A young Rovers side bow out of the Carabao Cup with a 2-0 defeat away at Stoke City.
The task of keeping out a Championship strike force was made all the more challenging for the young team when Cameron John picked up an injury inside 15 minutes but a back three of Branden Horton, Ben Blythe and Kyle Knoyle stood strong until late in the half when Tom Ince was able to tap in from close range after Louis Jones made a save from Morgan Fox’s long-range strike.
Rovers evening was made more difficult when Sam Surridge doubled the home side’s lead shortly after the break. The home side continued to threaten but Rovers were able to keep them at bay.
There were just three survivors from Rovers’ draw with Portsmouth on the weekend. Kyle Knoyle, birthday boy Cameron John and Ben Close all kept their place – the latter wore the armband in the absence of both Tom Anderson (injured) and Tommy Rowe (on the bench).
This left space for a raft of Academy products with Louis Jones, Branden Horton, AJ Greaves and Ben Blythe named in the starting XI while Liam Ravenhill was among the substitutes. There was also a place on the bench for 16-year-old striker Ethan Harrison - the Doncaster youngster is very much one of our own having joined the Academy at U12s.
Stoke City registered their first chance within 40 seconds when Adam Porter blazed over from close range after latching onto Sam Surridge’s knock down. And a through ball four minutes later should have released the home side for a second time – but the ball hit Christian Norton’s heals and bounced kindly for Matt Smith to clear.
Rovers were nearly gifted an opportunity when Danny Batth slipped in the centre of the pitch leaving Aidan Barlow with a clear run to goals, but the defender put his hand on the ball and took the early booking.
Rovers were seeing very little of the ball – perhaps understandably with such a young team playing on such a big stage – and with less than 15 minutes played one of the more experience (albeit young) heads was forced off when John became the latest player to be added to the laundry list of injuries Wellens is being forced to endure.
He was replaced by Charlie Seaman which moved Knoyle to the right of a back three with Blythe in the centre and Horton on the left. It took a minute or two for the new back line to settle with Jones making a stop from a Surridge.
A foul on Tom Ince by Ed Williams gave Stoke an opportunity to swing a ball into the box but Jones was the calmest man in the bet365 Stadium as he let the delivery float over his head and out for a goal kick.
As the half-hour mark ticked by, Surridge started to cause the very young Rovers defence some problems. He shot wide under pressure from Horton, while Jones parried his header from Morgan Fox’s cross away from danger.
Fox was involved in the goal when it came eight minutes before half-time. He surged forward after pick off a heavy touch in the centre of the park and unleashed an effort on target. Jones made the save but Ince reacted fastest to tap in the loose ball.
Seaman almost provided an instant reply for Rovers unleashing a left-footed effort from the edge of the box. It came through a sea of bodies leaving Welsh shot-stopper Adam Davies to see it late and tip it around the post.
Tommy Rowe replaced Close at the break and had a near instant impact. His perfectly timed run got him behind the Stoke defence. Seaman’s ball to find him caught the Stoke defence off guard and Davies needed two attempts collect and prevent Rovers No.10 from tapping in.
Despite the positive start, Stoke soon doubled their lead when Surridge found space between the Rovers defence and was picked out by Alfie Doughty’s cross. The striker was able to bring the ball down under no pressure ten yards out and slot beyond Jones.
At the other end, Seaman – who continued to be Rovers best attacking outlet – skied an effort from 20 yards.
Rovers continued to work and chase and harry the opposition. A succession of corners came to nothing. The best chance of the second half for Rovers fell to Rowe whose effort on target was deflected kindly into the arms of Davies.
At the other end Stoke continued to push for more. Ince and substitute Jacob Brown also fired into the side netting, Brown then had an effort saved by Jones and James Chester headed narrowly wide from a corner.
The late introduction of first-year scholar Harrison aged 16 and 121 days made him the third youngest player to pull on the Rovers jersey in a competitive debut.