Joey Barton’s quadruple signing last month of Pal Coutts, Sam Finley, Nick Anderton and Mark Hughes was met with a sensible nod of the head from Bristol Rovers fans, understanding the attributes they bring in terms of presence and leadership is exactly what the Gas has been missing.
But should Rovers secure a deal for Barnsley winger Luke Thomas to return to the West Country, with his family based in the Forest of Dean, and spend a season on loan at the Mem, it would be almost certainly met with an old fashioned wave of excitement.
Sam Nicholson aside, Rovers lacked penetration in wide areas last season, often they were too horizontal and predictable in their build-up and a player of Thomas’ acumen and unorthodox style could open defences up.
Also because the 22-year-old is, in effect, a Championship-quality individual who’s fallen out of favour at Oakwell, and to get him to drop down two divisions would be some achievement from the management team, now also handling recruitment.
Of course, we’re all getting ahead of ourselves a little bit but the indication is that Thomas is very much open to the idea of playing for Rovers under Barton, albeit with competition across League One.
To get a better idea of what sort of individual Rovers could be signing in the future, we spoke to Barnsley Chronicle sports editor Doug O’Kane, who’s witnessed Thomas’ progress and subsequent plateauing since he signed from Derby County in 2019.
For those that aren’t familiar with Thomas, how would you describe him as a player?
He’s a natural winger although he has been used in various other positions by Barnsley including in central midfield and behind the strikers. He looks to take players on and run with the ball.
What are his fundamental strengths, and weaknesses/areas he needs to improve?
His directness and ability to drive forward with the ball are probably his biggest assets. When at his best, he can get his team up the pitch with excellent runs.
He’s shown some moments of incredible skill with turns, flicks and dribbles – but they have probably not been often enough and usually too far away from the opponents’ goal to make a big impact.
His biggest weakness, which he admits himself, is his end product. He has not scored in more than 50 league games for Barnsley since his debut and needs to work on his decision-making and ruthlessness in the final third. I think a lot of that is confidence and experience so a good loan spell could help.
What have been his standout moments since signing for Barnsley?
He scored on his debut in a 1-0 win over Fulham which was a massive result for the newly-promoted Reds against a side who were favourites to win the Championship.
Since then, it has been mainly just brief glimpses of his talent. He scored into an open goal late on at Crewe in the FA Cup last year, after they brought their goalkeeper up, then impressed with two assists at Middlesbrough in the EFL Cup last September.
What’s his situation at Barnsley and does he have a future at the club?
The current head coach Valerien Ismael does not play with natural wingers, preferring a 3-4-3 with bigger forwards up front.
Ismael also questioned Thomas’ professionalism around the time he moved to Ipswich on loan in January. But, Thomas has two years remaining on his contract and he’s clearly a talented player so you can’t rule out him having a future at Oakwell.
What’s been the general impression of him from fans; is he popular?
I think Luke would probably admit himself that the Barnsley fans have not seen the best of him so far on a consistent basis. There have definitely been flashes of his ability, and many supporters think he has the potential to be a good player for the Reds, but others point to his lack of end product.
What’s he like as a character around the club?
He seems to be. The chief executive Dane Murphy described him recently as a ‘great kid with a big heart who loves football.’ Thomas has been honest about his mental health issues which cut his season short earlier this year.