Transformed Doncaster Rovers finally get their rewards in tireless battling win at MK Dons

If one image perfectly encapsulated Doncaster Rovers’ afternoon in Milton Keynes it was the sight of Ollie Younger leaving the pitch at the end of the game, his head wrapped in a sizeable bandage and a big smile plastered across his face.

Sunday, 23rd January 2022, 11:33 am
Updated Sunday, 23rd January 2022, 4:15 pm

As debuts go, that of the centre half was pretty much as good as it gets.

A dominant defensive performance driven by equal parts bravery and on-pitch smarts as well as a clean sheet. And you can bet he wore the scars of battle, picked up inside the opening 20 minutes, with plenty of pride.

His immediate impact following his transfer from Sunderland earlier in the week will see him receive the loudest of plaudits in the aftermath of Saturday. And rightly so.

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Matt Smith was superb at MK Dons

But he was ultimately only one cog in the machine of an incredible collective performance that delivered the points it so rightly deserved.

MK Dons may have had far more of the ball and the attacking pressure, but they simply could not breach a Rovers side who were so determined to keep them out.

The closest they came to doing so was when the ball bounced through the legs of Louis Jones after Younger ducked out of a header to leave it for the goalkeeper and sparked confusion, with the very impressive Kyle Knoyle hooking off the line. Neither Younger nor Jones deserved to be part of a side that conceded on the afternoon, nevermind in what would have been such calamitous fashion.

For all the pressure of the hosts, their assaults on the goal itself were hardly plentiful. The most testing effort Jones had to deal with was a late free kick from Scott Twine, which he pushed away well. Mo Eisa had planted an effort straight at him with the Dons’ best chance of the day.

Jones had to be alert throughout and he was. And the same could definitely be said of everyone else.

More often than not it was a Rovers head meeting a MK cross. Or a boot. And when they did manage to breach the lines, there was some superb blocking or last ditch tackling, at which Knoyle thrived in probably his best performance in a Rovers shirt so far.

MK Dons’ Theo Corbeanu - operating in what appeared to be a role free of the structure of the rest of the team on the left flank - gave Branden Horton a torrid time but struggled to make anything happen inside the box once he got around the full back.

Rovers were much more threatening in their previous two games but after Joe Dodoo drilled them ahead on 41 minutes following a smart breakaway, it was not an occasion where that was the priority.

Instead, on top of the incredible defensive effort, they needed to use the ball smartly when they had it.

The horrendous capitulation at Morecambe at the start of the month was partly due to the attacking players not offering the slightest hint of respite from the pressure the hosts were piling on.

They could hardly be accused of that on this occasion. Through the second half they made the ball stick well, pushing it into the corners, keeping it and also threatening on the break.

Much of the easing of the pressure is aided by the workrate of the Rovers midfield, who now race out quickly to pressurise opposition players or snap up second balls. Tommy Rowe and, in particular, Matt Smith were excellent at this on Saturday.

The introduction of Josh Martin has offered a fresh dimension too. A player with the ability to take men on, but also one who can hold onto the ball exceptionally well.

Martin played a vital role in the winning goal, showing tenacity to win the ball back in the middle of the park, the pace to create the counterattack and the smarts to wait for the run of Dodoo and play the perfectly weighted pass.

Dodoo himself looks like a man transformed from his output earlier in the month. A combative, tireless runner, in this moment he looked like a confident forward once more as he took on a chance that he would have been expected to dally over in previous games, and drilled the ball into the far corner.

Rovers have dramatically evolved in the passing of less than a fortnight. A new approach, involving a pinch of directness, a determination to play forward quickly and driven by phenomenal workrate, has stoked embers of belief that they can mount a survival push after all. Embers that looked to have been extinguished in the first two games of 2022.

One game does not make for a revival. But one game can do plenty to start one.

Rovers have now won away from home. They have picked up an away clean sheet. They have climbed off the foot of the table and halted the gradual increase in their margin to safety.

And they have done so by besting one of the division’s top teams, providing much need affirmation as they plunge headlong into a run against League One’s leading outfits.

Arguably more important though is the fact they have received the rewards for carrying out Gary McSheffrey’s new approach, not just in the improved performances against Wigan Athletic and Cambridge United, but with the tangible element of the three points collected at Stadium:mk.

Though the overall picture remains a grim one, belief among the squad now should be higher than it has been in a long time. And it deserves to be.

If they can continue to produce the levels they have done over the last week, that belief will only grow.

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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.