Difficult summer bleeds into bad start for Rovers – Interview
Tuesday, 28th Aug 2018 12:14 by Clive Whittingham
Bristol Rovers come to Loftus Road this evening struggling at the start of the 2018/19 season following the loss of key strikers in the last two transfer windows, says @tomvahkiin.
Last season seemed to rather peter out with only two wins in the last dozen games (lots of draws), was that just one of those midtable-nothing to play for issues or something more?
It was a bit of a midtable-nothing to play for season. We’d had back to back promotions followed by our highest finish since 1999–00 so a damp squib had to come at some point. I don’t think we troubled the top ten once last season and lost a lot of creativity and firepower when we lost Billy Bodin to Preston. Luckily Ellis Harrison went on to have his best season in a Rovers shirt and prevented things being potentially a lot worse. However his goals dried up in late March and we only managed one victory in that time. Thankfully we’d done enough by then.
Who came and who went over the summer, how did you assess the transfer business done?
Ellis Harrison was a big loss for us, joining Ipswich. We’d been waiting for him to have a season like that for eight years so it was bittersweet to see a long-time player and academy graduate move on to better things. We also lost another long-time player in the form of former QPR youth team left-back Lee Brown who opted to move to Portsmouth in order to be closer to his London-based family and push for the Championship. Brown wasn’t seen as irreplaceable (though whether Tareiq Holmes-Dennis fills the current void when he returns from injury remains to be seen) but it carries the important psychological impact of losing our second most capped player who stuck with us in the Conference season and scored that all-important League Two promotion goal. He left with a lot of goodwill but also a lot of sadness from the fans. Elsewhere we lost Rory Gaffney to moneybags Salford but the feeling was Rory had come to the end of his usefulness here, despite doing a job for us in League Two.
The summer transfer window was a bit of a testing time for Gasheads as we left replacing Ellis to the last minute and were repeatedly told to not expect a straight reinvestment of the £750k received for our top goalscorer. Wishing no offence to the man, the nadir of all this was being inches away from signing misfiring Walsall man Amadou Bakayoko but he eventually went to Coventry. Like most other Championship and League One clubs, we decided to get involved in the mass pillaging of Shrewsbury Town and acquired the services of Stefan Payne who has been encouraging so far and Alex Rodman who the jury is still out on. We also brought in MK Dons captain Ed Upson (seen by most as a bit of good business) and St Mirren’s Gavin Reilly, who is still an unknown quality. In the last week we’ve lost first choice keeper Sam Slocombe to Lincoln (a weird and worrying move from our point of view) and brought in Jack Bonham from Brentford on loan, a player who was absolutely slated by Carlisle fans after spending last season on loan there. We’ll have to hope Adam Smith can step up if that doesn’t work out. On paper I’d rate our business as a B in quality and a C- in execution but a lot of question marks still hang in this early stage.
This season hasn’t started well, with one league win and four defeats, what’s the problem?
Whilst panicking about our attacking line-up all summer, it would seem that certain glaring flaws in the back four have gone unnoticed. James Clarke seems to be the only player that has performed consistently well in that section of the pitch, with disappointing performances from Wales international Tom Lockyer, Danny Leadbitter and Tony Craig who is being asked to fill-in at left back. We’ve shipped some incredibly weak goals, most noticeably in the very first minute of our first game away at Peterborough. A serial tinkerer, Darrell Clarke has taken to positioning our best player Liam Sercombe, a central midfielder, on the wing in a role he seems ill-suited to. Striker Tom Nichols continues to be a complete waste of money and is being persevered with at the cost of giving Gavin Reilly or Alex Jakubiak a run in the team, much like Dom Telford before them. My hope is that all the players need more time to gel, this being the first time in a while I’ve come back to the Mem on the opening home game and not recognised half the team.
Manager Darrell Clarke seems like a bit of a local legend, does he retain the support of the board and the fans?
Darrell was pretty much Lord Mayor of North Bristol after his efforts from 2014-2017. He’s weathered an incredible amount of storms on a relative shoestring in his characteristic passionate but no nonsense manner. He will retain the backing of a majority of fans shy of a relegation in my opinion. However, Rovers position off the field (a stadium redevelopment in limbo, a plot of land outside the city earmarked for a new training facility sitting dormant with nary a whisper of a plan to take it forward and serious questions being raised about the Al-Qadi family’s commitment to the club after the collapse of the UWE Stadium deal) makes the club a pretty much perpetual cauldron of potential bile where there is, in my view, much less patience or tolerance for poor performances despite a remarkably unwavering footfall home and away. Whether or not a critical mass turn against DC depends on whether the more sober fans who mostly separate on and off field matters shout louder than those who see a causal connection between Tom Nichols being shit and us having a tent for a stand.
Where is the team strong and where is it weak?
The team isn’t particularly strong anywhere at the moment but all our best players are midfielders and wingers so I suppose I’ll say that. Weaknesses are defence, full-backs particularly and also possibly goalkeepers now.
What were your predictions for the season before it started and have you revised that at all?
My prediction (which looks very hopeful now) was to push for the playoffs and end up somewhere within the top 10. Now I’m anticipating a relegation battle. If I may be cheeky and predict today while I’m at it: I’d fancy us to beat the Hoops if we were in the shape we’ve been at any other time over the last two seasons, considering the awful start you’ve endured and the fact that the League Cup has been a happy hunting ground for Rovers with victories over Cardiff and Fulham and close-run losses against Chelsea and Wolves. With things the way they are though, I’ll say 2-0 to QPR.
Pictures – Action Images
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