Best Blog or Account to Follow: Bristol Rovers Supporters Club are a treasure trove for Pirates fans (try to contain your laughter at the back!) and there is an infrequently updated but nevertheless decent blog on their pages.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 10th; W 18 / D 12 / L 16 / F 68 / A 70 / Pts 66
A third straight season of massive progress for the blue and white half of Bristol, capping off two successive promotions with a very creditable top-half finish in the third tier and only several points from the final play-off place. Darrell Clarke’s squad, many of whom had played a starring role in their first promotion, adjusted to life in League One reasonably quickly, with a pretty even record by the time autumn was creeping in. Although they were racking up no shortage of goals of their own, the number of heavy reverses they suffered was cause for some concern. Ironically, the controversial sale of top goalscorer Matt Taylor to their city rivals brought about a change of fortunes in defence, with the rearguard action much more disciplined and tight in February during their sequence of six draws on the spin. The side coped well without their main goal threat and didn’t really drop off in terms of output, thanks chiefly to Billy Bodin weighing in heavily from out wide. Seven wins from the last 11 matches enabled them to rank highly in the standings, although the floodgates at the back seemed to creek open once more.
Top Goalscorer: Matt Taylor (16 goals in 23 starts/2,098 minutes)
Top Creator: Chris Lines (7 assists in 40 starts/3,709 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Darrell Clarke; one of the highest rated managers outside the Premier League in the English game and for good reason: back-to-back promotions, a subsequent top-10 finish and a positive, attacking mentality to go alongside it (even when his side are a player short) will make boardrooms higher up the pyramid sit up and take notice. Despite the success of recent times, he still comes across as a patient manager and is unlikely to make waves in the transfer market if all isn’t going to plan as long as the standards he upholds are reflected in the performances (if not results) from his charges.
Ins: Liam Sercombe (Oxford United), Adam Smith (Northampton Town), Sam Slocombe (Blackpool), Tom Nichols (Peterborough United), Rollin Menayese (Weston-Super-Mare) & Marc Bola (Arsenal U23s on loan).
Outs: Jamie Lucas (Bath City), Cristian Montaño (Port Vale), Jake Gosling (Torquay United), Peter Hartley (Blackpool), Bob Harris (free agent), Dominic Thomas (free agent), Will Puddy (free agent), Jermaine Easter (free agent), Lee Mansell (retired), Danny Greensdale (free agent) & Steve Mildenhall (retired).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Three of the back four are likely to quite a reasonably deep line, in part to help new ‘keeper Sam Slocombe bed in and also because the space in front them is likely to be packed with Pirates midfielders. Tom Broadbent has the height and physique (as well as a very interesting route into the game) to dominate in the air and on the ground whilst young captain Tom Lockyer is also aggressive in the tackle and the origin of many of their attacks. Joe Partington can sit narrower if the need arises and also plug any gap that could open up if a quick counter or a long ball over the top of the midfield five is launched.
Lee Brown is probably more at home as a wing-back but is no stranger to tracking the runner in behind his own position. He will look to bomb forwards, especially if Bodin is operating on the opposite flank in order to provide more balanced width and can also assume free-kick taking duty.
The midfield five, Bodin aside, operate quite narrowly with its obvious advantages and disadvantages. They can overwhelm the opposition in the middle by keeping one or two men free for a quick pass, hunt down the player in possession in a pack or push up and down the pitch as a unit to offer support to both attack and defence. The excellently hirsute Stuart Sinclair can break out into wider areas to help Partington or to provide a different angle for a cross or pull-back to the edge of the box for an advancing teammate to latch onto.
None of the narrow four are specialists in sitting deeply but have a good all-round set of attributes. Ollie Clarke and Liam Sercombe will drive forward with and without the ball; Chris Lines’ range of passing will help the Pirates dictate the tempo and retain possession more often than not. There are plenty of effective long-range shooters in the XI if the route to the striker(s) are cut off. Bodin can swap sides and cut in, providing a direct option towards the 18-yard line and someone to bounce off the main forward.
Elliott Harrison or Tom Nichols (or indeed both) will lead the charge up top with good options bubbling under the starting lineup. Harrison has plenty of pace and will try to beat the offside trip when played in by his teammates. His low centre of gravity is a good asset in tight spaces to make the most of the chances that come his way. Nichols operates similarly but is more easily barged off the ball, so he might be a good substitute to call upon when the opposition defence starts to tire.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Comfortably mid-table. There would be no shame whatsoever in a similar campaign in 2017/2018. New sides have joined the league that look on paper to have stronger squads overall, which in theory could push Bristol Rovers down the table substantially. However, they have an astute manager in Darrell Clarke and he will know that there is still a bit more work to be done in both boxes to make an assault on the top six a realistic notion. That ship may not sail until the subsequent season. If the young defence can keep things tight whilst knotting themselves together into a cohesive, well-drilled unit, then it augurs well and is likely to mean they will concede substantially fewer than last year.