Bristol Rovers are in danger of relegation to the EFL’s basement tier and the man tasked with saving them is Joey Barton, who has signed a contract with the club until 2023.
EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton discusses how Barton can get the Pirates sailing in the right direction...
1. Fire up the Gas
What Barton has in his favour is that his man management style is vastly different to his predecessor.
Paul Tisdale is very much a planner, somebody who likes to oversee a whole project; he takes a long time to decide on issues and views every incident with the long-term perspective in mind.
That helped Tisdale develop saleable assets and achieve steady growth at Exeter, but it did not help him in a relegation battle at Bristol Rovers in which the short-term objectives come before anything else.
While “Tis” will steadily unpick situations from the outside in, Barton will work from the inside out: he will impulsively throw himself into situations and improvise as he goes along.
The former midfielder has baggage, but in some respects his chequered past allows him to fire people up and get them to want to fight for him.
2. Give Ayunga hunger
One of the players Barton must get firing is Jonah Ayunga.
It’s fair to say the striker, who specialized in some excellent finishes from just outside the box at Havant & Waterlooville, has not had the easiest time stepping up three divisions, having been without a league goal until mid-February.
Ayunga, though, scored a brace in the 3-1 win over Portsmouth under Tommy Widdrington’s interim guidance which could give the 23-year-old the platform to finish the campaign in good form.
Bristol Rovers may need to rely on the one-time Brighton youngster more than they would like due to the lack of experience up top.
Brandon Hanlan remains first choice striker but, despite having been in good form under Ben Garner, the former Gillingham man has found himself jaded since Tisdale took charge.
Hanlan generally played best for the Gills alongside a taller striker like Tom Eaves or Mikael Mandron, so leading the line has not always come naturally.
Andy Mangan – an industrial striker in his day - joins the coaching team and should give Ayunga and Hanlan some line-leading tips.
From Fleetwood To Bristol Rovers: Joey Barton Is Back
3. Grant Josh prominent role
Josh Grant has an outstanding reputation in the game at youth level.
The utility man, who spent 14 years in Chelsea’s system, played a part in three FA Youth Cup wins, won a domestic U18 treble and won the Toulon Tournament with England.
Grant has started to prove himself in senior terms by helping Plymouth Argyle to promotion from League Two last season.
Grant was fundamentally a central defender at Chelsea, but he has played right and left wing-back at times at youth level, before anchoring the midfield in a 3-1-4-2 for Argyle; that experience of playing in so many different positions has enhanced his tactical awareness and in-game flexibility.
The 22-year-old has the fight to adjust well to men’s football and the versatility to plug gaps, when wide centre-backs Cian Harries and Alfie Kilgour maraud forward.
🎙️ "All I can do is do the right thing by the football club... and get a bit of pride back in the Rovers badge... and I think results will do that talking for me"— BBC Bristol sport (@bbcbristolsport) February 22, 2021
We've been speaking to Joey Barton for the first time since his appointment as Bristol Rovers manager. pic.twitter.com/4ok4Gi2cCK
4. Tutor McCormick
They say that if size mattered, the elephant – not the lion – would be the king of the jungle. That statement seems particularly relevant to Barton, who ran midfields in his playing career because of his aggression and drive, which means he can have a real influence on Luke McCormick.
Bristol Rovers took Charlie Colkett – a slight, creative playmaker – on loan from Chelsea in 2016-17 with mixed results, as the youngster struggled with the physical side of the game.
There were concerns that McCormick, with a similar build to Colkett, would have similar issues, but where the more recent borrowed Blue differs is in his mentality. The 22-year-old looks prepared to adjust to the nasty side of the game and dig in for spells, whilst being able to run at opponents and win free-kicks.
McCormick has talent as well as bags of energy, which makes him someone who could thrive under Barton’s management.
5. Get Hill to coach the defence
Clint Hill joins Barton at the Mem, as a trusted assistant: they worked together in a playing capacity at QPR and as coaches at Fleetwood.
Rovers’ rear-guard needs guidance and while it may be a bit too late for the 42-year-old to dust off the old boots, there is no reason why he cannot make a huge difference on the training ground.
Alfie Kilgour is a talented young centre-back, who has admirers from higher up the pyramid, Cian Harries has ball-playing ability while Max Ehmer was part of one of the division’s most uncompromising defences last season with Gillingham.
