“Evolution not revolution” has been the overriding message ever since the Al-Qadi family took control of Bristol Rovers in February of last year, and a huge part of the club’s “Evolution” will rely upon young, hungry players that are prepared to make an impact in the first team squad.
The formation of a new-look development team overlooked by Brian Dutton, Chris Hargreaves and ex-Rovers favourite Steve Mildenhall is a step in the right direction as the trio of coaches look to offer the young footballers a route into the senior starting 11. With a huge influx of young players this summer and a good number of established prospects remaining at the club, I decided to cast my gaze over a selection of Under 21’s I believe could be making their way into the first team picture over the next couple of years.
Andre Alexis Jr:
French shot-stopper and former Leeds trialist Andre Alexis Jr has already had his first taste of action for Rovers, having made the substitutes bench for our recent 3-2 League 1 triumph over Bury in the absence of Adam Smith. Rovers are Andre’s first professional club after a successful stint with The Nike Academy and a number of lower league clubs in his native France. At just 20, the youngster has plenty of years to hone his craft and with competition from fellow Nike Academy graduate Thom Jonkerman to claim the Number 1 spot for the development squad, expect fierce determination from the new boy under the guidance of newly appointed goalkeeping coach Steve Mildenhall.
Arguably one of the more experienced players from this list, Menayese has already endured a career of highs and lows yet is still just 19 years of age. A Wales youth international, the physically imposing central defender started off life in the Cardiff City academy playing for their development sides, however he was released by The Bluebirds in 2016. Undeterred by the set-back, he proceeded to sign for Weston-Super-Mare where he became a regular for the Conference South side making 23 appearances and helping The Seagulls avoid relegation. Appointed captain of the development side in a number of pre-season games highlights the leadership qualities of the young man and the experience of Menayese could be a valuable asset if the side is to be a success.
A powerful forward player, Otudeko was signed up ahead of the 2017/18 season from non-league Marlow FC for whom he impressed Rovers enough to be offered a deal with the development team. The striker started off his career with boyhood club Watford and spent 10 years with The Hornets failing to make a first team appearance before being released in 2015 and finding his way back into the game with Southern League Marlow. Similarly to Menayese, Otudeko has non-league experience and will look to score regularly for Rovers 2nd side and catch the eye of Darrell Clarke in the process.
Let’s face it, not a single Gashead had heard of Abu-Hassan before the Jordanian was seen posing next to Wael Al-Qadi with an accompanying message that the central defender had signed a deal with the club. Many fans were unsure of the arrival with the links to the ownership obvious, but the question is, why not take a chance on a young, hungry player that has represented his country at various age levels? At 18 and an Under-19 international for his country of birth the scepticism seemed unjust for a player with bags of potential that just might find his way in the British game under the tutelage of coaches that know how to get the best out of their players. Much hype surrounds the player in his native Jordan (He is indeed the first Jordanian player to sign for a British club) and if Ghassan manages to sustain the pressure which comes with such a move, he may just exceed expectations.
The first player on my list to have existing ties to Rovers prior to the summer overhaul is forward Lewis Ellington. A prolific goalscorer for Rovers at various age levels, Ellington has been on the books of Rovers since the age of just 11. At the age of 15 the Bristol born striker attracted interest from a number of Premier League clubs reportedly, however his loyalty to Rovers was repaid with a senior contract at the end of last season. In his own words, Ellington is a hard working forward that tries to hassle defenders at any given opportunity, and if the 18 year old can replicate his admirable goal record for the development squad then expect to see him in the first team picture sooner rather than later.
5 senior league appearances and some impressive displays during pre-season are surely a sign of things to come from the exciting Newport born winger. Rovers have long had a history of developing young Welsh talent with Tom Lockyer and Ellis Harrison current examples of academy graduates to hail from Wales, Broom could potentially find himself in the same bracket as the aforementioned duo. Blessed with impressive physical strength and crossing ability, the 20 year old looks set to add to his appearances this campaign after a handful of substitute cameos towards the end of last season. Rovers hardly have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to wingers so Broom could become a starter for The Gas as early as this season if he is to play his cards right.
“Potential” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in football, it seems that every emerging talent from a football club has the “Potential” to be the next big thing, however in the case of Luc Noble Bristol Rovers may have a gem on their hands. I recently interviewed the Wales Under-15 captain and a promising future in the game seems assured – his attitude and enthusiasm for both his club and national team were spot on for someone so young. With aspirations to represent Wales at higher age levels the midfielder has plenty of time to develop his game and if he continues to improve at the current rate, it seems inevitable that young Luc will have a successful career in the game.
Another player to be picked up from Non-League this summer, Ten-Grotenhuis is a combative midfielder signed from Hampton And Richmond Borough. The 19 year old will look to slot into the central midfield spot for the development side after signing his first professional deal with Rovers. Previously of the Farnborough Academy, Grotenhuis spent last season on loan at Tooting And Mitcham FC where he racked up a number of appearances and impressed fans and scouts alike. With central midfielders a luxury at Rovers currently, the youngster will have to work hard to gain himself a first team place over the next couple of years. With an established side now to showcase his talents, there has never been a better time to grab the opportunity to make it as a senior professional.
A srriker that has progressed through the ranks at Rovers, Spruce has been at the club since a young lad and adds to the contingent of Welsh players at Rovers. Recently called up to the Wales Under-19 squad, the 18 year old has the potential to emulate other former academy graduates and with an impressive goalscoring record for the Under-18 side last season he will look to make the step up and is sure to be brimming with confidence following a call-up to represent his country. For me, the development squad is ideal for players like James, it offers something different than traditional reserve football with an organised league system and something on the line every single match. Competition for places will be expectedly fierce. With hopes of scoring around 20 goals this year, the young Welshman is well on his way towards a professional contract with Rovers should his impressive development continue.
To say Michael Kelly’s journey prior to signing for The Gas was unconventional would be an understatement. Originally with Aberdeen in his native Scotland, Kelly was plucked from the youth system by former Premier League feel-good-story Leicester City where he was able to continue his development in their prestigious academy set-up. Kelly was dealt a harsh blow when released by Leicester in 2016 but worked his way back up to fitness and form with Scottish junior league side Hurlford United before joining Rovers, initially on a trial basis. The former Scotland Under-17 captain impressed enough in pre-season to be offered a contract with the development side and the left back will undoubtedly work hard in the new set-up as he looks to make it in the English game at the second time of asking.
Feature Image Credit: @TFFBristolRov