Ahead of what is set to be an exciting season for a much-changed Bristol Rovers side, TFF writers Fred Welsman, Doug Shields and Joe Moon give their honest thoughts on the crucial League One campaign, their picks for our top goalscorer, and their ‘ one to watch ‘ for the season ahead.
Final Position: 6th
I genuinely believe that the squad Darrell has put together over the last few years was a few players short of mounting a strong challenge for promotion out of League One. With his additions over the summer, we now have those players and for me, 6th place is a very realistic goal. I am extremely optimistic for the season and with our current squad depth, there is no reason we cannot be right up at the peak of the table challenging the likes of Blackburn and Wigan. Saying this, we cannot match some budgets in the league and undoubtedly this will see teams such as those previously mentioned start the season as favourites. Overall, Gasheads should be feeling confident and only missing out on the play offs by 6 points last time out suggests with our new signings, things are looking promising. Automatics are beyond our reach however due to the significantly larger budgets around us and the fiercely competitive nature of the league.
Golden Boot: Rory Gaffney
Having netted 9 times in the 2016/17 season, it can be argued that even when not playing at his full potential, he still scores goals. Admitting himself that his campaign was not what he had hoped, he still contributed well to the team. Any Rovers fans who have seen him in pre-season will have been impressed with his sharpness and fitness levels and to me he seems like he has the bit between his teeth. I can see him really kicking on this season and as a natural goalscorer, he will benefit hugely from the creativity of Chris Lines, Liam Sercombe and Billy Bodin, not to mention Tom Nichols who I believe he will build a strong partnership with. This for me, will be a season that Gaffney truly kicks on.
Surprise Star: Marc Bola
When I saw that we had signed the Arsenal youngster, I have to admit I had little knowledge of the highly rated left back. But after doing some research it soon emerged that we had signed a rapid and exciting player. What gives me the confidence he will be a key player is his versatility. Able to play in most left sided positions, he offers a real direct threat to the opposition which when adopting a 3-5-2 formation is what Brown often lacked. He also has a fantastic cross on him. The season will bring many surprises and I truly believe that Marc Bola will prove himself as a very good league one player.
Final Position 9th – Higher if we get another striker in
I feel we are almost there with the squad, but still need more as DC has admitted. I think in Sercombe we have a fantastic player who will score around ten, maybe more. When I was paying for my season ticket I was hoping BIlly Bodin stays. When he is on top form, he is a special player who can turn anyone inside out, and if we can keep him fit he should rip it up this year. I like the look of Nichols also, but there are some big lumps of defenders in League One who will let him know they are around. A test for him will be to show he is physically strong enough. He looks like the kind of player who will play in the 10 role, hang a bit deeper and look to turn and run, in much the same way as the lad who left us in January. I hope we can bring in another forward, a real number 9, who can play through the middle, or with his back to goal, holding things up and bringing other players into the game. We need a real threat, and not a young loanee either – unless Chelsea have an even younger Tammy Abraham who needs game time… I accept other writers’ opinions on Rory Gaffney, but I am not sure he has the quality to score between 18 and 25 goals for us. His work-rate cannot be questioned, but you can’t have someone who will run all afternoon and not have the quality to finish first-time when he gets a yard of space at the edge of the box.
I am confident this time out we will have the strength and power at the back which we lacked last season. At times Peter Hartley and Lee Brown looked on different planets to each other on that side of the defence, and were often left glaring at each other as the opposition’s wide attacking player strolled into the acres of space between both of them. Bringing Ryan Sweeney back in would be a master-stroke, but the longer we wait the more I fear he may go to the Championship. That lot south of the river always keep one eye on what we’re doing, and do their best to throw a spanner in the works, and I can see that happening here. I hope I’m wrong. I usually am. I am not overly worried about the sides which came down. Blackburn should be okay. A good run towards the end of the season and the fact they have lost very few players means they should stroll it, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sides do struggle to adjust to League One. Teams are happy to sit deep and hit you on the break, whereas the Championship is a bit more gung-ho.
Golden Boot: Billy Bodin
I am going for Billy Bodin, I know, I know, he’s midfield player, but unless we sign another striker, I think goals will be shared around the team, and Billy will just edge it. If we play with a three across the front, Billy should start most weeks, and he makes great late runs into the box and has fantastic skill. Opposition defenders will find it hard to stop him.
Surprise Star: Ryan Broom
I am going to go for Ryan Broom. The more I see of him the more I like him. There is no messing around from him. He looks like he means business every time he walks onto the pitch, he looks fierce and focused, his time has come. He is fast, strong as an ox and plays the game intelligently. Against West Brom, he was happy to tuck back in when the full-back went forward, and he is tidy and strong on the ball. He is different to every other player we have.
Final Position: 9th
I can’t help but agree with Doug on this one. With ambitious sides such as Blackburn, Wigan and a revitalised Portsmouth throwing their weight around in the transfer market, as well as a surprisingly free-spending Bury making themselves known, the third tier is arguably the most competitive it’s been for years (….at least on paper). Rovers haven’t lost any key players thus far and have strengthened in key areas such as midfield and the historically problematic goalkeeping position, however without a proven league 1 goalscorer in our ranks, I fear we may struggle putting the ball in the back of the net and ultimately fail to turn draws into wins. I will happily be proven wrong however with a new-look team likely to start against Charlton and from what I have seen in pre-season, acquiring the signatures of goliath-esque central defender Tom Broadbent and technically gifted playmaker Liam Sercombe improves the core of our side significantly.
Golden Boot: Tom Nichols
Despite having experienced just one full League One campaign in his short senior career, Tom Nichols has all the attributes to develop into a dangerous forward at this level. 34 goals in 97 games for his boyhood club Exeter City proves that the 23 year old has natural finishing ability, and 11 goals in 43 league games for Peterborough United marks a decent start for the youngster as he ascends the football league pyramid. I expect Darrell Clarke to alternate between a number of formations as the season progresses with the striker assisted by a target man on occasion. The addition of former Exeter teammate Liam Sercombe could very well act as a creative catalyst for our forwards to start scoring on a regular basis, and the familiarity between Nichols and ‘ Sercs ‘ plus the grandeur of being Peterborough’s top scorer last season could see Nichols claiming his place as The Pirates top marksman.
Surprise Star: Rollin Menayese
Without a football league appearance to his name, and his only taste of senior men’s football coming last year in The Conference South for Weston-super-Mare, this may be seen as an odd choice. The 19 year old central defender has represented Wales at various age levels and similarly to first team captain and fellow centre back Tom Lockyer, Menayese was released by Cardiff City just last year. Don’t be deceived by his age however – at 6’3 and with a physique more accustomed to that of a rugby player, the imposing youngster helped keep a clean sheet against the experienced pros of West Brom in Saturday’s friendly encounter. With cameo appearances in the majority of pre-season matches, and few central defensive options for Rovers at the moment, don’t be surprised to see Menayese donning the blue and white quarters in League 1 next year, a rich history of blooding local young players only strengthens the case for Rollin to make his mark in the first team in 2017/18.
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Feature Image Credit: Linda Bailey