League struggles, cup success, international recognition - Doncaster Rovers youth team season review
This has been the most challenging and unpredictable season for any crop of scholars since Doncaster Rovers’ academy was reformed in the mid-2000s.
It was a campaign of vast change and sometimes frustration, though it was completely overshadowed by everyone having to adapt to various challenges - the majority of which came about as direct consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A season of change
New surroundings, forced to play behind-closed-doors and with new ideas on the training ground to get used to, this campaign will forever be remembered as one like no other.
Separated from the first team squad and forced into their own 'bubble' at the Keepmoat Stadium due to stringent EFL protocols, the 2020/21 scholars weren't afforded the opportunity to train alongside the club's senior pros or even be in the same environment on a daily basis - something which would have been unimaginable in the pre-pandemic world!
Furthermore, the lads weren't able to stay in digs with local families (as would usually be the case) thus resulting in mammoth journeys for those who lived outside the local area just to get into training sessions.
The majority of fixtures were also played on synthetic 4G surfaces - representing another small but hugely significant change from what was the usual when almost every game was on grass.
When long-serving boss Paul Stancliffe retired at Christmas, it paved the way for Gary McSheffrey (previously assistant) to take charge and implement his ideas/philosophies on the team.
Several players who have since penned scholarships for the next two years gained invaluable early experience as they were included more frequently in matchday squads as the campaign grew old.
At one point it even seemed as if the season as a whole might be suspended (as it happened, just the FA Youth Cup was delayed for a two-month period).
When the various trials, tribulations and changes of this extraordinarily difficult period are accumulated and considered at length, the lads deserve a significant degree of respect just for being able to plough through with so much energy and enthusiasm.
Success in the cup
The season's highlight occurred in the FA Youth Cup when Hull City (perceived to be stronger opponents owing to their Category Two status) were beaten 3-2 at the KCOM Stadium with Luca Nelson (2) and Owan Derrett grabbing the goals and Ben Bottomley saving a penalty.
That meeting was different in just about every way imaginable to the previous round where the lads were required to show guts and guile in order to overcome Coventry Sphinx - winning 2-1 in damp, tough and horrible foggy conditions in Warwickshire.
Despite taking the lead in the long-delayed third round tie at Peterborough through Liam Ravenhill s spot-kick, the Youth Cup journey continued no further as Posh (including several players who have since either been rewarded with professional contracts) battled back to emerge as 2-1 victors.
Nevertheless, the lads put up a valiant effort that day on what was an absolutely shocking playing surface and they can take pride in the fact that it's the furthest a Rovers team has progressed in the competition since the 2014/15 season.
Struggles in the league
Despite being title winners in 2019/20, it soon became apparent that a successful defence of the EFL Youth Alliance crown (eventually won by Notts County) would be unlikely.
Indifferent performances coupled with some long-term injuries in some key areas ultimately resulted in a ninth position finish out of 10 teams in the division.
The season's first clean sheet wasn't kept until a goalless encounter at Lincoln City in April, while at the other end of the pitch too many opportunities went begging in too many games - the team failing to score on no fewer than seven separate occasions.
Although goals were spread out quite well across the team, no player registered double figures in competitive action - something which was in stark contrast to the previous year when both Junior Smith and Jack Watson were highly prolific.
Defensively, the lack of stability at centre back (mainly caused as a result of injuries) meant over a dozen different partnerships or trios were tried - something which again contrasts greatly compared to the title-winning team where Ben Blythe and Nathan Dimou were almost ever-present and formed a formidable partnership.
In spite of the frustrations, the season did have some notable high points.
A last-gasp comeback win away to Notts County on Halloween provided one happy moment and four goals were put past Huddersfield Town, Rotherham United and Bradford City in comfortable victories on home soil.
The most eye-catching and impressive result of the campaign occurred in February when Burton Albion (who later knocked Southampton out of the FA Youth Cup) were hammered 5-1 at St George's Park.
For the rare good moments, however, there were simply too many low points and although results aren't everything when it comes to youth football, the next crop of scholars will be hoping they're on the right end of scorelines a lot more frequently.
