Whilst relegations are never nice, summer clear-outs can be both cathartic and exciting. Rovers have assembled one of the strongest squads in League 2 this summer, but continuing off-field controversies will make any route to promotion a rocky one.
In order to mount a promotion challenge, a strong leader is needed. No one can doubt the Barton’s wrought-iron desire for success – born in Merseyside he forged a career in the north, establishing himself as an aggressive, cultural midfielder with a fierce hunger to win.
However, as a manager Barton is yet to truly achieve anything noteworthy. At Fleetwood Town he continued the good work of predecessors to steer the League 1 club to a playoff finish. By no means an easy feat, and no doubt that came with its own challenges, but ultimately a flat end to the campaign, and by January of the next season he was sacked.
In terms of his time at Rovers, many had expected Barton to steer the Gas clear of the drop zone and build a new squad for a sixth consecutive season in League 1. Some fans understood prior the magnitude of this job given that Barton would have no transfer window to make much needed needed changes, but few really anticipated just how big a collapse was coming.
With Rovers finishing rock bottom of the league, 24th place and 10 points from safety – “disaster” would be an understatement. Many have drawn a line under a horrific season with little choice but to look ahead to the new campaign in the EFL’s basement division, but some rightly have drawn attention to Barton’s dour record in charge (P18 W3 D2 L13). With his own squad and his own players it could all be very different, but Barton has never managed in League 2, and given last season’s results he will be given little time by fans if Rovers don’t start strongly.
Even bigger than his managerial ability, there is of course the possibility that Barton will be removed from his post as Bristol Rovers manager before Christmas. With two court cases for assault hanging over his head, the club will be forced to make moves to replace him if he is found guilty in either trial. This hanging over the football club adds a huge layer of uncertainty that makes it both difficult to maintain momentum on the pitch and indeed will have some effect on the way the coaching staff – Barton included – perform.
Following the historic clearing of the club’s debt by Club President Wael Al-Qadi the club have made historic strides off the pitch with the construction of The Quarters training ground. Bringing both the senior and youth squads together under one roof and multiple pitches will only benefit in the long term development of the club, and it’s nice to have everything in one base.
Previously physio would be done in private gyms, youth teams would train in a seperate location, and there was little synergy in the way things were done. Now with the construction of the main building everything is in-house, and that can only benefit Bristol Rovers.
Whilst many clubs are midst a period of intense financial pressure, Al-Qadi has continued to financially back the club and make moves to strengthen the outdated infrastructure at the football club. The question of a new home for Bristol Rovers in the city centre still remains unanswered, with talks over the Fruit Market site “frozen” due to the affects of the pandemic.
As mentioned before, a complete clear-out following relegation was always likely, and whilst key long-contract players like Westbrooke, Grant, and Kilgour remain, a lot of the “deadwood” has been cut loose from the squad. Kyle Bennett’s whopping 3.5 year deal has finally come to and end, allowing for some much needed breathing room in the budget. Underperformers like Williams, Ehmer, Tutonda, and Ayunga have been moved on, whilst the injury prone Tom Davies, Mark Little, and Abu Ogogo proved too unreliable to offer new deals to.
In goal Barton has acted fast to provide healthy competition for Anssi Jaakkola with Harrogate Town shot-stopper James Belshaw signing after a successful trial period with the club. In previous seasons Rovers have been caught on their heels after two major injuries to Jaakkola, with only Jordi van Stappershoef able to step in for cover. Belshaw impressed during his time in North Yorkshire, with many Town fans upset to see him leave.
Despite the signings of experienced professionals Mark Hughes and Nick Anderton, the biggest question mark will no doubt be over Rovers’ defence this season, with a significant amount of goals conceded in the previous campaign coming from individual errors. Cutting out the silly errors and improving communication and reliability will no doubt be a key area of focus for assistant manager Clint Hill – a seasoned defender in his day who will want his back line well-drilled.
Coutts and Finley bring needed experience in the middle of the park, the former named Skipper on the dawn of the opening game. However, injuries will be a concern with Coutts coming out the other side of a career-altering injury at Sheffield United, and Sam Finley yet to play a minute of pre-season. Nevertheless, once fit the pair will add a dynamic edge to Rovers’ soft-touch midfield of yesteryear.
Barton has made adding quality width a priority this summer. The injuries to Alex Rodman and Sam Nicholson in the previous campaign had a huge impact on the relegation run-in, and a lack of depth out wide really left the club with no choice but to play narrow, something that left us exposed in wider areas.
The signings of Harry Anderson from Lincoln City, and Barnsley loanee Luke Thomas inject pace into the side, whilst the aforementioned Rodman and Nicholson recover from their respective injuries. Palace loanee Sion Spence can also operate in a wide-role, although a drifting #10 role is his preferred position. Zain Walker will be hard pressed to force his way back into the starting eleven with these additions after a decent breakout season – but competition for places can only push young players like him harder.
A lack of natural fullbacks does stand out when looking at the squad as a whole. Barton has signed players in that area on a “wingback first, fullback second” policy. Trevor Clarke and Nick Anderton on the left seem comfortable in that fullback position, but Alex Rodman and Harry Anderson on the right are traditionally wingers, so may struggle if forced into a back four. Luca Hoole, a young right-back who has impressed may be tasked with stepping up, but questions remain why George Williams was let go without an out-and-out right back being brought into that position.
