By Luke Payne, Feature Writer
2024 kicked off with an away trip to bogey side Doncaster. With The Dons on a fantastic run of form many had hoped for a positive result but the Doncaster curse could not be broken. Mike Williamson’s men fell to a miserable 3-0 defeat. Here’s how I rated the players after the action:
Formation: 5-2-2-1/5-4-1 (Two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders)
GK – Craig MacGillivray – 6.5: He seems to have picked up a lot of negative criticism from the fans for this game but a lot of it feels unwarranted. MacGillivray was let down massively by his defence. The first goal was a one-on-one situation which usually favours the attacker. Then for the second goal the defence have let a shot through far too easily. MacGillivray made the initial save but his defence didn’t react to the rebound that fell on the edge of the box. He does have a share of the blame for the third goal as he let a header in at his near post following a corner. However, he made a number of other saves that kept the score-line somewhat respectable in the first half alone. MacGillivray also set up Max Dean for a one-on-one with a long ball forward. Admittedly he got quite lucky as the ball bounced in favour of The Dons but it was still the right ball to play and it was the first real sight of goal Dons had in the game.
RWB – Cameron Norman – 6: Probably the strongest performer from the defence, though that’s not saying much as all of them looked lethargic in the first half. Norman was the main outlet going forward in the first half and he did threaten to play into the opposition box a few times, though had limited success with this. He also did a reasonable job at minimising the threat Doncaster posed from the right and it’s worth mentioning that none of the goals came from his side of the pitch. Norman moved across to right centre-back towards the end of the game when Dean Lewington went off.
RCB – MJ Williams – 3.5: Still not convinced Williams can play as a centre-back. He didn’t stick tight to his man and he spent far too long watching things happen rather than preventing them from happening. The perfect example of this is for the second goal where he as well as a host of other Dons players stood waiting for the second shot to come instead of rushing in to close down Harrison Biggins before he could get a sight of goal. Biggins was lucky as his shot was inaccurate and deflected off Joe Ironside before finding the back of the net but had The Dons pushed out, the shot likely would’ve been blocked or at the very least Ironside would’ve been offside. This made it 2-0 after just 14 minutes. Williams was also partially at fault for the third goal. He was responsible for covering the front post for the corner and he wasn’t even remotely close to challenging for the header or blocking the shot. As a result Tommy Rowe was able to head it in, making it 3-0 after 43 minutes. In addition to all of this, Williams’ passing was sloppy again and made it harder to play out from the back. He moved into the middle of the back three towards the end when Lewington came off.
CB – Warren O’Hora – 5: Much better than the defenders either side of him but was still partially at fault for the opening goal. He lost out on his aerial battle against Joe Ironside who knocked the ball on for Luke Molyneux, sending him straight through on goal. O’Hora was part of a very static defence but he was probably the most proactive of the three, putting in a few blocks and tackles. However, this didn’t stop Doncaster pummelling MacGillivray’s goal for the duration of the first half. O’Hora’s passing was solid enough, though a bit slow at times. He had one shot on goal in the second half following a Jack Payne free-kick but his header was straight at Louis Jones. He moved to the left of the three when Lewington came off.
LCB – Dean Lewington (C) – 3.5: Evidently four games in quick succession is one too many for the skipper. He looked tired from just a few minutes in and was quickly punished when he was caught totally off guard for the first goal. His positioning was totally wrong as Joe Ironside went to flick the ball through and Luke Molyneux made quick work of the sprint race that followed. Molyneux then found the bottom corner with his strike and gave Doncaster a 1-0 lead 8 minutes in. He was almost at fault for another goal when he lost his aerial battle from a corner. Fortunately, MacGillivray was on hand to make the save and the second shot hit the post before danger was finally averted. Lewington was caught out plenty more times across the course of the game and his passing was disappointing as well, gifting possession to the opposition in the middle third on too many occasions. He came off after 80 minutes for Conor Grant.
LWB – Joe Tomlinson – 5: Tomlinson’s quietest game for quite some time. He didn’t see much of the ball in the first half and he lost track of Tommy Rowe for the third goal, allowing him to head the ball in at the front post from a corner situation. Tomlinson also left Lewington exposed too many times and Doncaster were able to overload the skipper with the wingback totally out of position. He improved in the second half and did look to get on the ball and play forwards a bit more but he couldn’t find a way past the home side’s defence.
CM – Jack Payne – 6.5: Not a great performance by any stretch of the imagination but he was still vital to the way Dons play. He played some great passes as well as a couple of dodgy ones but his set piece deliveries weren’t utilised properly. He put the ball in the right place more often than not but his teammates never seemed to win the ball aside from O’Hora’s chance in the second half. Whenever Dons were able to get the ball on the ground and play properly it was usually Payne dictating it. From a defensive point of view he was slightly out of position for the second goal which gave Harrison Biggins time to shoot but he was also the only one that even attempted to block the shot.
