DONCASTER Rovers have to start mentioning the R-word.
No, not relegation; rebuilding. It is not a question of if Rovers will go down any more but when.
Another heavy defeat, this time at top-six hopefuls Leicester City, has all but extinguished their hopes of staying up.
Mathematically, Dean Saunders men can still climb to safety. If you include this afternoon’s clash with Burnley, there are 15 points to play for in the fight for survival. But, the reality is Rovers do not possess the confidence, quality or belief to drag themselves away from the foot of the table.
Yes, a spate of injuries to key players, including Brian Stock and Shelton Martis, have not helped. Yes, the recent fixture pile-up has taken its toll on the squad. Yes, selling your top-scorer and best player in January does you no favours either.
The truth is, though, Rovers have not been good enough. The table does not lie. They are bottom of the pile for a reason. Seven victories, and just two since the turn of the year, go a long way to explaining why they are in such a sticky situation.
A significant personnel shake-up is required in the summer to transform the club’s fortunes. Chairman John Ryan has already said Saunders is the man to take them forward next year and the Welshman has to be backed by the board in the transfer market to restructure an ageing defence and a misfiring attack. Saunders has confirmed 14 senior players are out of contract at the end of the season.
As has been the case for much of the season, Saunders men competed and held their own at Leicester, especially in the first-half when James Coppinger (2), Habib Beye and substitute Chris Brown all missed great opportunities and there was little to choose between the two sides.
However, heads visibly dropped after Carl Ikeme’s handling error allowed Lee Peltier’s cross to go underneath his body and into the back of the net just after the re-start. Rovers mentally capitulated. Leicester took control of proceedings and the visitors had no answer. The gulf in class was frightening and it is no exaggeration to say it could have been a far bigger margin of victory for the Foxes had it not been for the heroics of Ikeme in between the sticks.
Saunders staunchly defended the on loan Wolves goalkeeper, saying: “He is going to be a good goalkeeper and we are lucky to have him. He has done well for us. He had too much to do today and it all stems from the amount of chances we are missing. Carl is vulnerable because he is getting a lot to do.”
Leicester’s assistant manager Craig Shakespeare acknowledged Ikeme’s mistake was a “slice of fortune” and it seemed to swing the contest in their favour.
Unless Rovers suddenly turn the formbook upside down they are heading into League One. The manner in which they surrendered after Peltier’s strike suggests the players have accepted their fate.
Saunders is a bubbly character and is rarely downbeat. But even he looked tortured, tired, and emotionally drained in his post-match interviews. The stress and responsibility of trying to save a club from the drop does not exclude managers from feeling the weight of expectation. Deep down, although he would never publically admit it, Saunders knows the game is nearly up.
The downcast boss felt the final scoreline flattered Leicester and was not a “fair reflection of the game” but criticised his players for not showing more composure in the final third.
He said: “They could have got a few more goals in the last 15 minutes but we missed so many chances. It seems I’m doing the same press conference after every game. We missed and missed chances and you have to take them when they come. We had six in the first half and missed them all.
“Our build-up play was good and I felt we were the better team in the first half. They have got more cutting edge and that’s what you pay for. Andy King gets 10 goals a season from midfield so what’s he worth? People pay millions for players like that. They paid a lot of money for Jermaine Beckford and David Nugent and today it showed. It stood out like a sore thumb.
“Every week we miss chances - we had 14 chances at Crystal Palace and ended up drawing 1-1. We have not got enough players who can score.”
Former Sheffield Wednesday Ben Marshall repeatedly tormented Rovers after switching from the right to left and sealed the points with 12 minutes left when he cut inside Pascal Chimbonda before unleashing a stunning right foot shot into the top corner. The classy winger was unlucky not to claim a second when his dipping curler struck the bar. He then watched on as Paul Gallagher completed the rout in the dying minutes.