With the start of the 2010/11 season just a few days away, now is as good a time as any to take stock of what we have learnt from pre-season. In the past month Rovers have played seven friendly fixtures, and drafted in a number of new faces in preparation for the upcoming campaign. But then that happens every year so what can we take specifically from this year’s League campaign preparations? Here are the seven things pre-season has taught us.
1. We really could be at this level to stay
Well OK, maybe this is not so much a lesson learnt as an acceptance of a reality. Over the past two seasons we have watched Rovers amass a good collection of down to earth players who collectively are capable of matching anything they come up against. But underlying that last season was the factor that our star asset was borrowed, that the goals we were scoring were not strictly ours. Billy Sharp found the net fifteen times last season, but as he did so I felt a little bit guilty that we were using other folk’s resources, and that ultimately the players, like Sharp, needed to properly compete at this level as oppose to hold your own, were financially beyond us.
This Summer has caused me to reassess that. Whilst I will always advocate the sensible cost-effective approach and the need to not live beyond your means there’s no doubting that seeing Rovers three directors club together to fund a record-obliterating one-off transfer to make Sharp a full-fledged Rover, made me feel like a kid who’s just caught first sight of the ocean on a summer road trip to the beach. If needs be, and if the player and time is right the (financially) big three directors will be selfless. That’s bloody good to know. The-likes-of-Doncaster have spent just over £1million on a player. Now anything really can happen.
2. Pre-season tournaments are not what they once were
I have fond memories of the Minster Carpets Cup, of staying in a tent in Scarborough and chasing ball-boys across the McCain Stadium pitch to get our beach ball back, but alas pre-season tournaments, of the kind to which Rovers are invited, are no longer really suitable season preparation. As such participation in the South West Cup was a mistaken venture.
It started to go wrong a couple of days before the tournament began as the FA insisted the competition rules be changed to only allow three substitutes per game. With Sean O’Driscoll not one to favour giving players full match run outs in pre-season this was destined to be a problem. The substitute factor coupled with far from ideal quality pitches and more committed non-league opposition (ie. folk taking it as seriously as we used to take the Minster Carpets Cup) resulted in Rovers picking up a number of injuries in the South West; new signing George Friend one of those hobbling off.
As such Rovers, despite beating Barnstaple 10-1, had already decided to withdraw from the competition before being defeated by Havant & Waterlooville 5-0 in their second fixture. The Havant result along with the club’s withdrawal had some supporters complaining about letting down those who had travelled to watch, with others showing concern about the team’s prospects on the field for the season ahead. It produced a wave of negative energy that the club could do without at any time, let alone the run into a new season. That said, withdrawal, though unpopular, was the sensible option. As the Rovers Press Officer Chris Mortley tweeted (and we should point out these are his personal thoughts, not the club’s) “On way back to Doncaster as Rovers withdraw from South West Challenge Cup. What a shambles that tournament is/was!”
3. Steve Brooker is alive
Back in May the club announced that Steve Brooker would feature in the pre-season fixtures. We’d forgotten what he looked like, to the extent where we asked our readership to draw us a picture of him. But cometh July, cometh the man. Brooker has featured in Rovers final three pre-season friendlies, and though he’s looked understandably a little rusty, he is, for the first time since joining the club on a permanent basis almost twenty months ago, an actual Rovers player. And we’re delighted for him.
4. Blue aint the colour
Doncaster, having stepped bravely into the world of companies other people have heard of, have a fancy new kit manufacturer in the form of Nike. Well we say Nike. Its actually a Nike kit agent, the seemingly backwardsly named Just Sports Pro Club. subsequently we have a new Nike standard red and white hooped home shirt which looks nice enough, save for the FA requested blank white back for name and numbers. As for the away kit, its nice, its smart, but for some reason its sky blue. The kit itself looks fine, but not on a Rovers team. Having watched the pre-season game at Solihull, I can attest to the fact that it simply does not look right watching our team play in that colour. For future reference Rovers, please note our away colours are green. Green and white. Not sky blue. OK?
