Pick of the Promotion Pops – Part 4 – The Welsh Connection

Pick of the Promotion Pops – Part 4

by Martin Bull

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to Part 4 of this special edition of Pick of the Pops, featuring the year 2015/16 and focusing on 10 golden themes in an unprecedented second promotion in two seasons for Bristol Rovers.

Today we concentrate solely at the number 4 slot, but first a quick reminder on the run-down so far.

At Number 10 we had the strongest benches we’ve seen for many years,

At Number 9 we witnessed goals galore,

At Number 8 we experienced a complete turnaround in home form,

At Number 7 we pondered the return of the Mild and the attitude of other fringe players,

At Number 6 we celebrated not touching the Yeovil Town syndrome with a bargepole, a.k.a. when half your squad belong to someone else, and

At Number 5 we held an in-depth inquiry into the lack of injuries, suspensions, and, thankfully, any beast moods on the pitch.
At Number 4 we have – A debt of gratitude to the land of leeks, male choirs and Ivor the Engine

Although I am loathed to single out individual players, I am about to do just that.

After the Wembley nail-biter in 2015 I wrote a series of five articles about the relatively unsung heroes of promotion out of non-league. The more ‘obvious’ heroes, such as Matty Taylor and Lee Mansell, weren’t allowed to be featured. To some degree I am doing the same here, as although any 27 goal striker is automatically a unique piece in a promotion puzzle, our climb actually benefited more from two young Welsh players whose outstanding seasons went well beyond what most pundits expected of them.

 

I feel no dishonour when recalling that I did not enjoy watching Tom Lockyer playing at right back for most of the Conference season, ahead of Daniel Leadbitter. I stand by that sentiment. It was often unduly cautious, and I don’t like players out of position on anything more than an occasional basis. Although I could appreciate Tom’s effort in each and every game, and in general his remarkable appearance stats for one so young, playing acutely out of position meant I could not thoroughly perceive the player that was inside him, longing to escape the imposed shackles.

This season I certainly could.

What a centre back this lad is, and how enjoyable it is to watch him there. Tom may not be the biggest, the strongest, or even the fastest, but put together his broad attributes, and add into the mix a calmness that belies his age, a growing physical strength and rapidly improving ball skills, and you have a class act sitting on your own doorstep. I am confident that he will be another in a long line of Rovers’ centre backs who prove themselves to be so good, yet so young, that they got the opportunity of almost a decade at the top of the football tree. This is not just hyperbole. I truly believe that Tom is the most prized asset of our squad and is in the Larry Lloyd, Gary Mabbutt and Steve Yates category.

 

I may never completely understand how Billy Bodin didn’t get more League games this season (25 starts + 11 sub appearances), but I’m sure that after his recent run in a successful team he was very high up the list of players that really justified being retained and paid more.

Dismissed as a luxury player by some, and having missed virtually the whole of last season first to a Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury and later to a lack of game time when on a short-term contract at Northampton Town, he was almost in danger of being a forgotten newbie after a stop-start beginning at Rovers.

But for me, the first time I saw those beautiful feet in action I swooned like I haven’t swooned since Muzzy Carayol danced his way down the wings and scored spectacular goals out of the blue. Anyone with slaloming skills like Billy (crucial goals at York City and in the promotion decider on the final day of the season were both George Best-esque) deserves to be regularly seen by paying supporters because it is simply so rare, and so unexpected, in the fourth tier.

Naturally such players are frustrating at times, and are hounded by the moans and groans of those fans who prefer their wide-men of the more staid variety, but to me they are essential for any team who wish to create chances, to score goals, and to dare to entertain. After all, football is an entertainment pursuit; a leisure time escape from the grumbles of our own rotten lives. And yet we paid to witness the sight of Robbie Ryan, Mark Wright and Andy Bond down the flanks, all of whom came complete with an open hotline to the Samaritans.

Billy reminds me of the mercurial Jeff Hughes and my Gerry Francis-era hero, David Mehew, both players with a real eye for a goal, and liable to unexpectedly pop up anywhere on the pitch (sometimes in completely the wrong place!). This element of surprise is very effective; if the player doesn’t comprehend what position he’s playing, what chance do the opposition have?

Although I would not want to see too many of the squad leave in the next few weeks, I am quietly calm at the moment. The decisive business has already been done, with Bodin, Brown, Leadbitter and Lockyer already settled. Add in James Clarke, Rory Gaffney, Lee Mansell, Mark McChrystal, Steve Mildenhall, Stuart Sinclair and newbie Peter (J.R.) Hartley and the squad is steadily taking shape.

Martin Bull became a Gashead in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar. Three of his seven books have been about Bristol Rovers. ‘Away The Gas’ is packed full of over 50 years of ‘I was there’ away game moments, all written by fans, ‘Print That Season! – One man’s weekly meanderings throughout Bristol Rovers’ promotion campaign of 2014-15’ is the antidote to obedient season reviews, with none of the hindsight that most writers rely on, and ‘Double Darrell’ is similar, but chronicles the 2015-16 promotion, and is even better.

Full details of all are available at www.awaythegas.org.uk

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