poor performance in a 1-1 draw with Crawley Town hardly helped alleviate the worries it was to be a long campaign for Rovers.

But beating Cambridge United kicked them into life, sparking a run of five league wins from six matches.

Finding their feet in the division came at a time when Rovers were also having to deal with a horrendous injury situation.

Luke McCullough, Mathieu Baudry, Craig Alcock and Gary McSheffrey were all long-term absentees who would have been expected to feature regularly.

While admitting it was difficult to deal with, Ferguson feels the injury situation brought the best out of his squad.

He said: “That is when you find out how good your squad is – and we had to find that out really early.

“There was a budget but we’d pretty much used it all.

“You just don’t expect to get so many injuries.

“McCullough was a big one but we were pretty quick in moving for Jordan Houghton.

“And the best compliment I can give Jordan is that we didn’t miss Luke.

“Alcock and Baudry were big ones as well, players we’d really be expecting to play most weeks.

“But then Joe Wright stepped in and was very good.

“I think, although we didn’t start the season as well as we’d hoped, it was a pretty solid start for the whole of the squad as opposed to what I’d have expected to be the starting XI.

“The back three at Accrington was Mitchell Lund, Andy Butler and Niall Mason – we’ve never played that since.

“That was the sort of situation we were in.”

The strong run of form which followed the initial wobble took Rovers into the top three – a position which they held for the remainder of the season.

While the chances of automatic promotion looked high from September onwards, Ferguson insists he did not begin to breathe a little easier until January.

“There are some moments I look back at as being quite pivotal,” he said.

“Certainly beating Portsmouth in January to go ten points ahead of them was a big moment.

“We didn’t look back from there really.

“That start of the new year, where we’d done well over Christmas, I felt January was one where if we could really kick on, we could create a bit of a gap.

“At that point, I was only really interested in the gap to fourth.

“Beating Stevenage in the last minute on January 2, then beating Portsmouth and winning every game in January.

“I felt from there we could be hard to stop. As much as we had to lose games, other teams had to keep winning.

“March was strong too. I always look at March as a key month if you want to get success. That stands you in good stead for the remainder.”

Rovers’ quality this season has been superb.

Whether it be the individual excellence of the likes of Tommy Rowe and James Coppinger, or brilliant team cohesion, Rovers so often had far too much for the opposition to handle.

Yet while quality was an important factor, the mentality of the individuals and group as a whole was arguably most key.

This was particularly so following the collapse to relegation in the previous campaign.

Rovers needed to be mentally stronger – and they were. Much to their manager’s delight.

“We’ve been tested mentally a few times this season and we’ve come out really well,” he said.

“The game against Cambridge in August was a big one. The fans weren’t happy against Crawley and rightly so.

“We’d made such good signings that the optimism had fallen back into the club and everyone was in a good place.

“The worry was we’d lost that.

“I felt after the Crawley game, we could’t lose the next one. The Cambridge win was big.

“But then there was the sticky period in February.

“We’d gone through January and won every game but then we stopped winning.

“At that point, in the back of my mind I knew people might be thinking we were going to do the same as we did in the previous season and start sliding.

“It was an obvious thing for people to think – and that goes for players as much as fans, even though not everyone was here.

“I was conscious we needed to make sure we weren’t losing games.

“We were going through the first real sticky spell where it had been more than one or two games without a win.

“But then we won at Cambridge and produced a brilliant performance.

“We had to dig in but it should have been much wider than 3-2 because we were excellent.

“I think that night I knew we’d take some stopping from there.

“The players showed real character.”

Unfortunately for Rovers, another sticky spell would come at the end of the season.

Promotion was sealed with five games to go. Now it was all about going on and claiming the title which was surely theirs.

But they just could not replicate the same level of performance after the ultimate goal was achieved.

A draw was followed by an unthinkable run of four consecutive defeats.

As it would turn out, one win in that run would have sealed the title, which ultimately went to Portsmouth.

The disappointment at missing out on a first league title was clear from Ferguson. But he refuses to be too downhearted.

“We have to say it’s been a magnificent season but we just ran out of gas,” he said.

“In the last two games we just couldn’t get to the required levels physically.

“We were absolutely shot and that was unfortunate.

“I wanted to freshen it up but injuries didn’t allow for that.

“No other team would have coped with the injuries we did this season.

“No chance, and I’m convinced at that.

“And that is why it’s been a brilliant season for us.”

Though the end to the campaign was disappointing, Rovers’ run to promotion was rather simple.

They were simply better than the vast majority of the other teams in the division and had the system and work ethic to make that count.

Ferguson felt that, despite the injury problems, the season was smooth – and even enjoyable.

“I think it’s pretty much gone according to plan, apart from the first two games and the last few,” he said.

“I would have expected the league to have been over by mid-April.

“That’s not me being complacent, I just felt we were in a really good place.

“It’s been fairly smooth other than that.

“There have been good periods where I’ve really enjoyed it.

“That’s not always the case, even when you get promotion.

“The enjoyment of the daily working with the players because they want to improve so much.

“I look back now and think it’s probably been one of my most enjoyable seasons.

“It’s my first full season at the club and I had a bit of ground to make up with my own reputation.

“It’s up there with getting back-to-back promotions, certainly going from League One to the Championship with Peterborough.”