The beating Sunderland handed a youthful team was far more severe than the 3-0 scoreline suggested.
Often when a side is struggling the cry from the fanbase is “throw the kids in” and often managers urge caution, warning of the long-term damage of exposing too many at once to a losing cause.
Yesterday caretaker manager Gary McSheffrey felt little choice. Tom Anderson, one of his few experienced leaders, has an inflammation of the foot which will not go away. Louis Jones, Liam Ravenhill and Ethan Galbraith had all returned to training after positive Covid-19 tests but the latter was feeling a tight chest. Jordy Hiwula was considered fit enough to start after 10 days’ isolation, but not Aidan Barlow. Omar Bogle and Dan Gardner, men with the experience the team was crying out for, started on the bench because after recent calf injuries that was as much as McSheffrey thought he could ask of them.
Ravenhill made his full league debut, Ben Blythe a second league start, Lirak Hasani a third. All are 19.
To see a club trying to give youth its chance is a nice thought but it was hard not to feel sorry for the boys trying to do a man’s job.
“Ultimately it’s a balance, isn’t it? The kids need to be good enough, don’t they?” said McSheffrey, whose entire coaching career was with Doncaster’s juniors until this month. He will find out today if his application to be the next first-team manager has succeeded.
“I feel we’ve got a few that are good enough,” he continued. “I feel they’re lacking self belief some of them. When they go on the grass they’ve just got to try and play with the shackles off.
“You’ve got to give them the opportunity. If the numbers ain’t strong, they’re going to have to play. They’re going to have to get up to speed and take this opportunity because there’s players chomping to be back and there’ll be a few additions in January.”
Alex Pritchard, who played Premier League football for Huddersfield Town, exploited them mercilessly. He was not the only one.
Sunderland’s Leon Dajaku, himself only 20, was playing so high it forced Branden Horton - 21 years-old, 15 league starts - from left wing-back to left-back.
Five minutes in Corry Evans overhit a pass to Dajaku but two minutes later the wing-back drifted far too easily inside centre-back Blythe and when Ravenhill flicked a leg out in desperation, Bobby Madley gave a penalty Ross Stewart converted.
McSheffrey was rarely in his technical area, desperate to get as close to his players as possible with his assistant Frank Sinclair not far behind bawling instructions. In the opening half-hour alone they shuffled the deckchairs from matching Sunderland’s 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-1-1.
Tommy Rowe tried to lead and 21-year-old Matt Smith (38 league starts) to get on the ball and start things. Hasani played one really nice pass to Kyle Knoyle (the cross came to nothing), Horton put a good tackle in when Stewart threatened to burst through. The half-time boos were not at a team not trying hard enough but it only highlighted they were not good enough.
When a Tom Flanagan free-kick found Pritchard just before half-time he turned it inside for Elliot Embleton to score.
Minutes after Bogle came on at half-time Rovers found Joe Dodoo near the corner flag but he could only return the ball and in the blink of an eye former Doncaster loanee Lynden Gooch was at the opposite byline crossing for Pritchard to backheel in off Blythe.
Knoyle continued to throw himself in the line of fire, blocking Gooch’s shot then galloping far enough upfield to be out of position when Ravenhill was robbed. Embleton hit the post and Ravenhill immediately made way for Gardner.
In the right environment maybe some of these youngsters can have decent careers but not now, not on their own.
“In a couple of areas it’s a big priority, yeah,” said McSheffrey when asked how important experience would be in January’s signings. But he warned: “The ones out there in those positions are limited so it’s whether you take a gamble on a youngster with real good pedigree.”
That McSheffrey has been so hands-on in recruitment planning suggest the novice players might today get a novice manager. Even with their captain Anderson and most talented player Galbraith back, they look bound for League Two without further reinforcements.
Doncaster Rovers: Jones; Knoyle, Olowu, Blythe; Hasani (Bogle 46), Ravenhill (Gardner 61), Smith, Horton; Rowe, Hiwula; Dodoo (Barlow 76). Unused substitutes: Dahlberg, E Williams, Cukur, Faulkner.
Sunderland: Hoffman; Wright, Flanagan, Doyle; Dajaku, Evans (Cirkin 57), Neil, Gooch; Pritchard (Hume 74), Embleton; Stewart (Harris 82). Unused substitutes: Burge, Alves, Younger, Kimpioka.
Referee: R Madley (Huddersfield)