Tranmere host Doncaster Rovers on Friday night looking for their first win since their resilient performance against Bradford City just over two weeks ago.
Nigel Adkins’ men conceded a goal from an Andy Cook header, equalising the scoreline for The Bantams that evening. Josh Hawkes would go on to miss a very tamely taken penalty before substitute Kieron Morris netted a late winner, sending great scenes around Prenton Park.
Last time out, an issue which has been the case since February, The Whites were again beaten on the road. Goalkeeper Luke McGee was sent off for dealing with the ball out of his box, Tom Davies was also dismissed late.
Doncaster sit 19th in the League Two table having won four of their thirteen games.
Ahead of the contest I spoke to supporter Daniel Nice, who informed me about Scunthorpe United’s 2009 Play-Off Final in which Doncaster manager Grant McCann featured in midfield and Adkins managed.
Hi Daniel, how long have you been following Doncaster Rovers? What was your first game like?
My first game was at Walsall on Halloween in 1992, we weren’t very good and lost 3-1 yet here we are nearly 31 years later! We lost the final game of a torrid last season 2-1 at Walsall in May and it felt like the whole thing had gone full circle somehow. I don’t recall many details of the game itself but my early memories of Doncaster Rovers were of a ground falling to bits, and a team that had some good individual players in those early years like Darren Moore, Russ Wilcox, Graeme Jones and Colin Cramb but with no real hope or ambition of being anything other than a struggling bottom division side. Yes, it’s hard to see what appealed looking back! That’s football, I guess; it somehow gets hold of you and never leaves.
What would you say are the best and worst moments for the club during your time as a fan?
There have been the super highs of a play-off final win against Leeds, and then getting close to the Championship play-offs in those amazing Sean O’Driscoll days to the lows of a worst ever Football League season and a horrible period in non-league. The story is well-documented and too painful to revisit, but ultimately I’m grateful there’s still a club to support here because we could easily be not having this conversation.
Could you tell us a fun fact/story about the club/the area?
Probably the most famous fact about Donny in recent years is that One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson grew up working in one of the kiosks at Belle Vue and is still a fan of the club. He was very nearly part of a takeover at one stage. I’ve met Louis at a game, he didn’t come across as someone who had entered a world of fame through music. He’s a real down to earth lad who loves his football, especially Donny. The amount of photos, autographs and attention he had in the space of a couple of hours was a real insight into the scrutiny that goes with the celebrity lifestyle. Another fact is that Steve Beaglehole, who was manager when I first watched the Rovers, now works at Leicester City and I often see him running around on the streets as I live in Leicester. Steve’s another good man with Donny still a result he looks for!
Doncaster are run by Chairman David Blunt, a man who started his role in 2014, following the club’s relegation from The Championship, after being a successful CEO at Keepmoat. What are your thoughts on him and his current plans? Is he steering the club towards a brighter future?
There have been a lot of opinions on the way the club has operated over the recent challenging period, for me I am grateful that the club has been relatively stable on and off the field since those Conference days. I don’t know enough detail or facts about the situation to be able to comment with any insight, but I know it must be hard to invest into a football club – you do it for the love, not the money – and we seem to have now learnt (painfully, admittedly) from appointing a few inexperienced managers and not bringing in players that suited their style, and are back on track. Had Terry Bramall not invested the way he did in the summer, who knows where we’d be now, for it’s been tough despite having a proven manager and funds available.
43-year-old Grant McCann, formerly of Peterborough and Hull, is gaffer. The Belfast-born Northern Irish international made over 500 appearances for various EFL clubs as a midfielder in his playing days and was appointed earlier this year for the second time. What are your thoughts on him and his playing style?
To put it simply, Grant McCann is just the right person to have in charge of the football club. McCann worked wonders in his previous season at the club, culminating in a play-off semi-final defeat on penalties at Charlton which was as glorious as it was gutting. It was arguably my favourite night of supporting Donny despite the fact we couldn’t quite get to Wembley. That McCann saw it as an overall failure shows the standards he sets. He plays the right way but understands the challenges of the bottom division and is flexible to adapt his gameplans & tactics. Nobody who has followed Rovers closely over the last few years was questioning a return of 2 points from 7 games earlier this term; we knew it was as a result of trying to steer a large, heavy ship into safer waters and not a reflection on his management style or skills. Any early struggles may have had us asking those existential type of questions about whether our Football League time might be at threat of being up again but none of it was on the manager.
How do you see him setting up his side for the clash on Friday night? (Tactics, formation and starting eleven).
McCann’s hands are tied currently with 14 players missing the win against Sutton, and another 3 key players in Ben Close, Tommy Rowe and Mo Faal all hobbling in the latter stages of that game. There are a few key players said to be close to returning, such as Richard Wood, Jack Senior, James Maxwell and Kyle Hurst, but the game may come too soon for them and besides, I don’t expect McCann to deviate too far from what we’ve seen in the last few games. If everyone from Saturday is fit, it’ll be a 3-5-2 that can flick to a back 4 with fluidity given the flexibility of players like Owen Bailey, Tom Nixon, Zain Westbrooke and Luke Molyneux, who have all caught the eye this term.
