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In the opening round of Sky Bet League 1 fixtures, Doncaster Rovers faced Gillingham.
The match saw third-tier football make a return to Rovers and the Keepmoat Stadium after Darren Ferguson’s side spent the previous campaign in League 2, achieving promotion.
Ady Pennock’s Gills, on the other hand, spent the 2016/17 campaign in the Sky Bet League 1, avoiding relegation by a single point on the last day of the season.
7,512 attended the season-opener, with 528 making the trip from Kent.
Doncaster Rovers went into the match missing several key-men through injury, including centre-back Mathieu Baudry, defender-come-midfielder Luke McCullough and new-signing Alex Kiwomya, whilst forward Andy Williams was not risked following a hamstring strain.
However, Ferguson still managed to name a strong starting eleven.
Ady Pennock named 5 summer signings in Gillingham’s starting eleven, although was missing defender Alex Lacey and the versatile Aaron Morris through injury.
Furthermore, goalkeeper Stuart Nelson was left out, following the veteran’s transfer-listing.
The game began after a minute-long applause in memory of Doncaster Rovers co-owner and president Dick Watson, who has sadly passed away recently.
Quickly, Ferguson’s side began to threaten Gillingham’s new-look defence, with 20 year-old forward Liam Mandeville forcing Slough-born Luke O’Neill to clear off the line.
As the half continued, Doncaster persisted to push forward and a through-ball saw former York City midfielder Matty Blair get in behind The Gills back-line into to a one-on-one with 6’9” goalkeeper Tomáš Holý. However, Blair’s effort was stopped by the onrushing Czech.
Pennock’s side were happy to sit back, although did have chances to take the lead. First, wing-back Connor Ogilvie forced Rovers ‘keeper Ian Lawlor to tip onto his post, then former Peterborough United man Gabriel Zakuani saw his goal-bound header spectacularly saved.
Nevertheless, it was Ferguson’s side that finished the half strongest, although the teams went in for half-time with the score at 0:0.
The second-half began as the first-half ended, with Doncaster Rovers on top. Former Grimsby man Danny Andrew caused havoc throughout the Gillingham ranks with a dangerous corner, although centre-back Andy Butler’s resulting header was saved by Holý.
However, the impetus soon switched back to Gillingham, and particularly Scott Wagstaff. The former Charlton wing-back fired wide after Pennock’s side caught-out Doncaster with a quick counter-attack, before later driving a powerful shot straight at Lawlor.
The Gills produced few chances after this as Rovers dominated the remainder of the game, but Ferguson’s side could not find a way past Holý.
Sky Bet League 2 Player of the Season John Marquis saw a lobbed effort saved by the Czech, after the forward curled a speculative shot wide from the edge of the Gillingham box.
Sheffield United loanee Ben Whiteman was also unlucky not to score, as the midfielder’s powerful drive cannoned off Holý’s cross-bar.
Furthermore, substitute Rodney Kongolo and left-sided midfielder Tommy Rowe had penalty claims turned down by referee Darren England.
The game finished goalless after four minutes of added time.
In terms of the Sky Bet League 1 table, the 0:0 draw sees Doncaster Rovers and Gillingham end the opening-day in joint 13th place, although such placings are of little use yet.
And, the Scotsman’s comments are justified: Rovers performed well and dominated large periods of the game, only denied the win due to the performance of Gills goalkeeper Holý.
Ben Whiteman was significant in this positive showing, looking competent at the base of Doncaster’s midfield diamond. The 21 year-old helped Ferguson’s side to retain control of the ball and was unlucky not to score, having hit the cross-bar.
Overall, Rovers’ performance showed promise for this season’s League 1 campaign. Playing with positivity on a regular basis should allow Rovers to compete with any third-tier team and, as the season continues, Rovers will become more clinical in the final-third.
Gillingham manager Ady Pennock, on the other hand, was delighted with the 0:0 draw.
Whilst Holý was outstanding, credit must go to Gillingham’s wingback, Scott Wagstaff. The former Bristol City man contributed both offensively, getting forward and testing the Rovers stopper, and defensively, allowing Tommy Rowe few opportunities.
Overall, Pennock’s side showed defensive resilience, which should leave them in good stead for this season’s League 1 campaign. However, further recruitment would be beneficial if The Gills are to consolidate their position in the third-tier this season.