Rovers will have to rely on their new-look squad as a whole to improve on last year’s league position, following the departure of Jonson Clarke-Harris – but there are signs of good things to come from Ben Garner’s men.
Ben Garner did not have the best of starts as Bristol Rovers manager. Expectations were rightly or wrongly high for the former West Brom and Crystal Palace coach, who came in with significant praise from many professionals across the game when he took charge of his first club in English football.
Rovers were flying high at the time of the appointment, 4th in League One after an impressive 2-1 away win at Ipswich. Graham Coughlan had shocked Gasheads post-match with the announcement that he was set to leave the club, for League Two’s Mansfield Town no less.
Enter Ben Garner.
Rovers were having a tremendous campaign, but many fans will admit that the squad was probably over-performing and over-relying on individuals to win games. After a run of bad injuries and fixture congestion over the festive period, Rovers slipped into a terrible run of form, winning just 1 game in 17. Was a young manager like Garner the right man to oversee the rest of the campaign? On hindsight, probably not.
However this is a new campaign – Garner deserves a fresh start with his own squad and ideas, and time to implement them before we make fair judgement on him as a manager.
A victory over Sunderland on the final day before the nationwide lockdown began might have won over some fans, but for many the jury is out on Garner, and he has a big job on his hands to win over the Gasheads.
A lot can be said for stability off the field as a contributing factor to stability on it, and Rovers fans will have been thrilled with the news of Wael Al-Qadi becoming majority share holder at Bristol Rovers, and subsequently clearing £18m+ of debt from the club – making the club effectively debt free.
In addition to this, Rovers have made huge strides in the construction of their new training ground, which Garner described as a “huge step forwards” for the club. The plot in Almondsbury will be ready for September/October 2020, and features two full sized pitches with the exact dimensions and surface of the pitch at the Memorial Stadium. There will also be a gym, cafeteria, and hub for the staff as part of the first stage of the development – with more to come in stage two.
In a time where most clubs will be struggling, Rovers have leapt forwards after decades of stagnating off the field, and many fans will hope this is the start of more good things to come.
Rovers have been astute in the transfer market, acting early to secure key targets whilst other clubs faced uncertainty in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The best example of this was in securing the services of German defender Max Ehmer. The Gillingham skipper was yet to receive a contract offer from his club despite being one of their stand-out performers last season. Rovers identified him as an ideal replacement for Tony Craig, and moved quickly to offer the 6’2 defender a deal. The fact that he chose Rovers over remaining in Kent speaks volumes about the progress being made at the club.
The recruitment team have clearly been busy identifying weaknesses in the squad, identifying ideal players to fit Garner’s ideal system, and Rovers have been quick to get the deals done and assemble the squad in time for pre-season.
Jack Baldwin adds more on-the-ball ability and depth at Centre-Back, which is welcome in a side that has struggled to keep possession in recent seasons. Josh Grant gives Rovers some bite in midfield, without sacrificing creativity – the 21 year old was impressive on loan at Plymouth last season.
Sam Nicholson looks an impressive pick-up from Colorado Rapids, the Scotsman mutually terminating his contract in the states to move back to the U.K. His dribbling, flair, and creativity have stood out in pre-season and offer Rovers some much needed unpredictability up front.
Zain Westbrooke is arguably the most impressive of the summer business. The 23-year old signed a three year deal with Rovers, and made 25 league appearances for League One champions Coventry City last season. He oozes creativity and class, and is the kind of player Rovers have been missing since Chris Lines left the club. Given his age, he is also a player who Rovers will hope to make a sizeable profit off, after getting the best out of him in the quarters.
Jayden Mitchell-Lawson makes a welcome return on loan from Derby after impressing last season – the 20 year old has shone in pre-season both in a #10 role and as a false nine. Jonah Ayunga and David Tutona add some needed depth up front and at left-wing-back respectively, whilst also being projects to develop for the future.
In terms of outgoings, there were no real surprises spare for Tony Craig, although admittedly any concerns about his departure would have been quelled by the arrivals of Ehmer and Baldwin.
Ollie Clarke was offered a new deal, but chose to move to Coughlan’s Mansfield Town in search of more game-time and a more prominent squad role. A bid for Rollin Menayese was also accepted due to Rovers’ quality in depth in his position.