The Gas have decent individual defenders and could be transformed by Hill’s transparent man management qualities and organisational nous.
6. Look to Leahy for leadership
With Ehmer out of favour and Jack Baldwin out of form, Luke Leahy is the most experienced member of Rovers’ back-five.
Despite having gained a reputation at Walsall for not being the best defensively, Leahy has since matured and the 28-year-old has led the troops well during Widdrington’s caretaker stint.
The former Falkirk full-back is not exactly quick, but he can support attacks well, shows intelligent movement and, when given space, can deliver a pin-point cross into the box.
Leahy has new-found leadership qualities and is the Gas’ top assister, supplying three league goals.
New Bristol Rovers boss Joey Barton...— The Sack Race (@thesackrace) February 22, 2021
"With someone like myself and all that's written about me there's going to be people who are sceptical but all I ask is they give us the opportunity to showcase what we are about" 🔵⚪️
📹 @Official_BRFC #BRFC pic.twitter.com/WcnBWT9JOt
7. Work with “Wizard” and Westbrooke
Erhun Oztumer produced enough individual magic to keep Walsall comfortably in League One in 2016-17 and 2017-18, before suffering in a long ball system at Championship level with Bolton.
The “Wizard of Oz”, who has scored from a corner and from his own half, has great technical ability for this level and could show that under the right guidance.
Zain Westbrooke, meanwhile, was a first teamer last season for title-winners Coventry and can link play smoothly in the opposing half.
Oztumer and Westbrooke have missed out recently, but both can play a key role in the run-in.
8. Get Nicholson shining
Sam Nicholson has produced moments of individual magic this season with his excellent dribbles from the right of the attack into dangerous, goalscoring areas.
Nicholson will be hoping to deliver the kind of match-winning performances he produced against Wimbledon, Argyle and Blackpool on a more consistent basis, but he now has the platform to do that.
George Williams joined in January and the 27-year-old, who has won promotion from this level with Barnsley, is an intelligent right wing-back who will give little away defensively.
We can expect Williams to keep a lid on the flank, allowing Nicholson to stay high up the pitch which is where he can do damage.
Let Joe save the Day For four years, Joe Day was one of the best goalkeepers in League Two, producing excellent form at that level for Newport County.
He earnt a move to Cardiff but struggled to establish himself in the first team, so League One looks the perfect step.
Bristol Rovers need a hero between the sticks as last season’s star man, Anssi Jaakola, has been absent at times and Day could fit the bill.
9. Use Burnley links
Joey Barton inspired Burnley to the Championship title in 2015-16 and thus, there is a lot of respect between him, the club and especially their fans.
The East Lancashire club have an excellent academy, too: Adam Phillips, Jimmy Dunne, Josh Benson and Anthony Glennon have all impressed on loan in the EFL in recent seasons.
Many Clarets would consider Barton an appealing long-term option for the managerial vacancy were Sean Dyche to leave, so it makes sense for Burnley to trust him with their best young talent on loan.
10. Promote youth
Aside from the emergence of Tom Lockyer in the early-2010s and Alfie Kilgour later that decade, Bristol Rovers have not promoted youth as much as they could have done in recent times.
The club is not in the greatest position financially, though, with many clubs affected by the pandemic and plans for a new stadium ongoing.
If Barton can help the club develop saleable assets by promoting from the academy, though, that would go a long way to solving the issues.
Box-to-box man Cameron Hargreaves, lively attacking midfielder Zain Walker, quick-footed Lucas Tomlinson and Wales youth star Luca Hoole could all challenge for more games in 2021-22, while
Tom Mehew may be set for a bigger loan move after starring for Bath City in the National League South.
11. Manage upstairs
One of the reasons that Bristol Rovers parted company with Darrell Clarke in December 2018 was because relations grew strained between him and Wael Al-Qadi.
Clarke was open in his criticism of Al-Qadi over a lack of investment and selling the “goals” in the team, despite having been given the backing to sign two strikers for a combined £500K during his reign.
Barton will be used to the generous backing he received from Andy Pilley at Fleetwood, but he will need to be prepared to work with what he has more in the West Country.
Wael is a good man who cares for the club more than many owners, but he can also be ruthless with dismissing managers when he deems appropriate.
Whether it will work long-term remains to be seen but, for now, Barton certainly has the characteristics to haul this underperforming Rovers side away from danger.