With 15 games (in all competitions) gone, Lee Croft looks back at the Rovers season to date:
With just 5 draws and 4 losses in the opening 11 games this season you would think you’d be on a safe bet to state that it’s been an uneventful opening 2 months for the Rovers, the reality of the situation is completely the opposite.
For the first time in 3 years – and in the first time during Dickov’s tenure – we had a close season of no takeover talk and backroom unrest. The effect of this was plain to see with some quality additions to the squad (namely Thorsten Stuckman and Andy Williams) and after our pre-season victory over Sunderland (a result, which in hindsight is no great surprise) it looked like we were going into this season with promotion high on our list of priorities.
The opening game against Bury was typical of a curtain opener. A very close game with some gritty football where in truth Bury had the best of the chances. That being said it was always heading to a 0-0 draw until Forrester accidentally lobbed the Bury keeper when attempting to kick the ball back to him and the Rovers took a shock lead in injury time. After failing to get the ref to disallow the goal, Dickov ordered the Rovers to stand aside and let Bury walk the ball into our goal. After the game Dickov said that his intention was only ever to do the ‘right thing’ for the game, but you would be stupid to not think that he thought – even if for half a second – what if we just steal the three points from here?
As it happened that isn’t how it played out, and bizarrely one of the greatest moments of sportsmanship in Dickov’s career would be the opposition literally walking the ball through our 11 players and into an open goal. With as much respect to Paul Dickov as possible – it is probably the best representation of Dickov’s time here as manager.
During that opening game we looked a little stumped in the final third and whilst some build up play was much better than last year, we lacked that killing instinct and that look of desperation to win. In the beautiful line of vision that is hindsight, all the signs of what was to follow were present. When the best performance in a Rovers shirt came from the fans in the new Black Bank we should have guessed that it would be a long season ahead.
A few days later Leeds would come to the Keepmoat in a League Cup 1st round tie and were in complete control of the game and leading 1-0. A Rovers penalty converted by Williams and a red card for Leeds would sway the odds in our favour and after 120 minutes had been played our players must have walked off the field disappointed they couldn’t put a single chance away after wave and wave of attack on the Leeds goal. Luckily we managed to come out on top in the shootout and the Rovers fans would finally see a win (or at least a victory – in sorts) over Leeds in the Keepmoat Stadium at the 7th attempt.
The next game at Wigan seemed to pick up where we left off and what was a credible performance which saw the Rovers create some great chances, yet again failed to produce a goal during open play and somehow, Wigan survived enough to walk away with a point. The scoreline would be the same against Southend days later at the Keepmoat – although that performance was more reflective of the previous season with the team looking lost on the ball and generally failing to create any clear cut chances.
A trip to Port Vale would finally deliver the blow we were waiting for as Rovers were sunk 3-0 by an average Vale side. Despite the glimpses of quality seen in our games against Leeds and Wigan – this performance was far too similar to what had been become a typical Dickov performance. With pressure mounting Dickov did manage to rally the troops and held off high flying Ipswich to a 1-1 draw in 90 minutes in a 2nd round League Cup tie at the Moat, only to conceded 3 goals in extra time. However Dickov would be able to clinch his first victory at the Keepmoat a couple of days later as the Rovers won 2-0 against Fleetwood. Whilst you can only beat what is in front of you, the performance was less than impressive and a better side may have found us out – but Dickov got his 3 points and in true Dickov fashion he managed to pull a result out just when he needed one.
Following the victory, and despite fans crying on Social Media “Our Season Starts Now” – we were back to our old tricks when the first day of the September the Rovers and Burton Albion played out what can only be described as the most boring game in the history of football. It finished 0-0 and Dickov’s men would sneak through on penalties. Thankfully less than 3000 people turned up and within minutes of the win people were back on Social Media calling for Dickov’s head.
Personally I felt his job was safe – not that I believe these who believe there is a conspiracy in the boardroom of DRFC to see our club play at the cheapest level possible – but because of how early it was in the season. Obviously our performances were typical of the previous two seasons but given how heavily they backed Dickov in the summer, I felt they would give him more time to turn it around.
