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Bristol Rovers are not good enough but there is light at the end of the tunnel for Joey Barton


Rovers’ losing run continued last week with two defeats at the Mem. Cheltenham Town knocked Rovers out of the cup on Tuesday before the Gas were felled by Stevenage at the weekend.

Three defeats from three games is hardly an ideal start to the season and fans will be united in wishing for the tide to turn quickly.

I was unable to watch on Tuesday but I didn’t miss much judging by the reaction. Cheltenham are a good side and it would have been rash to confidently expect a win, but a limp showing would have concerned Joey Barton.

The injury list prevented the wholesale changes usually afforded to the Carabao Cup and the manager would have been frustrated to not be able to rest some of his key players in a low priority match.

Fielding the same forward line that was to start four days later was unavoidable and unfortunate, given that these players had played most of pre-season with others out through injury and Covid precautions.

Luke Thomas, a livewire and a spark in recent games looked off-colour on Saturday and in need of a rest. Harvey Saunders’ incredible work ethic means he expends more energy than most and three games in seven days could have drained his reserves.

The club paid tribute to supporters we’ve lost over the last 17 months and it was a touching and fitting moment in the first home league game with fans in since March 2020. The pain endured by so many is immeasurable and whilst there is no cure for that, the return of fans to grounds is a welcome relief to all.

The 90 minutes that followed though was hardly the spectacle we had hoped for. Much the same broken record of last season was on repeat, with promising sparks negated by a failure to score and conceding sloppy goals. The optimism from a new squad in a new season faded quickly and the return of key new signings cannot come quickly enough.

Harry Anderson has a shot on goal against Stevenage (Ryan Hiscott/JMP)

This is a squad that is still gelling, still learning the manager’s style of play and their teammates’ styles. With so many outgoings and heaps of new faces in BS7, blowing teams away so early on was never really going to happen. Building a new team is a long game and any victories would have come from individual quality rather than team cohesion and fluency.

As Barton regularly says, we’re still lacking a No9 and that was evident once more on Saturday. Saunders is a fantastic player but he’s not the physical platform you can build from, more the player to run off a No9.

One shot on target on Saturday is not good enough though and it’ll be a long few weeks for Barton in the window. It’s thought we missed out on Sam Cosgrove recently and someone of his quality would be perfect for us.

Harry Anderson had a fantastic game and it’s exciting to watch a player of his style in a Rovers shirt. He is direct, pacey and carries the ball well. His versatility on the flank is an asset to us and his ability to play the wing back role will be utilised many times this season.

He may well be asked to play that position on Tuesday – a return to 3-5-2 with the additional player up top could help us threaten in the final third more.

The return of Sam Nicholson, Aaron Collins and Alex Rodman is a big boost. Between them they offer creativity, skill and experience and in the former two we have two certain starters back. They will need time to get match fit and sharp though and their introduction doing little to affect the game was unsurprising given said lack of match action.

Sam Finley also returned and it was interesting to watch his style of play. He dropped into holes to receive the ball and link play, which will be a key factor in building attacks.

Sam Finley challenges Luther Wildin of Stevenage (Ryan Hiscott/JMP)

He’s an all-action midfielder too and his level of tenacity will bring some bite to our midfield. He hasn’t had a pre-season though and will need to be afforded time to get back to his best.

Off the field, a surprise was sprung post-match with Barton confirming Clint Hill had left the club for personal family reasons. He was absent from the dugout against Stevenage and was unfortunately not to return.

Hill was a popular figure amongst fans and in the dressing room too. He was the good cop when Barton was bad cop, lifting players with an arm round the shoulder. He was also the defensive lead for coaching and will be tough to replace.

Whoever steps into his shoes will need to be a big character and will need to hit the ground running very, very quickly. I’m sure I speak for all Rovers fans in wishing him all the best and hoping his family are okay.

It’s not easy to be positive about Rovers at the minute with the results we’ve been on. An eight straight defeat equals an unwanted club record and we’ve failed to score in eight of our last nine home games.

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The reality is that is not good enough, but we must keep the faith. We’re two games into the league season and have much of our first XI either out or just returning from absence.

Ordinarily it’d be too early in the season to be desperate for results, but Tuesday night has all the hallmarks of a must-win game for Rovers.

This team must provide a foundation of hope for supporters and Barton’s coaching work must start to bear fruit. We will gel and we will win games with the talent in this squad, but the task at hand for Barton is to ensure that it is winning rather than losing that becomes the habit. Here’s hoping that winning habit starts in midweek.

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