The boredom has now started to set in. It feels like months since Rovers played their final game of the 2016/17 season against Millwall and I’m struggling to find things to do on Saturdays.
I’m not a massive rugby fan, and I would rather stick pins in my eyes than watch tennis or cricket. I didn’t even realise England were playing Scotland until someone told me the day before the game. But even that couldn’t raise me from my summer slump.It’s that time of year – which for me is only really brightened up when photographs begin to emerge of Premier League stars relaxing on beaches and yachts at luxurious resorts and locations around the world. (Thanks go to Liverpool’s Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino and his apparently surgically-enhanced WAG for giving me a giggle) Every cloud … The under 20s World Cup victory whetted my appetite, but it’s not like watching YOUR team play is it? The good news is it’s not long now until the players are back for pre-season training. And pre-season training means pre-season fixtures! Bring it on! I can’t wait. I’m convinced this is going to be another fantastic season for Rovers. I’m predicting a top six finish this time round despite the size of some of the clubs who are new to League One this season, either after promotion or relegation.
Here are my reasons why:
DARRELL: THE FOOTBALL SCHOLAR
Darrell Clarke admits he is still learning his trade. But he must be one of the fastest learners in football if the last three years are anything to go by. There were times last season when his tinkering baffled fans and occasionally looked to have a similar effect on the players. But there were also times when he totally outfoxed opposing managers, specifically at Bolton and Sheffield United whose respective bosses, Phil Parkinson and Chris Wilder, will be plying their trade in the Championship in August. This coming season DC will be a year older, and a year wiser in terms of the demands this division will provide, and what will be required tactically on a match-to-match basis.
TOP QUALITY SIGNINGS
Rebuilding the squad and adding real quality that can take the club to the next level would have been top of the manager’s summer to-do list. The signing of Liam Sercombe from Oxford was a real statement of intent. Sercombe has bundles of energy, is fit, fast, strong and scores goals. If the other summer recruits – remember DC said he needed ten or 11 new players – are of the quality and standing of Sercombe, we could be in for a treat this season.
NO MORE MR. NICE GUY
DC showed incredible loyalty to the players who took the club from the National League through League Two into League One. That left us with a huge squad of over 30 players – one of the largest in the league. Admirably, Darrell felt he owed it to those lads to give them a shot at League One, but loyalty doesn’t always pay off. Too many players didn’t reach the levels expected of them. I expect to see a more ruthless DC this time. The goal of reaching the Championship can be achieved, but sadly there will be casualties along the way, and DC does not suffer fools.
IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS
‘If you’re standing still in football, you’re going backwards’ Darrell told Geoff Twentyman in a recent Radio Bristol interview. And DC doesn’t really do standing still. He is an ambitious man, and having gone on record to point out that last season Rovers amassed their highest points total since Paul Trollope’s team collected 63 points in 2008/09, there is no way he is going to settle for 10th place this time round. For his sake as much as the club’s, DC will not stop driving Bristol Rovers forward. He has repeatedly stated that ‘either the players are with him or they’re not’. Seven points off the play-offs last time out was disappointing for Darrell. He expected – and behind closed doors even perhaps demanded – the players fight for a top six spot until the death. In the end it wasn’t to be. This time I feel he will see the top six as the minimum target.
NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF
League One should hold no fear for the players this time round. Last year it was unknown territory, very few of the lads had ever strutted their stuff at that level, and occasionally it showed, although not as frequently as many of us expected before the season began. The players showed they were willing to learn, and for the most part they stepped up to the plate against some very good teams, with players of a quality they rarely come across, or certainly hadn’t faced on a regular basis.
Seven clubs will kick off in League One this season with little or no experience of this level. Doncaster and Blackpool have the most recent knowledge of the third tier, having bounced back at the first time of asking, but they are both set to undergo major rebuilds in terms of players. The other five will be facing the unknown. Make no mistake, League One will be a shock for Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham. Rovers and Latics should have the financial clout to bolster their squads, but persuading good players, and the right players, to join a relegated club is not going to be easy. Throw big money around and those clubs may make some decent signings, but will those lads want to get stuck in at Rochdale on a Tuesday night. Plymouth and Pompey should also take time to adjust.
BACKING FROM THE BOARD
It would appear DC got the answer he wanted when the question of budget was raised at the meeting with the al-Qadi family in London last month. Darrell made it clear he was hoping for at least a top ten budget, and cheekily brought up the possibility of the type of money sides that are in and around the top six will commit to the recruitment of playing staff. We will never know exactly a top six budget is – but a rough guesstimate is anywhere between £1.8m and £2.5m, £3m absolute max. A fee – said to be around £150,000 – was paid for Sercombe. It’s not a fortune in the grand scale of things, but it may show the business model which has served us so well over the last couple of years – signing unknown players, lads from non-league outfits, or boys who are trying to get their careers back on track – may not be the preferred strategy going forward.
THE LUMLEY FACTOR
It doesn’t look likely, as I write, that Joe Lumley will be returning to the Mem next season. Several clubs higher up the league ladder are said to be keen on the outstanding young keeper’s services after his impressive loan spell from QPR. But the silver-lining on that particular cloud is that Lumley not only raised the bar in terms of quality – he was possibly the best keeper we’ve seen at Rovers for more than a decade, and perhaps even since Nigel Martyn was between the posts in the late 80s – it also proved DC can attract top young players to the club. Surely DC will now be looking for someone as good, if not better than Lumley, to take over the No1 jersey. Lumley’s signing was a watershed moment for Rovers. Those who know him have tipped him to reach the very top level of the game. If Lumley played the whole season, rather than the 19 appearances he did make – without doubt we would have finished in the top six. We may even have sneaked an automatic promotion spot.
Watching players excel who have come through the ranks is something supporters of clubs outside the Prem generally get to enjoy more than fans of the top teams. Rovers, over the years, have given youth a chance, with varying degrees of success. This season two young home-grown lads have been exceptional, Ollie Clarke and Tom Lockyer. Ollie grew in confidence as the season went on. His work-rate, closing down, and positional sense improved on a weekly basis, and even his passing which was always a weaker part of his game, began to impress home and away. His efforts were rewarded when he picked up both the Supporters Club and Presidents Club Player Of The Year awards. Locks has been my favourite player for two and a half years now. He rarely gets into trouble – I’ll forgive him for the off-day at Charlton – has a sixth sense of where the ball is going to be played, a bit like Vincent Kompany in his prime, and has a turn of pace when required. He rarely misses headers and covers the full-back brilliantly. Locks scooped the Supporters’ Young Player of The Year gong and was then called up to the full Welsh squad. If these two boys continue to develop, the defensive and midfield spine of the team will be very, very strong this season. The downside is holding on to them both may become an issue.
Season ticket sales will again be higher this season than they were last year. Rovers topped 5,500 last time out, as the average home gate rose to 9,219. This year Rovers should smash through the 10,000 average for games at the Mem. The ground is still an intimidating place to come to for away sides, which is why Rovers boast one of the best, if not the best, home record of any team in England right now. And with more fans coming through the turnstiles, the atmosphere is going to be incredible. ENDS