5. Our midfield is as good as any in this division
A bold statement, but one which can now be stated much more purposefully as the players that rose with us for their first prolonged stint at this level a couple of years ago have all proven their ability and worth. Captain Brian Stock can shown he can hold his own at international level, and but for the stubbornness of John Toshack, John Oster would be alongside him doing the same. Martin Woods continues to be a target of other clubs, whilst its increasingly hard to fathom Jamie Coppinger, the club’s longest-serving player, ever playing in League One let alone the Conference.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg, for there is also of course Dean Shiels, a Northern Ireland international and a player who has out foxed more than one second tier defence in the past twelve months. Mark Wilson proved last season that he can come into the side and offer crucial experienced cover, whilst Simon Gillett, though acquired low-key on a free from Southampton, has shown he can fit Rovers system and is an excellent combative but competent midfielder. And there is more too, Josh Payne, released by West Ham and snapped up on a short-term deal. Sam Hird is a capable defensive midfield deputy whilst home-grown Waide Fairhurst offers yet another option. Such is the strength in depth that we are even in a position to dismiss the possible return of the prodigal McIndoe as offering us an unecessary investment given what we already possess.
Collectively the Rovers midfield has more quality and aesthetically pleasing combinations at its disposal than Elizabeth Hurley’s wardrobe. (Though with less emphasis on the two up front obviously). It is an asset which should be the envy of the rest of this division, yet will remain mostly unheralded. The silent killer. Its perfect.
6. Sometimes the answer is right under your nose
So then, who’s been the star of pre-season? The now permanent Billy Sharp? The new-boy George Friend? The captain Brian Stock? Well, no it seems the player receiving most praise and rave reviews is Mustapha Dumbaya. Signed after a pre-season trial a year ago and having only previously played non-league Dumbaya, perhaps most kindly described as a raw talent, appeared last season frankly only in emergencies, coming on at Sheffield United and at home to Nottingham Forest. Yet come this pre-season, with James Chambers injured and Gareth Roberts departed Dumbaya appears to have seen his chance and seized it, catapulting himself into serious consideration for the starting line-up at Deepdale.
Speaking to the official club website on Monday Sean O’Driscoll was suitably full of praise for Dumbaya’s development. “Mustapha coming in and getting a bit between his teeth has given us what we have wanted. In the last two games… he has been a real plus. Okay, pre-season games are not the same as league games, but I would play him [at Preston]. He’s done enough in pre-season for me to give him a name on the first team-sheet.”
7. This Championship is anyone’s
Last season’s Championship had, once it was clear what kind of squad Newcastle would retain, a pair of out and out favourites for promotion in the form of The Magpies and West Bromwich Albion. Thanks to the lesser strength, or perhaps more importantly the lesser stability, of the sides demoted from the Premier League this summer, the 2010/11 Championship really is anyones and its fair to argue that promoted Norwich and Leeds have as good a chance of continuing upward as Portsmouth and Hull do of returning to the top flight.
Naturally there are sides who are more confident than others such as Middlesbrough, Reading, Nottingham Forest, but no-one really knows what true state the three sides relegated from the Premier League are in. Portsmouth have financial problems in the same way that the Eyjafjöll volcano in Iceland had an ash issue. Hull City are in a far from healthy position and whilst Burnley maybe the most financially sound you cannot ignore the fact that they believed Brain Laws to be a better managerial prospect that Sean O’Driscoll.
A look across the Championship shows that Rovers are in many ways the division’s most stable club. Soundly run financially, with the division’s second longest serving manager and a comparatively low turnover of players, particularly when you consider two of the four signings made thus far were on loan with the club last season. Settled squad, settled manager, settled tactics and approach, proven goalscorer. No matter what the betting odds will say, no matter what folk will predict, no matter what the size of the stadium or the club’s honours board, Rovers are genuinely as good as anything else in this division. So when the Championship is anyone’s that includes us.