The Bristol Rovers squad going into the 2017/18 campaign contains 16 registered first team players with varying degrees of strength and squad depth across the team.
With the transfer window in full flow, I’m going to take a look at which areas require improvement and where our squad is already strong.
Goalkeepers currently in the squad:
Perhaps the most obvious area Darrell Clarke should be looking to fill is the vacant goalkeeper position, with Rovers having no-one currently on their books. The departure of Will Puddy, who although served the club well during the conference years, did not make the step up to league football, combined with a change in career for veteran Steve Mildenhall to coach sees the precarious situation whereby the Pirates are without a registered shot stopper.
It has been widely rumoured amongst the Rovers faithful that QPR loanee of the 16/17 season Joe Lumley could be on his way back to the Memorial Ground and having proved himself as a fine young talent last year, it would be an encouraging signing. A ‘number 2’ would have to be looked at also by Darrell and his staff and whether he decides to opt for a more experienced head or another youngster remains to be seen. This position unlike many others, is one that cannot be ignored and a signing is certain.
Defenders currently in the squad : Daniel Leadbitter- 26 y/o, Lee Brown- 26 y/o, Tom Lockyer- 22 y/o, James Clarke 27 y/o, Joe Partington- 26 y/o, Jonathan Burn- 21 y/o.
Two things stand out when observing Rovers current selection of professionally signed defenders. The lack of an out an out centre back to partner skipper Tom Lockyer, and the huge amount of versatility. Across the 6 players, almost all can play any position, and most have. Lee Brown and Daniel Leadbitter have primarily filled the full back positions with James Clarke and Joe Partington providing adequate cover. Both Clarke and Partington however have also filled in at centre back when required.
One player who ignited much excitement when he put pen to paper in January 2017 is Jonathan Burn. Moving from Middlesborough big things were expected, but due to top performance levels from loanees Jake Clarke-Salter of Chelsea and Ryan Sweeney of Stoke, his game time was limited to substitute appearances. Predominantly a centre-back, it will be interesting to see if he can kick on this season and live up to his potential. With Tom Lockyer occupying one centre half spot, another top end league one level centre back should surely be a target for Darrell Clarke. The departure of Peter Hartley will undoubtedly free up wages to aid this search. Overall the Rovers defence is a strong point of the team and is arguably one quality centre back short of being full strength. What is striking though, with the exit of Hartley, is the lack of experience. With an average age of 24, an old head may be something Darrell Clarke will be looking at.
Midfielders currently in the squad: Ollie Clarke- 24 y/o, Chris Lines- 31 y/o, Liam Sercombe- 27 y/o, Byron Moore- 28 y/o, Billy Bodin- 25 y/o, Stuart Sinclair- 29 y/o, Ryan Broom- 20 y/o.
Typically over the last few years, an attacking central midfielder has been somewhat of an illusive prospect for Rovers. However entering the 2017/18 season the team can boast 3 very talented and varying types of players in this role. Vice captain Chris Lines has proved an invaluable asset playing 44 games last year. A fellow Bristolian, Ollie Clarke, has also really began to find his feet and chipped in with 4 goals last year but equally important, the defensive side of his game has really improved. Lastly, Rovers have attained the services of highly rated midfielder Liam Sercombe, who joined from Oxford this summer. All 3 offer real attacking threat and it is ironic that the position that we so much required in the past, is now our strongest.
Defensively however, there is a lack of personnel. Although able to fill a role in the defensive midfield position, Ollie Clarke is predominantly attacking. That leaves one out and out holding midfielder. Stuart Sinclair. A fans favourite of the Rovers faithful, he has been a constant figure in the Rovers team over the past 3 years and is a vital cog in the Blues machine. Although a good player, he does raise some questions as to whether he is of the standard to aim for promotion. He has a role in the squad undoubtedly, but I would suspect Darrell Clarke would be looking for another defensive midfielder to bolster the squad depth.
Rovers recently saw the hot and cold winger Cristian Montano leave, meaning the number of wingers within the squad amounts to 3. The pick of the bunch is the exciting Billy Bodin. His unbelievably quick feet have dazzled Rover fans since his arrival in July 2015 and the Welshman netted 13 times last campaign. One of the first names on the teamsheet and a player who Darrell Clarke will want to keep around amidst much transfer speculation. Thought amongst many Rovers fans as the star player last year. Byron Moore is a player who has shown moments of class but all in all offered little last season. His return of 2 goals is something that will prompt the management team to look for another winger. Ryan Broom is someone who showed promise towards the back end of the season and due to his age we may expect to see either go out on loan or play a substitute’s role. Not yet a league one player, he certainly has the potential to become a first team player. The wide positions are an area which Rovers have struggled with for a long time, and surely we will see some transfer activity in this department. The squad is in need of one or two top quality wide men. Overall I would say that the key midfield signings for Darrell and his team should be a proven defensive midfielder and another exciting winger to take some pressure off Bodin.
Strikers currently in the squad: Ellis Harrison- 23 y/o, Rory Gaffney- 27 y/o.
As much as us Rovers fans may hate to say it, we have missed the goals of Matty Taylor. Currently the squad contains 2 registered strikers both of which contain a frustrating feature, a real lack of consistency. We have seen flashes of utter brilliance from both, most striking was Ellis’ 4 goals against Northampton but the fact remains that neither broke the basic requirement of 10 goals a season. It is clear to see that at least one striker has to be signed during this window, and 2 would be ideal. With Gaffney hard work is guaranteed and this is something that impresses Clarke. He has a liking to players who will give 100% week in, week out. With this in mind and the rumours circulating, it appears that the signing of Luke James in the coming weeks is inevitable. Splitting opinion amongst the Rovers fans I personally feel that as soon as his elusive first goal comes he should kick on. His work rate is admirable and for me his contribution to the team goes unnoticed. However, there is no hiding from the fact that an out and out, 20 goals a season striker is required for the squad to push on towards promotion.
With only 16 registered first team players, it is absolutely paramount signings are made. Ideally, 6-7 more would do before the window shuts. I expect to see 1 or 2 permanent signings and a clever utilisation of the loan market, something that has brought us great success over the last years. A first team goalkeeper is crucial and cannot be ignored, one top class centre back, a winger, a defensive midfielder and finally a prolific striker is what must be the focus for Darrell and Wael over the next few weeks.