CM – Ethan Robson – 5: Was on the pitch to break down play and help Dons break into the final third with high tempo, incisive passing. However, he didn’t really do either of these and Doncaster seemed to bypass him with their direct style of play. Robson did improve in the second half but didn’t take many risks with his passing whilst Doncaster were content to let Dons have the ball and pass it around the halfway line. With this being said, he did start one of the best attacking moves Dons had in the second half, playing a ball forwards to Payne before it was worked up the wing and across goal for Max Dean.
CAM – Alex Gilbey – 4.5: He struggled to get involved despite Dons preferring to attack down his side. He was out-muscled and frustrated by a Doncaster defence that were well-versed in their gamesmanship techniques. As a result Gilbey’s impact was minimal and despite his efforts he wasn’t able to cause Doncaster many problems. He came off for Jonathan Leko after 64 minutes.
CAM – Mo Eisa – 4.5: Did a lot of running but he was largely ineffective. He tried to come deep to collect the ball but his passing was inconsistent and he often gave it away needlessly in the middle third. He did play a few nice passes but they didn’t lead to anything. He swapped positions with Max Dean for a while but was played out of the game until he came off for Ellis Harrison after 63 minutes.
ST – Max Dean – 6.5: Put a lot of effort in and made a nuisance of himself. He wasted a huge opportunity in the first half when MacGillivray sent him through on goal but Dean fired wide across goal from the right side of the box. Dean spent the second half playing in one of the attacking midfield roles and he tried his best to match Doncaster’s physicality though he did pick up a silly yellow card for his reaction to a decision going against him. He had another chance to score in the second half, getting on the end of Jonathan Leko’s cutback but his well-struck effort towards the top right corner was saved by Louis Jones.
SUB (ST) – Ellis Harrison – 6.5 (TOP DON): It was hard to pick a Top Don with no-one really standing out over the course of 90 minutes, so instead it goes to Harrison for his hold-up play when he came on to lead the line. The physicality he brought onto the pitch made it much easier for Dons to push into Doncaster’s half. Although he did occasionally lose possession straight away, he would usually hold off his man and play the next pass quickly, increasing the tempo as Dons looked for gaps between the lines. Alternatively he would ride a challenge before moving the ball on, something that only Payne was able to do previously. The closest he got to an attempt on goal was when he missed the ball from Jonathan Leko’s cutback but it worked out well as Dean was in a better shooting position anyway. It wasn’t an outstanding performance from Harrison but it was certainly enough to suggest that he should’ve started the game.
SUB (CAM/RWB) – Jonathan Leko – 4.5: Struggled initially when he came on, firing two crosses straight off the pitch, missing the box entirely. However, after a couple of attempts his delivery started to improve and he was able to set up Dean for one of Dons’ best chances of the game. Leko tried to make things happen but seemed to run out of ideas, especially when there were two Doncaster defenders watching his every move whenever he picked up the ball on the edge of the box. He started as an attacking midfielder but finished the game as a wingback, shifting into the wider role when Lewington came off.
SUB (CAM) – Conor Grant – 5: Was brought on to give Dons more of an attacking set-up but didn’t really contribute much. Played a few nice passes but didn’t look like creating anything of substance in his cameo appearance.
TEAM PERFORMANCE – 4.5: The first half was a display of tiredness and lack of focus. Dean Lewington clearly wasn’t ready to play another full 90 minutes and the absence of Ellis Harrison from the starting XI despite performing well in his last two appearances was a mystery. Defensively the first 45 minutes were shambolic and comparable with the 4-0 loss to Brighton U21’s which was by far the worst performance of the season. Dons were able to recover somewhat but lacked the quality to make a game out of it in the second half. There were chances to get back into it but equally there were chances that could’ve made it a cricket score in Doncaster’s favour.
With the top four sides all playing against each other it was a wasted opportunity to close the gap on the front runners. However, nine points from twelve over the Christmas period is a respectable return. This game will go down as Mike Williamson’s worst league performance as Dons manager thus far but given the context of the result, a line can be drawn under it. The lack of rotation was probably a mistake on his part but equally it says a lot about who he thinks can play at the required level and who he thinks he needs to move on. Hopefully come the next game against Tranmere in a couple of weeks, the squad will have been rested and reinforced by some new faces as well as some returning injured ones.
The biggest takeaway from the day isn’t even the result, it’s the news that Dan Kemp has returned from his loan at Swindon. It remains to be seen if he’ll be staying or moved on but it’s worth noting that if Kemp plays a single game then he will most likely be staying for the season. This is because you cannot play official matches for more than two clubs over the course of one season and Kemp has already played for Swindon so if he played a game for Dons he would have to wait until next season to play competitive games for anyone else.
If you’ve read this far then thank you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Dan Kemp situation as well as the game in the comments below and I hope you enjoyed the read!