The Loan Rangers

by Martin Bull

Football fans all over the planet love a good moan, and one that Rovers supporters have got used to over the years has been our lack of quality loan players.

Every season we come up against hot young prospects from top teams, and hear opposition fans eulogise about the difference Mr. Golden Boots from Swanky City made to their performances. Of course we may be blinkered to the numerous deals that fall flat as a pancake, but the tip top ones that grab the headlines have been enough for us to remain envious year after everlasting year.

It also perpetuated our inferiority complex, as supporters were left wondering why everyone else bagged sizzling talent from top clubs and we got Neil Ross from Stockport County.

In stark contrast this season Rovers have a wonderful mix of loanees, with Hiram Boateng (Crystal Palace), Connor Roberts (Swansea City) and Luke James (Peterborough United) representing the marginally older players with real Football League games under their belt, Charlie Colkett and Jake Clarke-Salter indicative of the inexperienced quality being hidden away at the truly enormous clubs, and Kelle Roos (Derby County) ably fulfilling the customary athletic 20-something goalie role.

Boateng is 21 in January and made 31 appearances for Plymouth Argyle last season. Roberts, already 21, started a staggering 54 games for Yeovil Town last season and would have been a season long ever present if he hadn’t missed the Carlisle United game in March in order to make his debut for Wales U21s.

Colkett, just turned 20, has taken the academy and England route, having represented his country at every level from U16’s to U20’s, winning 20 caps so far and scoring 4 goals. Clarke-Salter may be the baby of the bunch (just turned 19) but could be the hottest prospect of them all, underlined by captaining England U20s in the early October break.

Of course we’ll never know the intricacies of these loan deals, and especially how much effort they may cost us, but I don’t believe in accidents, so Rovers must be doing a lot right if we can suddenly be entrusted with four players from Premier League clubs. I’m not one to swoon over teenagers just because they come from prosperous clubs, but you would envisage that at the very least their young ‘uns possess potential, a solid technique and maybe even a USP (Unique Selling Point) such as blistering pace or the physique of Goliath, and that their clubs won’t allow them to spend an entire season at a fractured club, lacking in assurance or morality.

The top clubs of the land must now distinguish us as a well organised, trustworthy club, with meticulous management, careful coaching, a delightful dressing room, and a caring and helpful personal touch in general. How proud that makes us feel as Gasheads.

Is it complete co-incidence that two gifted players arrived from West London after Rovers had started to pull themselves together behind the scenes, a fact that was cemented by a rousing performance against a strong Chelsea line-up who had to bring on Eden Hazard, Oscar and John Terry, with 196 international caps between them, to help see out the EFL Cup tie.

Or was our extensive history with Chelsea the reason we got two of their best talents? The ‘golden epoch‘ of the blue brothers relationship was the late 20th Century, when after years of speculation Ian Holloway finally persuaded Bristolian David Lee to move over to us on Christmas Eve 1998. By the time the turkey sandwiches had left the New Year sandwich boxes everyone wondered what all the fuss had been about. ‘Ollie followed it up a season later by fighting off fierce competition for the Petr Cech and Frank Lampard Jnr of the era; 18 year old Rhys Evans made four starts when Lee Jones was out and Rob Wolleaston (four sub appearances) joined just in time to witness Rovers choking their way to THAT infamous end of season plummet.

Being serious, is it also complete co-incidence that even with limited pitch time Swansea City’s Oli McBurnie still enjoyed his loan spell with a happy and dedicated promotion winning team last season, and that the Swans have entrusted us again, this time to oversee Connor Roberts’ development for at least half a season?

This isn’t a new phenomenon though, as Nicky Culkin (more on him later) came to us from Manchester United a year after we hosted them in the famous 1999 pre-season testimonial match for Lee Martin. I write famous because it’s strangely not been often that we faced the current European champions, watched Scholes, Beckham, Solskjaer et al, AND held them to a draw.

The quality of our current loan sextet suggests that the work going on behind the scenes at Rovers is hitting the right buttons. We as supporters will not be eye witnesses to this less than sexy graft but the current emphasis on improving our sadly neglected infrastructure and personnel is an entirely wise one, as is tying many of our best staff and players to longer term deals.

As we’ve seen from the EFL Trophy the Category One Academies have now taken young players to an entirely new level, and the Elite Player Performance Plan has loaded the football dice wholly in their favour, which makes Rovers’ desire to have a modern academy facility and move up to Category Two status one of the most important back room improvements our club may ever endeavour to make.

Any Rovers loanee is still benchmarked against the greatest of them all though. Dennis Bailey from Crystal Palace, pillaged 10 goals in 19 games in 1989, including a legendary goal at Molineux to consign Wolves to their only home defeat for the entire season, but unfortunately was not allowed to appear in the Play-Off final against Port Vale. He returned for a cameo loan spell in 1991 whilst a Birmingham City player (a single goal in six games) and then became famous for his sublime televised hat trick for Queen’s Park Rangers against a shell shocked Man United on New Years Day 1992. That mauling was masterminded by Sir Gerry Francis, featured ‘Ollie and Butch Wilkins pulling the midfield strings, and is still the last league hat trick to be scored at Old Trafford by an away team.