Turns out that wasn’t in the script, as days after our next loss at Gillingham (who were top of the league) Dickov was given his marching orders. The Gillingham game itself was one of typical controversy – Rovers should have had a penalty and the Gillingham goal a goal line scramble judged to have crossed the line. Those two incidents aside and it was another boring game. But perhaps it’s fitting that the result that ultimately cost Dickov his job would come at the hands of the team whose dreams he crushed in his playing days where scoring arguably the biggest goal of Manchester City’s history when equalising late on in the play-off final at the old Empire Stadium (or Wembley as you people refer to it).
Rob Jones would be selected as the new caretaker manager and it was clear from the off-set that the Rovers would not rush into appointing a new manager – Jones would be given more than enough time to turn our form around put himself in the strongest position to take on the job full time. Sadly it seems this task is beyond the Corporal as we lost 2-0 to a Wallsall side whose performance wouldn’t look out of place in League 2 (although that statement looks a bit silly now considering their form have bounced them into the top 2).
When Oldham visited the Keepmoat a week later, they too had just sacked their manager and whilst the final score was another draw (surprise) the Rovers were the better side and perhaps should have found a winner. Make no mistake – Oldham looked lost and it seemed we could take some comfort in seeing David Dunn’s task seemed a lot harder than our own.
As September drew to a close, we would have to travel to Bramall Lane to take on Sheffield United in a South Yorkshire derby where there isn’t really a rivalry, but always a bitterly contested affair. Jones’ men looked to be holding our own and despite going behind we got back on level terms when Cameron Stewart scored from his free kick (remember them?). Sadly though a second from Sheff U and a red card for MacKenzie ended any chance of a comeback and Billy Sharp’s second half goal would add insult to injury.
Swindon would be the next team to come to the Keepmoat keen to inflict a second consecutive defeat – but after a run of 3 straight three defeats it would always be an evenly contested game. After a drab first half it was Swindon who struck first and it looked to stay that way, in the last 20 minutes however the game turned on its head as Keshi Anderson scored his first for the Rovers and Williams gave us the lead from the spot – Jones first win looked in the bag before Jonathan Obika levelled late on to give Swindon something to take back down South and take away any realistic chance of Jones being named manager permanently.
Despite sitting in the relegation zone, and in the hunt for a new manager we had somehow managed to go a run of 12 games in all competitions without losing inside 90 minutes at the Keepmoat Stadium – the longest run of games since the stadium opened back in 2007. But given recent performances it looked to be under real threat of ending on game 13 when Barnsley made the short journey to the Keepmoat. Kehsi Anderson was the man of the moment again as he gave us a 1-0 lead going into half-time, but a second half performance that saw the Rovers on the back-foot looked to be heading one way and when Barnsley grabbed an equaliser the Rovers were hanging on for a point.
But given the way football is, we know more than anyone that performances don’t equal points and the Rovers showed fighting spirit to find a winner in the dying moments through Richard Chaplow – one of Dickov’s signings who spent most of the opening games filling in for Wellens as the missing man in the Rovers midfield. But Chaplows strike showed enough class to beat the Barnsley keeper and erupt the Rovers faithful behind the goal. No matter what league you are in, no matter where you are in the table, no matter who your manager is; there is nothing sweeter than a last minute winner against your rivals. A moment of pure euphoria, grabbing anyone near you and jumping on them as you see the away end quickly emptying.
It’s the sort of result that can not only unite the fan-base and bring an end to constant debating on social media and internet forums (or what’s left of them anyway) – but they can kick start a season.
Before the Barnsley game, the club made it clear that they wish to appoint a manager before our next league game at home to Bradford. It looks as if Rob Jones short spell as Rovers Boss will end as it started, with a 2-0 defeat away from home to opposition we really should be doing better against. Whilst the JPT isn’t high on our list of priorities, losing to York City with arguably our strongest 11 sums up Jones’ tenure; same old same old.
On the whole, it’s been a disappointing opening quarter of the season and whilst the positive is that things can only improve from here – we have to question how much longer this poor stint can continue before we write off yet another season? The win against Barnsley was a great win but after the result against York it’s clear this corner we are turning could quickly become a U-turn. Personally I want a new manager who can come in and not only teach this squad to grind out results, but also make us play like a team that wants to win, I want hunger, passion and that little bit of desperation in the players mentality. I’m confident we can improve and save our season, but I’m not sure if that’s just myself living in hope…