For years now I have been asking myself ‘Does anyone care about shirt numbers anymore?’ I think it first dawned on me when Samuel Eto’o joined Everton from Chelsea in 2014 – and took the number 5. That’s just plain wrong to me.

Hal Robson-Kanu played against Rovers at the weekend wearing the No4 shirt, even worse. You can’t spearhead the attack with the No4 on your back. The only time that should happen is when a team is chasing a game and push the centre-back up for the last ten. There are some other shocking examples here I can’t for the life of me imagine Alan Shearer signing for Newcastle United all those years ago, and being pictured on the steps outside St.James’ Park in front of hundreds of adoring Geordies, holding aloft the No2 shirt. I was actually heartened when Arsenal’s Lucas Perez threw his dolls out of the pram and declared his intention to quit the Emirates because they took the No9 shirt away from him.

Back in the day when I played, as a ‘keeper – I wasn’t very good, but I was brave and loved mud larks and stud marks, which I could show off as I trudged towards the dressing room following another six, seven or eight goal defeat – I loved having the No1 shirt. It wasn’t just a shirt number, it was an endorsement. I was the team’s number one, and the number one ‘keeper at the club if there were two, or even three of us. If you played in the net, you had to be wearing the No1. Up until Eto’o joined Everton, I was of the belief only strikers and keepers still cared about the number on the shirt.  Now it’s Lucas Perez – and goalkeepers.

That’s why the battle for the Rovers’ ‘keeper jersey between Adam Smith and Sam Slocombe is so intriguing. Reading the squad numbers it was great to see neither ‘keeper has yet been allocated a squad number. Mind games by DC? Quite possibly. In my opinion this is brilliant man-management. Leaving it until the last minute is a stroke of genius. (Of course, Sod’s law determines the ’keeper’s numbers will be announced an hour after we publish this) It will keep both lads on their toes all week, and means both feel they have an equal chance of getting the nod on Saturday at The Valley. It also means in their eyes, he does not currently consider one better than the other. I suspect he may even stick to this ‘sitting on the psychological fence’ strategy throughout the season, rotating Smith and Slocombe, giving them roughly an equal number of games if they both show in training they’re not phased by sharing the gloves on a Saturday.

It would be hard on one of them if the other were to get the nod for the majority of games, when so far both have shown themselves to be quality custodians. DC said as much when he pointed out to Keith Brookman ‘it’s a fifty-plus game season’ after the game. The bloke stood behind me on the North Terrace on Saturday hit the nail on the head when, after Adam Smith made a fantastic block as he flew out spread-eagled like a starfish to deny Salomon Rondon, he turned to me and said: ‘’Christ, we’ve got two cracking ‘keepers now!’’. There WAS shock in his voice. I didn’t make that up. For years we have lurched from one ‘keeping crisis to another. Now it seems we do indeed have two very good goalkeepers, which is not just a rarity at Rovers. There aren’t many clubs who, a week before the start of the season, are yet to decide who will start the first game in goal because there isn’t an obvious first choice. We have an embarrassment of riches now in that position – and this again shows how different Darrell Clarke is to other managers in the way he operates.

I’m struggling to think of clubs who have had two ‘keepers of the same level. In my mind one is always first choice, the other a back up. Even at Chelsea when Asmir Begovic signed from Stoke City, it was obvious Thibaut Cortois was going to get the nod. I can remember many moons ago when England manager Ron Greenwood alternated Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton at the European Championships in 1980 before finally plumping for Shilton as his No1. So – who will be the No1 for the Gas at Charlton on Saturday when the 2017/18 season kicks off? I have to say, after about 35 minutes of the West Brom game I was thinking it was going to be Slocombe. The stop he made with his feet from Nacer Chadli was one I expected him to make, but it was still decent because he had to flick his feet together in a split second to prevent the shot flying into the back of the net, but the pace and timing he showed when he raced to confront James McClean was mightily impressive. He made the decision quickly, and was rapid out of the blocks. There was no hesitation, and he showed real bravery and commitment to go in as hard as he did. I reckon McClean thought Slocombe would bottle it slightly, and he was proved wrong when Slocombe hit him like a train, leaving him in a crumpled heap on the turf.  I watched the former Blackpool and Oxford stopper closely for the 45 and a bit minutes he was on, and I liked the way he was always available. His concentration was very good, and he moved the ball out to the full-backs quickly. His only slight wobble was when the ball almost squirmed under him from a low shot, but it would be harsh to hold that against him. He reminds me very much of Roy Carroll in his body shape, demeanour and gait, and even facially, slightly. If he is half as good as the veteran Northern Ireland ‘keeper we should be alright this season!

In the second half ex-Cobbler Adam Smith took his place, and he was equally as good. For the majority of the second half, I found myself thinking DC has a really tough call to split these lads. Two very good stops from close-range efforts, and Smith took one cross beautifully under pressure. I was along way away from the South Stand, who would have had a better view than me, but a coupe of times it looked as if he was about to come for the ball, only to let it float across the edge of the six-yard box.  As I said, I could be wrong. I was watching through a crowd of players, and fans in front of me. I will say Smith, who was released by Premier League Leicester City in 2015, does look to have a longer kick than Slocombe, but apart from that there wasn’t much to choose.

So my verdict is:  SAM SLOCOMBE  He has bags of experience, is five years older than Smith, and looked slightly calmer and assured against Premier League opposition on Saturday.

Feature Image Credit: Bristol Rovers FC

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