As was widely publicised at the time, Ethan Bojang became one of a small batch of Doncaster Rovers players to feature in an international tournament when he represented Gambia at the U20 African Nations Cup in Mauritania earlier this year.
The midfielder, who was the eldest member in the squad, helped the Scorpions reach the semi-final stage where they were eliminated by eventual champions Gambia.
Other players in the squad also caught the eye of international selectors too during the season.
Fellow second-year scholar Liam Ravenhill featured in a couple of Northern Ireland U21 squads and also a training camp, while the Welsh selectors were present at a handful of fixtures to keep tabs on the progress of first year right back/wide man Tom Henson.
Soon to be new scholar Alex Fletcher is also eligible to represent Scotland and has previously attended a training camp in Largs for his respective age group.
Ben Bottomley and Liam Ravenhill are the two players who have been offered professional contracts for next season.
Ravenhill's name will already be known to most supporters having made his professional debut live on television in the FA Cup clash at FC United of Manchester, before following that up with a start against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Papa John’s Trophy.
Goalkeeper Bottomley has yet to make his senior bow but was named on the bench for the first team towards the tail end of the campaign.
Both players flickered between the first and youth 'bubbles' at different times with the lion’s share of Bottomley's appearances in youth action occuring before Christmas, whereas Ravenhill was a prominent figure from February onwards.
Seven players have been released following completion of their two-year scholarships. In no particular order, they are Owan Derrett, Charlie Bell, Ethan Bojang, Luca Nelson, Max Jemson, Josh Clemitson and Lewis Cunningham.
All seven played varying roles and the likelihood is that some lads would have earned contracts had it not been for the absence of an Under 23s set-up at the club.
Amongst the released players, the two stand-out performers over the past 12 months were Lewis Cunningham and Charlie Bell.
Cunningham, a calm, composed and vocal left-back who is good on the ball and stood in as captain on a handful of occasions, weighed in with various assists and at one stage was in a rich vein of form whereby he was both scoring and setting up goals with ease.
Bell was energy, commitment, heart and passion personified - not afraid to tackle when it was necessary and demonstrating countless times his many positive attributes. Determined, level-headed, popular and highly-regarded amongst his peers, a switch to right-back from midfield in the New Year coincided with some solid individual displays and he remained a near ever-present in the team thereafter.
The first year crop
In no particular order, the eight scholars who have reached the midway point of their scholarships are Tavonga Kuleya, Tom Henson, Luke Chadwick, Corie Cole, Alex Wolny, Dan Wilds, Will Hollings and Michael Nesbitt.
Undoubtedly the best performer amongst them was Tom Henson.
The right-sided player possesses an abundance of energy and began the campaign at right-back before being pushed on into a more attacking role early in the New Year. Very comfortable in possession, he impressed many with his performances and although he didn't get on the score-sheet, his driving runs caused opponents several problems - none more so than deep into injury-time at Notts County when his gliding, quick and direct footwork led to Alex Wolny heading home a dramatic late winner.
Wolny, an extremely powerful forward whose hold up play is excellent, finished as joint-top goalscorer and is a handful for even the meanest of defences at Youth Alliance level. A born leader who strives to achieve high standards, the forward will now be hoping to add more goals to his game next year.
A special mention also has to be given to Bobby Faulkner, previously with Rossington Main, who performed admirably at centre-back when he came on what turned out to be an extended trial in the latter stages of the season. An old-fashioned type of defender who thrives on responsibilities, the 16-year-old slotted in with effortless ease - starting in the FA Youth Cup game at Peterborough United and then scoring his only goal to date in the red and white hoops against Mansfield Town a week later.
Players’ Player of the Season
Securing seven votes from his teammates, Tom Henson was the clear and deserved winner when the scholars were polled for their 'Players' Player Of The Season' vote.
Charlie Bell and Lewis Cunningham were joint runners-up, receiving four votes apiece, with Liam Ravenhill and Ben Bottomley also receiving a vote each.