Bristol Rovers’ season of 2015/16 was one of sheer delight with promotion to SkyBet League One – seeing the west country side return to the third tier of English football for the first time in five years.
Last season’s promotion was secured in dramatic fashion with more or the less the final kick of the season, with Lee Brown’s right-footed tap in enough to see Rovers squeeze into the third and final automatic promotion spot, at the expense of Accrington Stanley.
The back-to-back promotion was made all the more impressive by that Darrell Clarke has used more or less the same group of players he had used to secure a return to the football league. So, instead of returning to the Football League and looking to buy experienced league players, Clarke saw the potential in his squad and only added where necessary – the addition of another striker, Rory Gaffney, for example.
That policy has clearly worked well for Rovers given the success they have had since their relegation in the 2013/14 season and it should be something we expect to continue.
Some irregular results took place during the season such as the 4-1 defeat at home to – what was then – relegation threatened Newport County. Poor performances were most regularly fixed by the Pirates winning their next game as they did the week after the 4-1 defeat by running out 2-1 winners against Cambridge United.
Despite that, Clarke will be aware of the fact that League One is completely different kettle of fish and in order to have a good season there will need to be some additions in key areas to ensure that consistency plays a significant part to their season.
The heart of the midfield is an area that Rovers could lay much of the blame on for goals conceded last season.
With injuries to Stuart Sinclair and Lee Mansell for a large part of 2016, the midfield was left in the hands of Chris Lines and Ollie Clarke – two players that are better know for their attacking ability rather than their defending.
This resulted in terrific strength going forward for Darrell Clarke’s men but at times there was an absence of a holding midfield player who would offer protection to the back four. Defeats at Carlisle and Portsmouth were prime examples of this – conceding three goals on both occasions.
What is more, Lines and Mansell are coming towards the latter stages of their careers, both 30 and 33 respectively.
Therefore, the addition of one or two younger midfielders to protect the defence wouldn’t go a miss, especially given the fact that SkyBet League One is likely to provide many more attacking threats than League Two.
So, who can Clarke bring in?
Given some of the issues that occurred last season, I think Darrell Clarke should be looking for a more defensively minded midfielder.
Putting age into the mix as well, Cambridge United’s Luke Berry looks like he could be a good fit for Rovers.
The 23-year-old midfielder has tremendous work rate and desire – something that Rovers could do with in the centre of midfield, especially given his age.
Furthermore, Berry has made over 100 appearances for Shaun Derry’s side and has managed to score a total of 34 goals.
That in mind, Berry could prove a good signing for Rovers. There is certainly no doubting the positive prospect Rovers possess as a club heading in the right direction and perhaps Berry will be persuaded by that.
Adding a goalkeeper to a list of areas to strengthen is definitely no criticism of Steve Mildenhall.
Rovers’ number one was in fantastic form last campaign making saves in almost every match that gained them much needed points. His reflexes were superb throughout the season and almost certainly a reason for Rovers’ success.
However, the ‘keeper is nearing the end of his career at the age of 37 and Clarke will want to look for a ‘keeper of younger age to add to the squad.
The potential of Rovers, having recently been taken over by wealthy owners, is something that will probably sit in the back of Darrell Clarke’s mind as he looks on the transfer market for players. Yes, experience is key in any side, but, investing in players with potential is just as important.
Bearing that in mind, who can Clarke bring in?
Recently, it has been well-documented that Clarke is looking to bring in ex-Aberdeen and Cheltenham Town shot-stopper, Scott Brown.
That 31-year-old made a big impact at Aberdeen last season, keeping eight consecutive clean sheets to see the Scottish side ease towards Europa League qualification.
However, at the end of 2015/16 season, Brown was released by Aberdeen and looks to be near the top of Clarke’s list for players to bring in.
Like the aforementioned positions, the centre-back role is something that could be strengthened due to players coming towards the end of their careers.
Mark McChrystal, who was first-choice centre-back alongside Tom Lockyer last season, is now 34 and probably by his own admittance would concede that he is lacking for pace.
At times last season, McChrystal certainly failed to keep up with the pace of some strikers. And, with even more attacking coming next season in League One, that will almost definitely be an area Rovers will want to tighten up – especially if Clarke is going to continuously side-line Tom Parkes like he did for the most of 2016 in League Two.
Where can Clarke look for a centre-back?
Clarke may only have to look as far as west-country rivals Plymouth Argyle to find a safe and secure centre-back in Peter Hartley.
The Hartlepool-born 28-year-old has made an impressive 50 appearances for Argyle since joining them in 2014. Coming up against Rovers last season, Hartley was at the base of a Plymouth back four that proved very tough to break down for Rovers.
Therefore, Darrell Clarke might want to assess the centre-back over the coming months to see if there is any chance of signing him.
He might be able to be lured away from Home Park given that they missed out on promotion to League One at Wembley.
One thing is for sure, Rovers will need to bolster in these three key areas if they want to compete in the third tier of English football next season. Thus, it is worth keeping a look out for Rovers’ movement in the transfer window this summer!