How the 2019/20 season will be remembered for Doncaster Rovers - without coronavirus

The 2019/20 season will be remembered as the campaign that never really finished for Doncaster Rovers.

By Liam Hoden
Thursday, 18th June 2020, 2:30 pm
Updated Friday, 19th June 2020, 11:48 am

The suspension of competition with three months remaining due to the Covid-19 pandemic ultimately put the brakes on Rovers’ play-off push, denying the opportunity to see what Darren Moore could mastermind in his first season in charge.

But even without a true end point, the campaign delivered plenty of talking points and was, in many ways, bizarre enough even without the global outbreak of a virus which ultimately scuppered it.

Here, we take a look at some of those points of note as we reflect on the lost campaign.

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Jacob Ramsey

POSTPONEMENTS AND IMBALANCED RUNS

The season was always going to be imbalanced following the sad demise of Bury, which in reality occurred before a ball was kicked but lingered on much longer.

With at least one club not playing during each round of fixtures, the league table would rarely provide an accurate representation of how the division was shaping up.

Rovers in particular felt the bite of this early in the season, with the trips to Bury and Bolton Wanderers - more on that shortly - both due to take place in August.

Tom Anderson

They went on to see a further three matches postponed for international call-ups, a waterlogged pitch and cup commitments, leaving them with far too many blank weekends and the extension of congested periods.

Bizarrely, given that two rearranged fixtures were still to be played before the shutdown, there was a point not too long ago when Rovers had actually played more games than some of their divisional rivals.

But the true imbalanced nature of the season was reflected in the make-up of the final ten matches that never were for Rovers. Seven away, three at home.

Even before the bite of Covid-19, it was hardly a stable campaign.

Darren Moore

BOLTON, BOLTON, BOLTON

The saga that never reached its conclusion. Doomed from the start, destined to never take place.

It was a game that should have been played on August 20 but ultimately never happened. But that hardly tells the story of bitter wrangling, ill-feeling and a major sense of injustice.

For anyone living under a rock, Rovers should have travelled to Bolton for a midweek fixture on August 20. They had completed their preparations, including pre-match media duties. But less than 36 hours before kick-off, Bolton took the unilateral decision to call off the game.

The Trotters were on their knees at the time, with legal wrangling holding up a takeover. Unable to sign players, they were forced to name several U18s players in matchday squads - which ultimately led to their decision to cancel the fixture. They had shipped five goals in each of the two games leading up to the scheduled visit of Rovers, conceded five in the two that followed and then six a week later.

Though maintaining a typically dignified stance in public, quietly Rovers were furious from the hierarchy down to the playing squad. The lack of notice or consultation ensured little consideration was given towards Bolton’s plight.

Rovers wanted to be awarded the win, but the EFL never showed support for anything other than the fixture being decided on the pitch.

Then came the bizarre scenario of the EFL leaving it to an independent disciplinary panel to decide Bolton’s punishment and not being happy with the leniency of a suspended points deduction and fine that was dished out. And then there was the EFL’s even more laughable failed appeal.

A paltry compensation figure of £4,000 was awarded to Rovers. And that, along with a 3-1 win in the reverse fixture, hardly placated anyone at the Keepmoat.

By the time the two sides meet again, it will have largely been forgotten. But it was a saga that cast a cloud over the season for several months.

LOANEES - WE BARELY KNEW SOME OF YE

There has been plenty of talk about Rovers’ reliance on loan players but, again, the majority made a significant positive impact.

And it is difficult to argue with the use of loanees when they deliver in the manner they have over the last couple of seasons.

Cameron John was in superb form at the start of the season until injury kept him out of action for several months. The absence set him back slightly but he still looks set for a promising career.

His Wolverhampton Wanderers team mate Niall Ennis was more of a grower, but it must be remembered that a tremendous weight was placed on his shoulders to carry the attacking burden with no other options for the first half of the season.

What the youngster consistently delivered was a relentlessly high work rate that gave opposition players plenty to think about. And, after the January arrivals, his switch into a wider role brought more goals and showed his importance to the side.

And then there was Mr Consistent, Ben Sheaf. The partnership he formed with Ben Whiteman as the ‘sitting two’ was excellent and a vital component of the manner in which Rovers play.

The Arsenal loanee took a bizarre amount of stick when misplacing passes - particularly baffling given he did that far less often than some of his teammates who escaped criticism.

But he was rarely rattled by anything and looked a very assured performer.

When it comes to assurance, no one possessed as much self-confidence as Seny Dieng, who enjoyed a sensational season between the sticks.

His handling and strength are incredible assets and then there is his ability on the ball. It caused some frightening moments at times but his understanding of when to go short only grew as the season wore on.

There was certainly a major case of ‘what if’ when it came to Jacob Ramsey, who only joined on loan on the final day of the January window. Very inexperienced at senior level, he looked anything but that from the start, beginning with his incredible debut at Tranmere Rovers.

Strong, powerful, quick and very, very intelligent on the pitch, he looks set to be a very good player for the future. If only Rovers had signed him in the summer. If only he’d had the chance to play out the last ten matches.

