In what is sure to be a hectic summer for Darrell Clarke, the popular gaffer is tasked with completely revamping a Bristol Rovers squad which has achieved considerable accolades over a 3 year period.
Successive promotions and a solid top-half finish upon return to League 1 are certainly not to be sniffed at. Considering Clarke has guided his team up the divisional ladder with many of the same players proves just how capable the man is at bringing the best out of individuals, although a summer clear-out has now left Rovers with a threadbare squad. With the promise of up to 10 new first team players linking up with the 14 individuals currently in the manager’s first team plans there are sure to be plenty of twists and turns leading up to the transfer window slamming shut August 31st. Having had an extensive look at the many players we have been linked with so far I will be putting together a potential starting XI for our opening game of the season against Charlton Athletic – ready? Then let’s get into it!
For the starting 11 I have decided to line up in 4-3-3 formation, ideally for home matches I feel this set up would be perfect for Darrell Clarke’s exciting brand of attacking football.
Goalkeeper: Joe Lumley
Perhaps the most obvious player we have been linked with landing this summer is QPR shot-stopper Joe Lumley. The popular Londoner spent the latter part of last campaign at Rovers winning over the majority of fans with his consistently brilliant displays between the sticks. It came as no coincidence that the arrival of the tall 22 year old coincided with a run of clean sheets and assured defensive performances for a team that had struggled with keeping the ball out of the net. With Lumley low down in the pecking order and seemingly eager to move permanently to the West Country it would come as no surprise to see him join The Gas for good (although a fee would have to be involved as he is still contracted to Queens Park Rangers).
Left Back: Lee Brown
Having held the left back slot for 6 years now, Lee Brown looks to continue his loyal service to the club for the forthcoming season. A no-nonsense defensive full back, Brown has been a solid starter for Rovers since 2011 and Darrell Clarke’s decision not to offer a contract to Bob Harris ultimately suggests that ‘ Browner ‘ will not be leaving any time soon. Holding icon status for his injury time winner to propel The Pirates back into league 1, fans will be hoping the consistent performer can maintain his defensive prowess and perhaps even chip in with a belting free kick or two.
Centre Back: Jonny Burn
Signed from Middlesbrough in January 2017 the central defender joined the club as a backup option to in-form duo Tom Lockyer and Ryan Sweeney and struggled for game time in his first 6 months at the club. The upcoming season however could signal regular first team for Burn who is no stranger to League 1 football having played 12 games on loan for Oldham in 2016. Sharing the same physical attributes as Sweeney (who unfortunately looks likely to join a Championship club on loan next campaign) the ex-Middlesbrough man should savour his opportunity to play regular first team football for the first time in his career and can hopefully form a formidable partnership with our club captain. There will likely be another addition to provide cover for the centre back spot but I’m backing Burn to have a breakout season.
Centre Back: Tom Lockyer
Tom Lockyer is the epitome of exactly what can happen when a club’s academy system is run correctly. The captain and Wales senior squad member joined Rovers having been released by Cardiff and since making his debut aged just 18 in 2012 has made 178 appearances for the side. An undoubted starter under Darrell Clarke, he forged a formidable partnership with Ryan Sweeney post-January and the young Welshman forging a similarly solid partnership next season could be the answer to Rovers defensive crisis. There are questions as to where his future may lie (a senior national team call-up does not go unnoticed) but Gasheads can hope that our skipper sticks around to lead us to yet another historic promotion.
Right Back: Diego Johannesson
A player that most Gasheads will not have heard of, Johannesson reportedly impressed Rovers scout Brian Dutton during a recent trip to inspect his club Real Oviedo. The Icelandic international is an eye-catching full back that likes to bomb forward and use his pace to deceive opposition players (much in the mould of Daniel Leadbitter). With international pedigree and a respectable number of club appearances to his name the 23 year old would not come cheap, however with competitive investment into the transfer market promised and Darrell Clarke eluding to overseas signings don’t be surprised to see the right back lining up for Rovers in the very near future.
Central Midfield: Ollie Clarke
Arguably the revelation of last year, Clarke has developed into the all-round midfielder that Rovers have needed for years. Blessed with a tenacious tough-tackling attitude and a howitzer of a right foot the Portishead born midfielder had his best season in the blue and white quarters during the 2016/17 campaign and was rewarded with a new contract. Clarke will be a vital member of the first team should Rovers mount a promotion push next season and the presence of yet another academy graduate in the squad is a brilliant sign. Perhaps in 2018 we will see another youth exponent make his way into our manager’s plans?
