2020/21 Preview – Bristol Rovers

With the new season on the horizon, host of Express FM’s Football Hour and Pompey Live pundit Jake Smith takes a look at Bristol Rovers.

Intro: Another season looms for Bristol Rovers at the old-school ground known as the Memorial Stadium – the club’s long-awaited move to a new site in partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE) is still no closer to being resolved.

The club now known as Bristol Rovers were originally known as Black Arabs FC, when it was formed in 1883. They were also referred to as Eastville Rovers and Bristol Eastville Rovers before officially changing to the name they are known as today in 1899.

As well as being nicknamed The Gas, which derives from their former home ground Eastville Stadium being located next to a gasworks site, Rovers are also nicknamed The Pirates, which reflects the maritime history of Bristol.

The club first donned their famous blue and white quartet shirt in 1931 and that style is one which has been present for the majority of seasons since.

Rovers were admitted into the Football League in 1920 and have been part of it ever since, barring the 2014/15 season in which they spent in the Conference Premier having been surprisingly relegated the season prior.

Ex-Blues players Tom Davies and Kyle Bennett are members of the Bristol Rovers squad, whilst the recently released Adam May has been training with the club during a trial period over the summer, but has not yet signed a deal at The Mem.

Home Ground: Memorial Stadium, Horfield (Bristol), 122 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 12,300

2019/20 Table Position: 14th (League One) – 45 points after 35 games with an average of 1.29 points per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: Bristol Rovers Wins: 11 – Draws: 10 – Portsmouth Wins: 23

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Bristol Rovers 2-2 Portsmouth, 26th October 2019, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates

Tuesday 29th December, 2020 – Memorial Stadium

Saturday 24th April, 2021 – Fratton Park

Manager: Young and fresh on the scene is Ben Garner, who is about to embark on his first full season as manager of the Gas.

The 40-year-old took over at the Memorial Stadium on December 23rd, 2019, following the departure of Graham Coughlan, who switched to the dugout at Mansfield Town in League Two. It was reported that Coughlan decided to leave his role in Bristol in order to be closer to his family, who reside in South Yorkshire – therefore Mansfield suiting him well.

Rovers club president Wael al-Qadi acted promptly to replace the departing Irishman, who recorded 25 wins from 56 matches before leaving.

New boss Ben Garner was once mentored by “The Special One” whilst completing his UEFA Pro Licence in 2014. Jose Mourinho was managing Chelsea for a second time when he came to teach young Garner, who went on to gain experience as a youth coach at Crystal Palace and as an assistant at both West Bromwich Albion and former Indian Super League side ATK, where Steve Coppell was in charge.

One To Watch: If you are familiar with what’s going on at Portsmouth’s local non-league sides, you are sure to recognise my highlighted ‘One To Watch’ for Bristol Rovers.

6’ 1” striker Jonah Ayunga was snapped up by Ben Garner in the summer, following a very impressive season at Havant & Waterlooville in the National League South.

The 23-year-old enjoyed a prolific campaign at Westleigh Park under Paul Doswell – scoring 17 goals before the abrupt early conclusion of the season, which was quickly drawn to a close following the outbreak of COVID-19. This admirable goalscoring record continued when the Hawks competed in the Play-Offs, Ayunga netted in his side’s 2-1 defeat at home to Dartford at the Semi-Final stage.

It has been suggested that the former Brighton & Hove Albion youth player had agreed to the move before the Play-Off campaign had begun, with Rovers keen to secure his signature before any of their League One rivals could.

Kenny Jackett was reportedly keen to bring him to Fratton Park, though not much has materialised on that rumour, with Pompey more than likely unwilling to promise the youngster game-time ahead of John Marquis and Ellis Harrison.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): This title goes to central-midfielder Zain Westbrooke, who has been handed the No. 8 shirt ahead of the new season.

The 23-year-old came through the ranks at Chelsea and Brentford, leaving the latter mentioned side three years after signing his first professional contract at Griffin Park – he made just the 1 appearance during that time.

Westbrooke spent time on loan at Solihull Moors and Leyton Orient before moving permanently to Coventry City in 2018 but failed to make an impact during any of those spells, though the Sky Blues clearly saw something in him when they secured him on a free transfer!