Really successful loans can probably be counted on one hand though, and twice more they involved the player liking it so much the first time they came back for more.

Mikkel Andersen
made more Rovers appearances than many of our permanent keepers, with 39 in a first spell that covered nearly all of the 2009/10 season after Norwich City had stolen a certain Fraser Forster from under our noses, and 22 more during the first half of the following season. Andersen was an accomplished stopper, although revisionist historians now claim he flattered to deceive by being a ‘crowd favourite’ who was quick to interact with Gasheads. If that’s honestly true then you could also conclude that Brian ‘show us your arse’ Parkin spent too much time pandering to the banality of bored terrace fans at Twerton, and that the Worldwide Union of Eccentric Goalies ought to be outlawed in these sombre times.

The sadly departed Kevin Moore was another loanee who came to Rovers twice, arriving from Southampton to shore up the defence twice in 1992 (in difference seasons) and leaving with 11 appearances and a goal on his second debut. Kevin died of Pick’s Disease, a rare form of dementia, on his 55th birthday. Fellow tough Gashead centre back Geoff Twentyman, whose own father (a Carlisle United and Liverpool stalwart) died of Alzheimer’s, recently fronted a documentary about a possible link between footballers and dementia, and described Kevin as “the most powerful header of a ball I’ve ever seen”. Kevin’s widow, Mandy, concluded that given big Kev’s function in the team was to head a ball, and his practicing of that skill, there probably was a link between repeated heading of a ball and dementia.

Nicky Culkin kept goal in all bar one of the 55 league and cup games during Rovers’ shock relegation season of 2000/01. It may sound peculiar to suggest that a player did well in a relegated side, but Culkin certainly did not disgrace himself, and with a goal difference of only minus four, it could be considered a rather bizarre place in the drop zone. Man U paid York City £250,000 for a 17 year old Culkin in September 1995 before he’d even played a game for The Minstermen, and he still holds the curious record for the shortest debut in Premier League history, replacing the injured Raimond van der Gouw in stoppage time against Arsenal at Highbury in August 1999. The ref blew up the second he took the resulting free kick.

Nicky was sadly forced to retire from pro football in April 2005 due to a long standing knee injury, but later came out of retirement for non-league in 2010 and, as if to round off a career full circle, is currently a goalkeeping coach at FC United of Manchester.

I’m starting to struggle now… but Craig Armstrong certainly looked the part when featuring 14 times in 1995/96. Like most decent loanees though his ultimate fate was to return to Nottingham Forest. The line between loanees benefiting the parent club or their temporary home is always a very fine one indeed.

Chris Llewellyn came from Norwich City at the end of the 2002/3 season, presumably knowing his Canaries contract was unlikely to be renewed, and showed what a smidgen of motivation can do for a player. He certainly improved a feeble Ray Graydon team (who wouldn’t have?) and although his brace of goals at Wrexham were all in vain (a 3-2 loss to one of our bogey teams), the fighting spirit helped turn the corner in the next game where Andy Rammell scored the first of his legendary four goals for Rovers and put the ‘great’ into the great escape.

One positive feature of the loan system is that you can often ‘try before you buy’, with several competent loan spells later becoming successful permanent signings, including Joe Jacobson, Aaron Lescott, Tom Parkes, John Joe O’Toole, and our new ginger ninja Rory Gaffney. I’m not sure that Rhys Evans’ return for the 2009/10 season [where he bizarrely wore the number 51 jersey] can be included here though, almost a decade since the cessation of the loan spell sarcastically referenced above. Other questionables might include Peter Cawley, Ian Hazel, Lee Hodges, and Mark McKeever.

And what of the multitude of misguided, dire or merely indifferent loan spells? Well, to re-purpose John’s gospel, if ever they were written in full detail, I suppose the world itself could not contain the scrolls written.

I will however point out that if there is ever a learning point from loan signings it is that the more exotic the name sounds, the worse the loan spell will probably be. Rune Johansen in 2001/02, all the way from Tromso in Norway (why? just why?) and Michele di Piedi from Sheffield Wednesday the season after, may sound glamorous but a plain old John Smith from Bog Trotter United would probably have been just as effective.

Elvis Hammond was astonishingly a Fulham player in 2001/02 (how? just how?) when loaned to Rovers for seven appearances and is surely the only ex-Pirate with a middle name of Zark. Later, in 2012, Hammond was all shook up when sentenced to a year at Her Majesty‘s pleasure for his part in a money laundering operation, but at least he did make the jailhouse rock whilst inside. On his release he joined Farnborough FC and when the squad was re-branded in a sponsorship deal each player was given the name of a famous footballer to officially adopt and have on their shirt. Hammond, quite inexplicably, got ‘Pele’!

With the quality of our current loan sextet oozing through I see no reason why our ‘Best Ever Loanees’ table won’t see some considerable movement before May is out.

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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