Up front Rovers have bolstered their ranks with a variety of forwards tasked with getting goals into a dry Rovers side. With Ayunga and Daly gone from the club only Brandon Hanlan remains from last season’s strike-force, with speedster Harvey Saunders joining from Fleetwood Town, the technician Aaron Collins from Forest Green, and seasoned goal-scorer Brett Pitman swapping west country clubs as he leaves Swindon Town for the Gas.
The ex-Bristol City forward will hope to win over fans on the blue side of Bristol. His two goals against Oxford City from the bench were impressive, and with a wealth of creative wide players around him backs himself to be the main man needed to fire the Gas to promotion. Collins is a very capable player, with 11 goals and 9 assists for FGR last season, whilst Saunders seems a strong bench option to attack tired legs.
|Sam Finley||Fleetwood Town||Free|
|Nick Anderton||Carlisle United||Free|
|Paul Coutts||Fleetwood Town||Free|
|Mark Hughes||Accrington Stanley||Free|
|Connor Taylor||Stoke City||Loan|
|Harvey Saunders||Fleetwood Town||Free|
|Aaron Collins||Forest Green Rovers||Free|
|Trevor Clarke||Rotherham United||Undisc.|
|Harry Anderson||Lincoln City||Free|
|Sion Spence||Crystal Palace||Loan|
|James Belshaw||Harrogate Town||Undisc.|
|Brett Pitman||Swindon Town||Free|
|George Williams||Cambridge United||Free|
|Alexis Andre Jr.||–||Released|
|Liam Armstrong||Gloucester City||Released|
|Tom Davies||Tranmere Rovers||Released|
|Ali Koiki||Northampton Town||Released|
|Luke Leahy||Shrewsbury Town||Released|
|Mark Little||Yeovil Town||Released|
|Abu Ogogo||Southend United||Released|
|Ed Upson||Newport County||Released|
|Jordi van Stappershoef||–||Released|
|Harry Warwick||Chippenham Town||Released|
Rovers have added far more depth to the squad than in the previous campaign, with a just few first team injuries derailing Rovers survival bid back in April. Barton has made sure that he has quality depth, particularly out wide and in defence. Ideally he would like another midfielder and striker,
There is a good balance of older experienced heads like Coutts and Hughes, energetic young talent in Thomas and Spence, and players in their prime such as Collins and Finley. Development wise, Walker and Martinez may struggle for game-time this season and could go on loan, whilst youngesters Budd and Hoole look more likely to break through.
Last season Rovers lacked senior experience up front, and the coaching staff have moved to plug that void with Brett Pitman’s 526 league appearances. Collins and Saunders aren’t as raw as previous forwards and Rovers should have more guile up front this campaign.
Coutts’ 384 appearances at CM will prove invaluable to a midfield that very much lacked an experienced general last season. His pedigree will only benefit the likes of Grant and Westbrooke who couldn’t really ask for a better mentor to learn from.
Anderson’s two promotions with Lincoln City will hold him in good stead for the upcoming season, and he can offer a lot to this dressing room having won the division with the Imps in 2018/19. Likewise Mark Hughes also won League Two the year before in 2017/18 with Accrington Stanley. Barton’s goal to get serial winners into the side certainly looks to have been fulfilled.
Formation/Style of play
It looks Rovers’ game-plan will be to stick with the 3-4-3/5-2-3 formation from last season. Incidentally it’s a formation that Ben Garner started the season with, that was thrown out by Tisdale, and then returned when Barton took over. It had little success, obviously, but that’s mainly down to the lack of depth and a weak spine. Where last season Rovers had an inexperienced spine of: Kilgour-Grant-Hanlan, this season it is more likely to be: Hughes-Coutts-Pitman. That should free up the likes of Grant and Kilgour, who will probably remain starters, to play with more freedom in their game.
The three centre backs will have to be more mobile than last season if this formation is to work. Often Kilgour was caught flat-footed or out of position pushing too high up the pitch to support possession. Mark Hughes will be tasked with controlling and leading the back line, particularly if Stoke City loanee Connor Taylor is playing alongside him. Kilgour may indeed benefit from Hughes’ mentorship, much like he did alongside Tony Craig.
The Wing Backs are crucial for this formation, and last season Rovers really struggled to make these positions work. Josh Hare struggled for minutes, whilst Rodman and Little were injured for large periods – even Max Ehmer had a stint at RWB. At LWB Rovers will miss skipper Luke Leahy but dynamic Irishman Trevor Clarke is a welcome addition. Harry Anderson is the natural first choice on the right, with Alex Rodman a very capable backup.
In central midfield Zain Westbrooke struggled to utilise his key strengths in a duo, with his best performances coming as part of the front three. It’s likely he’ll remain in the heart of midfield though, and Rovers really need to find the best partner to get the most out of the ex-Coventry man’s talismanic potential. Be that Coutts holding the fort and giving Westbrooke more freedom on the ball, or Grant asserting himself as first-choice DM. Really Westbrooke would be more suited to a midfield three, and it’s hard to see how he fits into this formation as a “luxury” player.
All that is left is the front three, the area where Rovers struggled most last season. It’s likely when fit Brett Pitman will be relied upon to be the main man, with Aaron Collins and Luke Thomas either side of him. With Sam Nicholson still to return from injury it makes for an exciting front line.