Doncaster struggled and ultimately finished 18th last season. This season, at the time of writing, their struggle continues as their placed 20th after twelve games. Why is the poor form carrying on?
They say the league table doesn’t lie but it doesn’t always tell the whole truth. Yes, we look like a struggling side on paper, and we haven’t got as many points as we’d like, but we’re on the up. We’ve won 4 of the last 6, and were only edged out late at Stockport in that run too. Effectively we had a succession of inexperienced managers and a whole host of signings that generally didn’t work out, and poor performances and results are a hard habit to change, particularly at our level. McCann has had to battle with the weight of that recent history, great expectations upon his return, and an ever-increasing queue for the physio room. It was inevitable that time would be needed and thankfully there’s calm at Donny, not panic. Having said that, we are closer to the bottom 2 than we’d like and we have to continue to play with what I’d call a measured desperation to get points on the board, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. In essence we need to place a high price on every point and work our way towards 45 to 50 in the first instance.
The side’s top scorer is 29-year-old Joe Ironside, a summer signing from Cambridge United. Ironside has hit four whilst his teammate Ben Close has also been prolific in front of goal, netting three. How great have they both been and as Ironside was signed in the summer, how well do you think the club operated in the transfer window?
Joe Ironside has 7 goals in all competitions and is a real throwback centre forward, I’ve been so impressed with him. He is a focal point but knows where the net is with decent service too, and he’s a good mentor for Faal, who is a special talent. Close is critical to the way the team sets up with cultured central midfield play, and the goals have been a bonus to be honest. We had a very promising transfer window but any club at this level will struggle when the injury list is in excess of 10 players so it’s hard to judge exactly how good it was. My gut feeling is McCann will ultimately have us challenging at the right end of the table but we’re having to take our medicine for 2-and-a-half dire seasons. The good thing is that McCann and us as fans recognise that. It’s a step or two forward, then a step or two back kind of situation as we try to build some foundations. There’s a genuine connection between McCann and supporters, which is something our previous managers failed to develop for one reason or another.
The first meeting between Tranmere and Doncaster was contested in 1924 as Tranmere won 3-0. However, it is Doncaster that have won most of the encounters with a total of 38 from 78. Doncaster won the last meeting 2-0 in early Feb, Ben Close and Kyle Hurst scored in quick succession in the second half. What is your score prediction this time ’round?
The 3-0 defeat on Boxing Day stands out more than the 2-0 home win to be honest, I think that was the start of the end for Danny Schofield at the club because for all the will in the world – and he was a genuinely nice guy with a decent coaching pedigree – the style, tactics and gameplans just weren’t working at this level. That game encapsulated everything bad about it; a lack of intensity and aggression, gifting goals, not being commanding in either box and not landing on the second balls. It culminated in unsavoury scenes at the end and it couldn’t go on for long. In some senses it was surprising that it lasted until the end of the season. To the outside world this will be a 6-pointer between 2 struggling sides but it’s an intriguing looking game to me because it’s 2 clubs that, in my opinion, really shouldn’t find themselves in the bottom 6 of the Football League. McCann comes up against his mentor in Nigel Adkins, our away form hasn’t been good on paper but we’ve run Wrexham and Stockport close and were also unfortunate at MK Dons when they were flying. It doesn’t feel like we’re far away and did land an important win at Forest Green. I always expect Tranmere to be decent at home but that might be the age old cliche of Prenton Park seemingly being a difficult place to go to, especially under lights. If it was at the Eco Power Stadium I’d be confident of three points but given how we’re travelling and the injury list, I can see it being a tight game. It’s not a must win by any stretch but we could do with leaving Birkenhead with something. I’d have taken 4 points from Sutton and Tranmere so I’ll go for 1-1.
Finally, as we all know, it hasn’t been the start that Rovers fans were expecting. What are your thoughts on Tranmere?
Looking in from afar, there seems to be lots of similarities between the 2 clubs. Last season I felt we both might be in the mix, but were both well off the pace and have now slipped further down the league, and are now close together at the wrong end of the table for now. I genuinely hope that there are better times ahead for Tranmere as I have family who live on the Wirral but naturally hope any improvement in form and position doesn’t come at our expense! I suspect Adkins is the right sort of character to lead the club forward if he takes it on full time but he cut a fairly downbeat and frustrated figure at the end of your last game at Crewe. It goes to show that life at the bottom of the Football League tests you to deep levels and there’s no easy way out – you need lots of hard work, battling qualities, hope for a change of luck generally, and have a decision or 2 to go in your favour. Either that or hope someone pumps some money in to get some established players like Gillingham did last season. If you asked me which of the 2 clubs is likely to climb the table significantly then I’d say us, but that’s only my opinion and no feeling is final.
Tranmere have won all of their League Two games this campaign at Prenton Park. On a personal note, I’ve been to all three and will again be there tomorrow night… Time for a fourth victory? It’d be nice…