As we make our way into the latter part of the season, I feel it is important to reflect on the many positives to come from our first campaign upon returning to league 1. With survival all but confirmed and 13 games remaining to stake a late claim for a play-off place, it has been a successful homecoming back to the 3rd tier.
Personally, like many fans I would have simply settled for a season of consolidation and perhaps one of survival, with the majority of our squad retained from the league 2 promotion as well as several current first team players having been signed in the conference season it would be optimistic or maybe even unrealistic to expect each individual to immediately make the step up.
Despite this, experiencing football at a higher level is an opportunity many of our players seem to have relished, Billy Bodin and Chris Lines being excellent examples of squad members that seem to have thrived in a division that allows for creative freedom and a calculated passing play instead of the mindless “hoofball” a number of our opponents have been guilty of exposing us to in recent years.
Once a figure for criticism from a select number of fans, Ollie Clarke has been yet another one of our standout performers over the course of the campaign.
A home grown talent, Clarke was nurtured on loan at several local non-league clubs prior to making his debut for The Gas – ironically in the final game of our ill-fated 2010/11 League 1 relegation season – and has since made just short of 120 league appearances for the club. A pedigree for long range goals and disciplined displays in central midfield made the now 24 year old a solid if not unremarkable addition to the match day squad prior to the 2016/17 period.
Now two thirds of the way into the current season, Ollie can see himself as one of the first names on his namesake Darrel’s ever-changing teamsheet in part thanks to his consistent displays in the middle of the park coupled with a “never say die” attitude.
An unwillingness to “Splash the cash” from the manager and ownership perhaps stems from players such as Ollie who have progressed through the youth system and possess all the attributes to continue developing at a rate that has seen squad members such as himself, Tom Lockyer and Ellis Harrison become key members of the starting eleven despite beginning as members of the youth team.
Remarkably, Saturday’s away match against Port Vale signalled the 200th consecutive league game in which an academy graduate had played – an impressive statistic taking into consideration the free spending attitude of many of our divisional rivals.
Instead of lambasting our younger players on the fringes of a first team breakthrough we should take the opportunity to encourage them. Just two seasons ago, League 1 MK Dons sold 18 year old youth product, and now England international, Dele Alli to Premier League Tottenham earning themselves a seven figure transfer fee in the process. The Milton Keynes based club are the perfect example that great players can emerge from football league sides.
Rovers have a history of developing great youth prospects. The likes of Scott Sinclair and Craig Bellamy spent a number of their formative years at The Gas and young Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Macey was poached from our academy set up just several years ago.
In the past, a reliance on older albeit more experienced players has plunged us into crisis and the ideology of the club seems to have shifted in recent seasons. With a new training ground now on the horizon and undoubtedly a new place to train for the youth team, the future is looking brighter than ever for not only our first team but also for our emerging academy talents.
Feature Image Credit: Chris Clements on Wikipedia