Doncaster Rovers: Promotion dreams to relegation nightmares

Andy Butler
Andy Butler, seen here during the 4-1 defeat by Colchester, has been part of the Doncaster defence that has suffered from lapses in concentration resulting in relegation from League One.

When asked by the Football League in August, Doncaster fans were the joint second-most optimistic about winning promotion from League One. They predicted they would finish fourth. They did... fourth bottom.

Only Sheffield United fans fancied their chances more, but three managers, numerous loan signings and the weight of expectation has seen Rovers sink to League Two rather than swim up to the second tier.

The club must prepare for life against Grimsby, Cheltenham and Barnet rather than Aston Villa, Newcastle and Norwich.

It was a season with problems both on and off the pitch, from being six points off the play-offs at the turn of the year, to a 16-match winless run, and a kit-designing PR stunt that turned sour when the fans realised the winner was their most famous fan: One Direction's Louis Tomlinson.

A season to forget

"I've never seen a season like it," said Derek Daniels, a Doncaster Rovers fan for the last 49 seasons.

It was a campaign that began with Paul Dickov as manager, but he was sacked in September with just one win from six, and Rob Jones failed to inspire in the next seven.

In came Darren Ferguson and for the next two months the club went on a run of only two defeats in 10 games. It was only an initial wave of optimism as following the FA Cup defeat by Stoke they only won twice between February and May.

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Highlights: Doncaster 1-2 Stoke

Liam Hoden, deputy head of sport at the Sheffield Star, believes complacency was the issue as the team "tried to coast, got into trouble, lost confidence and could not get out of it. People took their eye off the ball".

A string of late goals also cost Doncaster vital points. Against Peterborough and Blackpool, defeats were caused by goals scored in the last five minutes, against Rochdale they conceded in the 96th minute to draw. And the performance in losing 4-1 at Colchester on Good Friday was was described by Ferguson as a "nonsense" and a "shambles".

Rochdale celebrate a late equaliser against Doncaster
Doncaster have conceded late goals against Rochdale, Blackpool, Colchester, and Peterborough in 2016 to either draw or lose the game.

Daniels sees lost concentration as a root cause of Rovers' failings: "There are a couple of players who leave their positions too easily and don't put their brain in gear before they put their feet in motion. It's not embarrassing, it's humiliating."

The players

As the club now prepares for League Two, they must reassess which players will take them forward. Surprisingly, Gary MacKenzie was the only defender released - an area that was problematic according to the club's former director of football Mickey Walker.

"The soft part of the team is the back four," he said. "There are no 'dogs', they've been easy to get at, they've not been able to stand up to the pressure. You can have the best goalie in the world but there's only so much he can do."

Hoden sympathises with the supporters who "felt in January that they needed to sign a defender. They started the season without a right-back and it was a position they never really filled".

Tommy Rowe
Tommy Rowe, who has now signed permanently for Rovers, came in on loan and scored three goals in his last four games as Doncaster tried to stave off relegation

Ferguson was constant in his remarks that the foundation of the squad was not of his own design. His loan signings have shown more of what he wishes to achieve.

Midfielder Conor Grant, 21, was a bright spark until injury stalled his progress in the second half of the season, and Tommy Rowe, 27, whose deal from Wolves has now been made permanent, has teamed up with Ferguson - previously his manager at Peterborough - again despite, even by the boss' own admission, being better than League Two level.

Those who Ferguson has felt are not up to scratch include the notable names of goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann, who was only drafted in last summer from Preston, midfielder Richard Chaplow, and striker Nathan Tyson, who have been released.

The manager

Ferguson will remain in charge for next season, and if he wants advice, there is nowhere better to go than his dad. The son of former Manchester United boss Sir Alex, Ferguson Jr has definitely brought some of his father to South Yorkshire.

There is the bite and the tenacity, a desire to win and a knowledge of what is needed. The unfortunate thing is that League One is not the Premier League.

Darren Ferguson
Darren Ferguson showed frustration towards his Doncaster side during the closing weeks of the season, but recognises what he wants from the squad

But draw the similarities. Manchester United in 1986 were not what they were in 2006. It took time. Sir Alex knew what he wanted and was given the time to implement changes. Darren has the same situation at Doncaster.

He said, in a post-match interview in the closing weeks of the season, that it "may take longer than I thought" to make Doncaster what he wants. He has never been entirely happy with the squad he inherited but has constantly reiterated his philosophy.

And it is this insight that has led to more support than criticism of the manager. "Everyone has bought into the idea, Ferguson's idea, that there is a lot of work to be done at this club," said Hoden.

Walker added: "Darren is shrewd, he knows the knife has to come out and cloth is to be cut accordingly."

The hairdryer treatment is also there, and has worked. After the defeat by Colchester, in which Doncaster were 1-0 up, Ferguson launched a tirade on his team, claiming they had "no character, no leadership, nothing".

The performances that followed against Blackpool and Rochdale seemed to gather a response, although only one point from six was gained.

Where now?

Ferguson will be given funds "immediately", according to a club statement, so the squad "can push for an automatic promotion place".

Doncaster Rovers season comparison
Doncaster Rovers will be hoping for a season better than either half of their most recent campaign

Ferguson told BBC Radio Sheffield: "The club have hired a manager, in me, that has an excellent record. I want to be here, I've already got plans for League Two, it has to be a quick fix, I am prepared for the summer.

"I think all along I need to get my full grip on the club. One transfer window has not been enough for that and we stand together."

The importance of recruitment in football is so often talked about. Managers come and go but if the players remain and underperform the club will continue to struggle.

Rovers' statement said the main focus "will be to develop the best playing squad and philosophy to ensure an immediate return".

To link back to their famous popstar fan, it is clear Rovers want to head in one direction, they only want one thing and that is to make some history with an instant return to League One.

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