LEAGUE ONE promotion contenders Doncaster Rovers may switch focus to the FA Cup on Saturday, but a choice occasion with Oldham Athletic will offer home players a tantalising glimpse into the future next season.
The Keepmoat Stadium will house a sell-out away contingent of 3,800 Latics fans for the fourth-round Roses tie, while expectancy will be similarly abound in the well-populated Rovers sections in an all-ticket crowd as the hosts seek to make history by reaching the fifth round of the competition for just the fifth time.
You have to go back to 1955-56 for the last occasion that Doncaster reached round five – with Peter Doherty’s side bowing out 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in front of a bumper attendance of 30,436 at the club’s former Belle Vue home.
Much more recently, Rovers have shown their wares at a level where packed crowds and sell-out away contingents at the Keepmoat have been the norm –during a four-season stint in the Championship from 2008-12 and another campaign at second-tier level in 2013-14.
Those heady days, principally during the John Ryan and Sean O’Driscoll era, thrust the spotlight firmly upon Rovers – the self-styled ‘Arsenal of the North’ – and many of their marquee players in the process.
The likes of Richie Wellens, Brian Stock and Matthew Mills, key members of the club’s feted promotion class of 2007-08, established themselves in the Championship and earned lucrative moves on the back of their feats with Rovers and so opportunity knocks for the current squad in the view of present-day manager Grant McCann.
We have not done nothing yet and we have a long way to go, just under half a season when you think about it.Grant McCann
Firmly in the top-six picture all season, Rovers have plenty to strive for between now and May – in both league and Cup.
The Rovers chief is quick to acknowledge that the landscape will change significantly should his side achieve promotion – in terms of crowds, profile and, most definitely, finance.
It is something that McCann would dearly love to sample and would represent a life-changing experience for some, in his view.
The Rovers manager, who openly declared that Rovers should ‘aim for the stars’ and not be shy about their ambitions upon his appointment last summer, said: “One thing I know about the Championship is that it can change your life, really.
“It can change some of the players’ lives in terms of finance and their families.
“It is everything, really. You turn up on a Saturday to an away game and you are getting chauffeured in by the police and there are that many supporters in the crowd.
“It is just a different world and we want to be in that league.
“The internal pressure to do well comes from me and the players, really. There is no other pressure from the club. Everybody around the club are outstanding and wants us to do as well as we can. It is nothing that you cannot handle. The boys all want to try and get to the next level.
“But we have not done nothing yet and we have a long way to go, just under half a season when you think about it.
“We have got to keep on a level and keep performing.”
With Rovers’ season at a key juncture, motivation is certainly not in short supply, with a host of players being out of contract in the summer and fighting for side and self.
At the top end, those established first-teamers whose deals expire in June are seeking to play their way into McCann’s plans for next season, ideally in the Championship.
Some who have not yet reached a decision upon their futures will also be conscious of the fact that getting a promotion on their CV – and playing a leading part – will boost their own profile, should they take the decision to leave.
McCann plans to speak to the Rovers board at the end of this month to further crystallise plans, with the Rovers chief promising to be fair and transparent in his approach.
Earlier this week, central defender Joe Wright signed a new deal keeping him at the club until the summer of 2021 – following on the decision of striker Alfie May to pen a contract extension earlier this month.
Among those whose futures are yet to be resolved are veterans Andy Butler and James Coppinger, full-backs Niall Mason and Danny Andrew, midfielder Matty Blair and goalkeepers Marko Marosi and Ian Lawlor.
McCann, who also has a number of young players whose deals end on his books, said: “Everyone is playing for something.
“We all want the same goal, which is to get promotion. We want to keep pushing for the top two and see where it takes us.
“We will progress in terms of the ones we want to keep here. Some will be offered contacts, but we are not here to be hung out to dry; we will be fair.
“Hopefully, it will be good enough for them and if it is, we can work together and crack on.
“There will be ones who will not be offered contracts. A lot are out on loan for a reason, they are not good enough to play in our team, it is as simple as that.”