Are Bristol Rovers coming to the end of an era?

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 30 October 2018, 08:52

Darrell Clarke has done an excellent job at Bristol Rovers.

After the ex-Salisbury boss was handed a poisoned chalice when John Ward moved to a Director of Football role with the team in a dogfight in March 2014; Clarke oversaw relegation for Rovers, who exited the Football League for the first time in 94 years.

The subsequent revival was, quite simply, remarkable.

The Gasheads enjoyed back-to-back promotions, followed by two years of stabilization in League One.

Now, however, the marriage between Clarke and Rovers appears to have lost some of it’s sparkle.

Here’s four reasons why this brilliant era might have run it’s course – and why change might benefit everybody concerned.

Trusted core departed

Five of the club’s six most-used players last season were part of the 2014-15 National League promotion winning side, which highlights how Clarke likes to pick players he knows he can trust.

Lee Brown and Ellis Harrison though have since left for Portsmouth and Ipswich respectively, leaving only Tom Lockyer, Ollie Clarke, Chris Lines and Daniel Leadbitter.

Lockyer has spent parts of this season injured, Lines is now 32, Leadbitter now has more of a peripheral role, leaving only O. Clarke in good form.

One cannot help feeling, therefore, that the group of players who have served the Pirates so well over the previous four years is beginning to dissipate.

The process of building a new team capable of winning the hearts of the natives would, normally, be a very gradual process, but a lot of the new players brought in haven’t been able to fill the voids.  

Questionable recruitment

Since promotion in 2016, 27 players have joined the club on permanent deals. They have made a combined 320 league appearances; that’s effectively 12 per player.

We should make some allowances for the fact eight of these recruits joined this summer and thus it would have been impossible to feature in more than 16 league matches.

Additionally, approximately eight were signed predominantly with the future in mind and might not have been expecting to feature regularly straight away.

Furthermore, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis looked an excellent signing in July yet got injured almost immediately and there may be other stories of ill-fortune.

Nonetheless, it is concerning that Clarke is yet to identify the next set of players he can rely on a consistent basis.

One could argue out of 27, only Joe Partington, Tom Broadbent, Liam Sercombe and Kyle Bennett have had a meaningful impact on the side.

That assertion is, of course, debatable, but we are essentially looking at a hit rate of little more than 15%.

Naturally, the recruitment team should take some responsibility, with Tommy Widdrington occupying the chief role in the summer.

However, the difficulties the club have had in introducing new boys appears symptomatic.

Clarke has, it seems, found it easier to get the best out of National League and League Two players than he does maximizing the talents of higher-level performers.

Internal conflict

There have been one or two occasions on which Clarke has appeared to be criticizing the owners in the press – mainly for a lack of investment, not just in the playing squad but also in buying the training ground outright.

Wael Al-Qadi should, perhaps, take some responsibility for claiming Rovers do not need to sell their best players, before granting the likes of Billy Bodin and Ellis Harrison Championship moves.

Equally though, plans for a new stadium at any club tend to lead to an element of uncertainty over the budget; Clarke knew that when he signed a five-year contract in July 2017.

He had the option, at that point, to depart and look for a club willing to spend big in the short-term; instead, he chose to stay at the Mem, because he knew he would get backing from the people around him, but has he since honoured that commitment?

Clarke is clearly an emotional character who cares deeply about the club’s fortunes, but sometimes there’s benefit in a coach only focusing on the variables he has control over; and that’s improving the players he has available.

Shortage of goals

While Bristol Rovers are not able to outspend their competitors, their position is not exactly austerity, either.

In 2017, the club spent around £350k to sign Tom Nichols, then 23 having already scored 45 goals in the EFL; it is fair to say the former Exeter hot-shot has not delivered, with just one goal at the Mem.

The following summer, the club spent roughly £200k on Stefan Payne, who had top scored for Shrewsbury, the 2017-18 Play-Off Finalists from the same division; the 27-year-old has since bagged just twice and is yet to endear himself to supporters.

The club also signed on a free transfer Gavin Reilly, who had just fired St Mirren to the Scottish Championship title with 22 goals in 44 games; he’s only scored once.

In fact, the Pirates have scored just 11 goals in 16 League One encounters, with only AFC Wimbledon scoring fewer.

They have only scored more than once on three occasions – and on two of them, against Wycombe and Coventry, the goals came in a 16-minute purple patch.

Some of the responsibility for the lack of final third qualities lies with attacking coach Marcus Stewart, but the question is whether the team is showing enough invention and urgency in possession under Clarke’s leadership.

Are Rovers coming to the end of an era? Sadly, they might be.

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