A First XI of Learning Points – The season so far… Part Two

by Martin Bull

Ever since John Ward left in May 2014 there hasn’t been a dull moment following Rovers.

Whilst Ward changed formation once a season, Darrell Clarke changes once a game, and would probably snog Greg Clarke (Chairman of the FA) if basketball style substitutions were allowed into football.

So, after ten League games, and three cup games, all squeezed into a jam packed seven weeks, what can we discern from the season so far? Can we pick a first XI of learning points?

Part 1 of this analysis can be found here

Note – All of this was written before the Northampton Town match.

7 – Captaincy is rarely a simple issue

Deciding who should be captain must be quite a difficult job. Traditionally it was always given to a very experienced and long serving player, one of the first names on the team sheet and usually playing down the spine of the team.

In modern times the honour has more often that not become a GCSE Psychology experiment, given to calm a player down, aid a youngster to grow up quickly, or to weld a disgruntled player back into the warm bosom of the team.

There is a concern that Tom Lockyer’s first forays into League One football may not be the right time to give a relatively quiet 21 year old added responsibly. But with a regularly changing line-up, increased use of loan players, and the current absence of senior players like Lee Mansell, Mark McChrystal and Steve Mildenhall, there may not be that many faces to choose from at the moment.

Lee Brown, as usual, is the only ever present starter this season, and Tom Lockyer has missed just the Reading U23 game. Although Peter Hartley (nine starts), Chris Lines (ditto), and Matty Taylor (seven) have all been regulars, each one has something slightly against them as a choice for the armband.

The other main candidate is therefore probably Stuart ‘Beard’ Sinclair, who has defied armchair critics yet again to start all bar two of the games so far, and who, whilst undertaking a precise job for his manager, certainly lives up to his anagram ‘Saint Tribal Crusader’.

8 – There is life in the old dog yet

If Jermaine Easter was a German war time secret code, I doubt that even the collective minds of Bletchley Park could have broken it yet.

‘Jamma’ came to us in January 2015 off the back of a consolation goal in front of 26,714 at Carrow Road in his final appearance for Ian Holloway’s Millwall. A few weeks later he hobbled off after just eight minutes of his Conference debut, in front of 1,832 at Dartford, and almost half of them were Gasheads.

After struggling with heavy pitches and injuries Jermaine managed only five Conference appearances and it was left to Chris Lines to become the talismanic higher level import who helped push us to promotion. The moaners came out in force, suggesting that we were back to the old days of trying too hard to entice higher level ‘names’ to the club, and that if they accepted it was usually for the wrong reasons anyway.

Despite Jermaine’s prominent start to the League Two season, with five strikes in his first 12 starts, blanks in his next eight outings (six starts and two as sub) seemed to be the catalyst that led to the recruitment of Rory Gaffney, the man who replaced him as a regular starter.

He did however find a role as DC’s new ‘go to’ sub, as if taking over the role from Ellis Harrison, racking up 23 sub appearances and remaining as an unused sub only twice.

Jamma became slicker and faster as the season progressed. By the Stevenage match in April he was one of our brightest sparks, chasing balls with short burst of paces that many never expected the 34 year old was still capable of, and using his experience and intelligence wisely, like a maturing malt.

But alas the season finished just as Jermaine was really getting into his stride.

When asked which players were in our top three for appearances last season most Gasheads would not expect Jermaine to be up on the podium, with 47 out of a maximum 50, just behind the two ‘50 men’; Lee Brown, who remarkably played every second of all 50 matches, and Matty Taylor, who started 41 and came on as sub for the other nine matches of the season.

Several observers wrote him off again this summer when faced with a strength sapping season in yet another higher division, but Jamma has looked extremely sharp and seems to be proving an old adage correct; that classier players can function better in the higher leagues.

What a shame that self-inflicted red card could knock him out of his stride again.

9 – I never want an easy life if me and she were ever to get there

Following Rovers is rarely dull, unless John Ward and Paul Trollope ever formed an unholy alliance.

And to be honest, if it was an easy ride we would most probably miss the drama and the palaver.

In the first two months of this season we’ve already had a game abandoned due to a freak deluge in August and seen play suspended for a few minutes due to a drone overhead. The former truly was anomalous as I was only 25 miles away from Swindon at the time and we had very little rain that afternoon. The latter was believed to be the first time ever a commentator could declare ‘drone stopped play’, unless they were sitting next to Jonathan Pearce of course.

Rovers have also played Chelsea for the first time in 35 years, been on live TV, played on every day of the week except a Monday and a Friday, endured a highly contentious match against an Academy team where stay away fans forced a new record low home attendance, been entrusted with four Premier League loanees, beaten Cardiff City for the first time since 1995, witnessed the annual August dropping of Steve Mildenhall, been involved in more boycotts than an Irish land war, and had two players (Chris Lines & Lee Brown) celebrate their 250th appearances for the club.

10 – Lies, damned red lies, and statistics

Whereas we once moaned that Rovers never got penalties, and even when we did we missed a few, they seem to be flowing nicely at the moment, with four so far this season, and all confidently tucked away.

Strangely the reds across the river seem to think this is astonishing, but statistically it’s no more than many teams this season, and our paltry four in 50 games last season was a long way off Morecombe’s staggering 15 spot kicks in League Two, and even less than City‘s handful.

The quantity of 12-yard kicks is not the point anyway, it is the quality of the despatch, with numerous confident takers in the team and now having scored our last 14 penalties, including the five at Wembley. You have to go back to Matty Taylor’s thump on the woodwork at Grimsby Town on Valentine’s Day 2015 to find one that didn’t hit the back of the net. Lee Tomlin take note.

Seven different takers are on the roll of honour since that day: Ellis Harrison (5), Matty Taylor (4), Angelo Balanta (1), Lee Brown (1), Jermaine Easter (1), Chris Lines (1) and a certain Lee Mansell if anyone can remember his one?

To offer some contrast Oxford United were awarded 13 penalties in League Two last season and scored only seven of them.

11 – It’s good to leave bad news until last

I hate to bring this up but ignoring it won’t help.

Each time there has been speculation that DC is being looked at by other clubs I always sought solace in the exact reasons I have liked him since year dot. In June 2014, just a month after John Ward left, I wrote, “Given the continued arrogance and hand washing of the Board, I feel we only have one chance to restore our reputation at the moment, and his name is Darrell Clarke. This man has a plan and he is the only one showing any humility and morals at present. His mentality of human and financial discipline, and the pursuit of hungry non-league players, is admirable for our present state. Mark my words, Darrell will do very well somewhere. Let’s make sure it is at BRFC and that he isn’t chased away by either the fans, the players or the Board”.

In August 2015 DC said, “I want to kick on, move the club forward and keep building success. As a player I wanted to play at the highest level and as a manager I want to manage at the highest level. For me, there is unfinished business here and I want to get Bristol Rovers into the top half of League One and then I will feel as if I’ve achieved.”

I’ve always believed that Darrell is a man of his word so I was never anxious that he would leave us this summer.

But six points in two games suddenly propelled us into the giddy heights of the top half of League One, and technically he has fulfilled his promise. I’m not suggesting he will now be looking to leave, but it is almost unfortunate how rapidly he has concluded his ‘unfinished business’.

Has he restored Rovers back to where we ‘belong’? Well, just to be clear I don’t go in for this arrogant ‘where we belong’ claptrap, but I do believe in statistics, and our average position over our original 94 year stint in the Football League was 10th in the Third Tier, which just happens to be exactly where we are today.

So, yes, it is tinged with sadness that I have to whisper that DC has done what he said he would, and that it has only taken him a little over two seasons!

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