THE WAIT FOR A STRIKER

Without Covid-19, without the Bolton saga, the 19/20 season would arguably be defined by one position for Rovers - striker.

The departure of John Marquis last summer was an inevitability but that did not make for a smooth process in finding a replacement.

We were given an insight into the stubbornness of Darren Moore when it comes to the transfer market as he showed his determination to wait for the right player - both in August and January. And we saw August pass without the significant arrival that was most certainly required.

There was a major element of bad luck with that, as Brighton’s Aaron Connelly was all set to join until he netted for the senior squad the night before his scheduled move. Connelly has since made regular appearances in the Premier League.

It forced Moore to go with what he’d got - chiefly Niall Ennis up front after Kieran Sadlier had taken the lead for the first few matches.

Ennis performed admirably, always hard working, always a handful, but the lack of goals was hampering Rovers and preventing them from turning good performances into wins.

January - after a repeat of the Connelly disappointment with Norwich’s Adam Idah - eventually, brought two reinforcements in the shape of Devante Cole and Fejiri Okenabirhie.

But, in the short time allowed, neither were truly able to get into any sort of rhythm - with Okenabirhie’s three match suspension after his red card at Gillingham hardly helping.

An out and out striker was the main thing that Rovers were lacking for so much of the season. What might have been had that been different?

DEFENSIVE MIGHT

While there were shortages in attacking areas, the defence proved nothing but mighty for Rovers for the majority of the campaign.

The rise to prominence of undoubted player of the season Tom Anderson helped. He was the reliable rock that proved very difficult to break.

But two primary full backs, Brad Halliday and Reece James - two of Grant McCann’s final signings before his departure - performed very well and became a vital part of the side whether at the back or going forward.

And then there was Anderson’s partnership with Joe Wright, who continued his excellent development after his return from injury. The twin towers are imposing but have also shown they are adept on the ball too, dealing with the play of Dieng, who also added to the excellent defensive record.

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

A new manager brought new focus behind-the-scenes, particularly when it came to the club’s U23 set up.

The introduction of the very demanding Gary McSheffrey into the role of heading up the section meant there was real pressure on the youngsters to step up - the sort of demands they had not had to such a level previously.

It brought positive improvement in plenty of young players, who supplemented the senior squad on several occasions.

And there was a desire to look over the best young non-contracted or non-league talent out there, with numerous players in on trial throughout the season. The focus was on creating a strong U23 group for the senior manager to call upon.

It will be interesting to see how much of this continues after the ravages of the Covid-19 situation put strain on all aspects of the club. But it does feel that the production line is beginning to be truly productive.

MOORE’S IMPACT

Pre-season was well underway when he arrived. The squad was still threadbare and time was rapidly running out.

But Darren Moore can feel satisfied that he overcame a tricky start to have Rovers in a good position by the time the curtain was closed on the season.

He quickly imposed a style of play and system on the group and it brought results quickly, with teams unable to handle the slick passing play and rapid build-up.

There came a sticky point when Rovers looked to be beginning to be found out by opposition teams, who sought to shut them down by blocking attempts to play out from the back.

It took a little longer than it might, but Rovers did overcome this, showing adaptability and flexibility from the manager as he made tweaks to the team’s approach.

Over the festive period and into the new year, Rovers became more street smart and looked a real danger - and Moore deserves plenty of credit for that.

Questions will remain over certain aspects of his recruitment. But he remains a man who knows what he wants, and is prepared to wait for that if he has to, instead happy to put faith in the players at his disposal.

He is an assured figure, calm and composed. Always striving for better, he is a genuine taskmaster - despite his very affable personality.

And he is well-liked and respected too among his players - which is not something that should be sniffed at.

GREAT FOOTBALL, NOT ENOUGH GOALS

At their best, Rovers were quite breathtaking at times over the season.

Moore’s style was not as all-out aggressive as his predecessor and there were times when Rovers would have been better off with a touch of the literal aggression from the previous season.

But there was a very pleasing, attacking, entertaining style of play forged by Moore - and one that was showing further signs of development as the season was curtailed.

That came after the tough period mentioned previously, when Rovers were faced with opposition teams intent on shutting them down.

And it ensured that while the desire to play out from the back remains, Rovers are much more willing to play a longer ball forward to bypass a strong press from the opposition, meaning rivals are less likely to overcommit to a press in the first place.

Rovers’ big issue was turning strong performances into goals to win matches.

So many occasions, particularly in the first half of the season, they did not convert plentiful chances and denied themselves opportunities for three points that they deserved on the balance of play.

This is one of the key points that needs to be rectified heading into next season, if Rovers are to progress.

SUCCESS - OR NOT?

Judging the success of a football season stopped ten matches short is not the most simple task.

But there were plenty of reasons to be positive about what Rovers delivered up to the beginning of March - and grounds for optimism over what might have been.

They strolled through a challenging start to Moore’s tenure, encountered problems and appeared to overcome them, playing good football and winning matches in the process.

It may well have transpired that they would fall just short. But there is enough to suggest the ‘just’ part of that sentence was key.

Given the challenges, turmoil, turnover of players and a major lack of luck, it was not a bad season after all.

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