The most high profile departure has to be Jonson Clarke-Harris, and it was inevitable after months of contract negotiations had seemingly stalled. A move to League One rivals Peterborough United may not have been what most fans would have expected or hoped for, but the reported fee of £1.25m (rising to £2m with add ons) was too good to turn down with the target-man having less than twelve months left on his contract.
|Sam Nicholson||Colorado Rapids||Free|
|Jonah Ayunga||Havant & Waterlooville||Undisc.|
|Zain Westbrooke||Coventry City||Undisc.|
|Jayden Mitchell-Lawson||Derby County||Season Loan|
|Gavin Reilly||Carlisle United||Free|
|Liam Sercombe||Cheltenham Town||Free|
|Tony Craig||Crawley Town||Free|
|Sam Matthews||Crawley Town||Free|
|Ollie Clarke||Mansfield Town||Free|
|Rollin Menayese||Mansfield Town||Undisc.|
|Jonson Clarke-Harris||Peterborough United||Undisc. (£1.25m)|
Rovers have built great depth without over-spending on last season’s budget. With a number of high-profile names leaving on free transfers, Rovers had a lot of free wages to play around with, and smart recruitment coupled with several youth players coming into first-team contention have given the Gas an exciting young squad to develop.
Alongside young talent is a good blend of experience. Rovers have a number of seasoned professionals who will need to play a key part in nurturing the younger lads whilst also providing leadership in the dressing room.
Mark Little has the most experience at a higher level, with 186 championship appearances to his name at the age of 31. Despite his injury problems in the last twelve months, the former Bristol City man has looked sharp in pre-season and looked capable in both RCB and RWB roles.
Alex Rodman has the most senior appearances in the squad, with 392 total appearances spanning the National League N/S all the way up to League One, where he has made 117 appearances since his move to Shrewsbury Town in 2017.
Ed Upson has the most League One experience, with 282 appearances in this division – closely followed by Max Ehmer’s 270 League One games. The midfielder also played 60 championship games, and has only played 10 games below this level in his entire career.
There is a worrying lack of senior experience up front for Rovers, with the departure of Jonson Clarke-Harris. Sam Nicholson is by far the most experienced, with 170 appearances in the MLS and within the Scottish pyramid. Jonah Ayunga has 65 appearances at the age of 23, but all of those have been in the National League, with the Kenyan never playing league football until now.
James Daly (3 apps), Cameron Hargreaves (14 apps), Jayden Mitchell Lawson (11 apps), Josh Barrett (25 apps), Lucas Tomlinson (1 app), and Zain Walker (0 apps) are the remaining options for Rovers’ front three, and with a combined 54 appearances between the 6 of them, represent a gulf in experience up front for the Gas.
Formation/Style of play
Ben Garner’s choice of formation seems to be a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation, with an emphasis on high-tempo passing, movement, and fluidity on the ball, with high-pressing and energy when out of possession.
A back three protect the goal, but are also integral in retaining possession. Garner likes mobility in his centre-backs, and it’s important that they can get wide and high when Rovers have the ball to support the midfield and give them options to recycle play. They also need to be able to pick a decent pass, and dribble their way out of trouble when needed – Jack Baldwin, Cian Harries, and Michael Kelly have shown promise as the outside CBs in pre-season, whilst Kilgour and Ehmer are preferred centrally.
Wing backs sit up with the midfield pair, and a good engine is needed for them to get up and down the pitch and support attacks effectively. Luke Leahy is perhaps more suited in this role than in a flat-back-four where he played for the majority of last season, and the addition of David Tutonda to challenge him in that position will give Rovers a more explosive option should they need it. Alex Rodman and Mark Little both have fantastic engines, so are well-suited to this system, whilst Josh Hare’s fantastic crossing ability and pace will see him challenge for a starting spot.
The midfield duo need to be strong, especially when coming up against a midfield three. Zain Westbrooke played 25 games for Coventry City last season in their title-winning campaign, and brings quality to the side, but is not guaranteed a start with Ed Upson putting in some impressive and mature performances in pre-season. The former MK Dons and Yeovil man seems to relish playing in a high tempo possession side and has stepped up to the challenge as he enters the final year of his contract at Rovers.
Josh Grant is likely to start alongside one of the more creative midfielders, supporting them by pressing the opposition and winning the ball back at every opportunity – but when in possession his composure and ball-retention has stood out in comparison to the likes of Stuart Sinclair and Abu Ogogo, who have played in that role in seasons past.
This leaves the front three, who prior to Jonson Clarke-Harris’ departure looked like a #9 with two #10’s playing off of him. Now he has left, Garner tried a three #10 system, where Cam Hargreaves, Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, and Sam Nicholson all interchanged and played off each-other. This worked well, particularly with Westbrooke and the wing-backs supporting them.
Goals seem to have been shared out in pre-season, which will be important for the Gas, who since arriving in League One have always depended on an individual to score goals – be that Matty Taylor, Billy Bodin, Ellis Harrison, or Jonson Clarke-Harris.
With Zain Walker, Lucas Tomlinson, and Tom Mehew all shining in pre-season, Rovers have a nice group of young players developing and challenging for a first team place. Everyone seems to have adapted well to Garner’s formation, and team performances are beginning to click ahead of the new campaign.
Players can be swapped out and the team will remain strong, with everyone knowing their roles – two separate elevens put in equally impressive performances against Cardiff City, and having that strength in understanding the system within the squad will be a valuable asset to Rovers. Time will tell if results will follow.