Bristol Rovers FC

Key player: Max Ehmer

Despite entering the Memorial Ground as a new signing this summer, there’s no surprise that Ben Garner has appointed Max Ehmer club captain. The 28-year-old arrives from fellow League One side Gillingham where he had the same responsibility. The German’s departure from Priestfield was one of surprise having made 250 appearances for the club having joined the club permanently from QPR in 2015. An imposing centre-back, Ehmer likes to get the ball up the pitch quickly to relieve danger and launch counter attacks, often opting to play long overlapping balls out to wingers to chase onto. The former Yeovil defender can also be a handful from set pieces, most notably scoring seven goals for Gillingham in the 2016/17 season. 

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Manager: Ben Garner

Having been touted for the Rovers job by club legend and former England international Rickie Lambert, the now 40-year-old took over at the Memorial Ground in December 2019. Previously holding positions as Assistant Manager of both West Brom and Indian Super League club, ATK, this is  Garner’s first job as manager. His record at the club so far is less than exemplary with just two wins from his 17 games in charge. However, the former Crystal Palace first team coach has had a full transfer window now to assemble a side suited to him and his preferred playing style after inheriting the side left by Graham Coughlan in December.  

Creator: Zain Westbrooke

The 23-year-old arrives from Championship side Coventry City after gaining promotion with them from League One last season. The central midfielder made 22 appearances for the Sky Blues, scoring four goals and assisting a further two. Of those four goals, three proved to be winners against Southend, Fleetwood and Lincoln respectively. The former Brentford man is strong on the ball and will look to link the defence and attack with his long driving runs through the middle. Westbrooke is also versatile, being able to play anywhere across the midfield having been utilised in central, defensive and right midfield positions last campaign. 

Last season: 14th in League One

The Pirates had begun the season brightly, losing just five of their opening 22 fixtures which included impressive wins over both Oxford and Rotherham. Goalscoring was often the issue for Rovers as they managed just 38 goals, which was a lower tally than relegated Southend. The season ended at the right time as Garner’s side began to spiral, winning just once in their final 15 League One matches, a 2-1 win over Blackpool.

Jonson Clarke-Harris top scored once again, this time with 16 goals. Disappointingly their next highest goalscorers were forward Tyler Smith and midfielder Abu Agogo with just three apiece. Smith has since departed for Swindon Town whilst Agogo has been frozen out by Garner for not fitting into his plans going forward.

Key departure: Jonson Clarke-Harris

Since their promotion to League One, goals have often proven to be a problem for Rovers, managing just 38 from their 35 league matches last season and only 47 during the full 2018/19 season. When goals are scarce it doesn’t help losing your star forward. Clarke-Harris recorded back-to-back double digit goal tallies during his two seasons at the Memorial Ground, notching 11 in 16 in his first season at the club and 13 in 26 last season. Such prowess in front of goal attracted fellow League One side Peterborough who had just lost Ivan Toney to Championship side Brentford. 

Whilst the Pirates have recruited well across the pitch this summer, they are yet to beef up their frontline. New signing Jonah Ayunga remains untested in the Football League whilst the same can be said of youngsters James Daly and Jayden Mitchell-Lawson. Garner has although suggested that a new forward could be added to the squad before the end of the transfer window. Without a new striker, goals will surely be even harder to come by, and therefore wins too. 

Target: Top-half

Whilst Rovers have improved considerably in defence with the signings of Max Ehmer and Jack Baldwin from Gillingham and Sunderland respectively, it still appears as though Garner’s side will seriously struggle for goals again this season, perhaps even more so. There will be much pressure on Derby loanee Mitchell-Lawson and Ayunga to deliver, failing that they will need a midfielder to step up as their source of goals. After all, without goals there will be few wins, leading the side down the path trodden by many relegated sides before them.

Assuming their defence holds up and someone emerges as a goal threat, it is unlikely that the Pirates will be fighting at either end of the table come May. The signing of Zain Westbrooke brings that little bit of quality in the middle whilst fellow new signing Josh Grant will have much to prove following a successful spell at Plymouth Argyle last season in League Two whilst on-loan from Chelsea. The worry will be that they make the team look better, but don’t make them any more effective at winning points. 

Opposition view:

(provided by Bristol Rovers podcasters GasCast)

We’ve been active in the transfer market and got a head start on most, including swiping former Gillingham captain Max Ehmer from under the Gills noses as they hadn’t offered him a deal at that time due to Covid. Other notable signings include Zain Westbrooke who featured a lot in Coventry’s championship winning campaign and operates as a No.8. Dare I mention the capture of Josh Grant as well, who will partner Westbrook in the centre of midfield. There’s also the addition of Sam Nicholson from the MLS who is a tricky winger. The most prominent outgoing comes in the shape of Jonson Clarke-Harris. The talismanic bagsman left for a reported £1.25 million (plus add ons) to League One rivals Peterborough – his goals will be sorely missed and we have yet to replace him, aside from unproven youngsters.

Whilst the signings have been great, there are serious question marks over the manager Ben Garner. Garner had an atrocious record when he arrived in December last year, only securing 2 wins in 16. Personal issues and a remit to change the style of play were cited as excuses and whilst these excuses have legs, it doesn’t disguise the fact he should have done better.

The worry is that Garner is out of his depth and is more suited as a coach. The proof will be in the start of this season, he has been backed by the powers that be and has had time to implement his fluid 3-4-2-1 style. The jury is still out and for that reason, I think a mid-table finish would be respectable.


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League One Season Preview 2020/21