In the two seasons Zain spent at Coventry, he made 41 appearances in total and netted on 4 occasions, playing an important role as a squad member during the side’s promotion winning campaign last time out.

On the 3rd of August, Bristol Rovers lured Westbrooke away from the Championship after Coventry accepted an undisclosed bid – he signed a 3-year contract at the Memorial Stadium.

An honourable mention must be made to defender Jack Baldwin, who signed on a 2-year contract in July, having been deemed surplus to requirements at Sunderland.

Baldwin spent the majority of last season on-loan at Salford City in League Two, having made 34 appearances for the Black Cats prior to his exclusion from the team.

Season Expectation: Following four consolidating years in the third-tier since their double promotion from non-league between 2014 and 2016, you would think that it would be about time that Bristol Rovers push on to achieve something more than mid-table obscurity.

It is, however, difficult for a club like Rovers to do so in a division full of sides considered sleeping giants, with huge budgets and large fanbases also to compete with.

2020/21 is set to be no different and I can’t personally see the West Country based side bettering the 10th-place finish they achieved in 2016/17, the only time the Gas have finished in the top-half since re-joining League One.

The inexperience in full-time management of new boss Ben Garner will more than likely lead Bristol Rovers to yet another eventless campaign, yet the glimmer of quality within the current squad should be more than enough to stir the side away from any threat of relegation.

My Predicted Finish: 16th

Turning Up the Gas – Can Rovers Return Strong?

Bristol Rovers supporter Max Alderson is feeling gassed ahead of the upcoming season.

A number of factors have contributed to the high spirits within the 25-year-old, including vital work being carried out off the pitch: “With £18m of debt being cleared by the owner this summer, as well as a new training ground being built, the foundations are now in place to move in a positive direction rather than look over our shoulders.”

Max has been a keen supporter of the Gas for his entire life, co-founding the popular independent Bristol Rovers podcast ‘GasCast’, which supplies weekly episodes, blogs, exclusive interviews and even matchday commentary too!

Looking ahead to the new season, he is feeling cautiously optimistic: “I’m hoping that the only way is up! We want to build a squad of young players who develop and push us forward, or turn a good profit financially so we can reinvest again and kick on.”

In March of this year, Bristol Rovers’ debts had reportedly reached in excess of £25million and fans of the club were beginning to fear the worst, however with the new infrastructure being put in place in the background, Max is looking at the positives, one of which being the newly implemented salary cap: “It’s affected us positively. We moved quickly to sign the bulk of our players before the deadline, meaning we bypassed having their full salaries count towards the upper limit.” – Something Pompey were unable to do as a result of the size of their squad.

“It will also mean that we can compete with the likes of Sunderland and co. for key players.” – he went on to say.

Max also emphasised the confusion around the club and the fanbase at the moment in relation to the expectations for the upcoming campaign: “No one really knows how this season is going to and given Garner is in the dawn of his managerial career, and our squad is overall very young and inexperienced, I think a top ten finish would be pretty good.

“For me, I’m looking for an improvement on last year, our young players to develop and for the squad to play an entertaining brand of football whilst winning games.” – Max elaborated.

Max struggled to pinpoint a finishing position as a prediction, although reckons that 8th-12th would be a realistic aim. “Our squad last season was very industrious and we relied on individual quality rather than working well as a creative and cohesive unit.” – he added, hinting that creativity is something that needs to improve in order for his side to improve on previous seasons.

“Too many times we would play long, and teams would nullify our threat by isolating our key players and pressing us.”

When asked about who he believed has been the club’s best summer signing thus far, Max mentioned German defender Max Ehmer: “He represents a coup for the club. Gillingham’s captain and standout defender rejected a new contract to move to BS7 and will really solidify us at the back.

“He brings experience, quality and much needed leadership after the departure of Tony Craig. Sam Nicholson, who signed from MLS side Colorado Rapids, is also one to watch. He impressed out in the States and at his boyhood club Hearts prior to that.

“The Scotsman is a tricky winger with solid dribbling and a wicked shot on him.” – Max concluded the chat by highlighting.

You can follow Max on Twitter – @MaxAlder16

Main photo: Graham Hunt

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