Central Midfield: Chris Lines
‘Linesy’ has impressed during his second spell at the club and looks to retain his central midfield spot for the forthcoming season. An all-round box to box midfielder, Lines likes to go on marauding runs through the opposition half and even likes to chip in with a spectacular goal or two (Just look at that mouth-watering 35 yarder against Cardiff). With crucial League 1 experience and possibly his best season since returning from spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Port Vale coming during 2016/17 the talismanic figure will likely remain one of the creative focal points under Darrell Clarke and will perhaps alternate with Stuart Sinclair on occasion to make the ever-changing starting 11.
Attacking Midfield: Liam Sercombe
Rovers only new first team signing at the time of writing, Sercombe cost the club a six figure fee and will look to slot into the team and provide an additional goal scoring threat. The ex-Exeter and Oxford United man has had an illustrious career within the West Country and should be able to chip in to take pressure off of the forward line. The signing of the midfield maestro may signal a change in the way the team plays with Sercombe traditionally playing a roaming role between the striker and central midfield however with capabilities of playing as part of a traditional midfield trio the new boy could certainly see himself playing as part of a 4-4-2 system with 2 strikers ahead of him. It seems Darrell has made an interesting signing who adds much needed depth to our midfield region and the player is certainly different to anything the squad currently has to offer.
Right Wing: Billy Bodin
For many fans, the best piece of transfer business Rovers could possibly partake in this upcoming season would be keeping hold of Bodin. His scintillating form on the wing and penchant for a long range goal have marked him as one of the most dangerous players in League 1 therefore it would be ignorant not to suspect a whole legion of Championship clubs are keeping tabs on the ex-Welsh under 21 cap. 25 goals in 72 games from the right flank speaks volumes about the talent of the 25 year old and if Rovers are able to keep hold of him it could be yet another red hot season for the inside forward. The wing options are currently limited aside from Bodin however so expect to see cover come in for this position – Bodin lining up against Charlton is almost a certainty though with our ambitious owners expectedly keen to keep our prized asset.
Left Wing: David Wheeler
One of the more credible potential signing Rovers have been linked with is that of 26 year old Exeter winger David Wheeler. The Brighton born wide-man has spent the entirety of his professional career with our local rivals and has scored 33 goals over 6 seasons from his preferred position out wide. Rovers would have to pay a fee for him however with Exeter consigned to losing their best players to clubs in the upper echelons of the football pyramid Wheeler joining The Gas is a real possibility especially taking into account the local ties between the two clubs and the appeal of being able to stay in the South-West of England. Although not possessing the goal scoring credentials of Bodin, Wheeler has an admirable record and could be the creative outlet that Rovers have been in need of.
Striker: Tom Nichols
Tom Nichols is a name that many Rovers fans may be familiar with from his time at Exeter and indeed The Pirates were linked with signing the forward as far back as 2013. Having had a bid for the striker rejected earlier this week the interest in the Peterborough man is expected to remain and negotiations are believed to be ongoing between the two parties representing the clubs. At 5’10 and of a similar build to ex-star striker Matt Taylor, Nichols seems to be very much the same type of forward. Agile and with an ability to get himself into good offensive positions, Nichols could be a revelation for Rovers and with 11 goals in 43 appearances since joining Posh he could develop into much more than a steady League 1 striker, after all being just 23 age is still on his side.
Ellis Harrison: A solid first season in League 1, this could be his season under Darrell Clarke.
Byron Moore: A lack of chances last season but a solid squad player likely to chip in with a few goals.
Stuart Sinclair: The diminutive midfielder has adjusted to every level he has stepped up to. A fan favourite that is likely to be a squad player.
Jon McLaughlin: Free agent McLaughlin provides vital experience and could offer competition to Joe Lumley.
Reece Wabara: Despite being released by Bolton, Wabara has played Championship football and can play a variety of positions across the defence.
Ariel Borysiuk: QPR’s Polish midfielder is a rumoured target for Rovers and could offer up a different option in the centre of the park.
James Alabi: Chester forward Alabi has confirmed his future lies away from the conference side and 23 goals in 58 goals has alerted many league 1 clubs.
Featured Image: Bristol Rovers FC