Pre-season is done and dusted. So, what have the friendly games told us about Rovers’ upcoming campaign?
Absolutely nothing. Players get game time, regain some sharpness and match practice, local non-league clubs get their annual friendly against bigger sides, and, every so often, a club stalwart gets a fitting send-off in the form of a testimonial, as Peter Aitken did at the weekend. More on that later.
You might have gone to all the friendlies, you might have gone to none, but realistically you have the same amount of knowledge on how the next ten months will pan out as you did when the players were still on holiday.
The curtain coming up on ‘proper’ football marks the end of silly season. Sure, there’s a few weeks left of the transfer window, but at least we have competitive games to talk about, instead of obsessing over a striker scoring a goal against a bunch of milkmen in early July and how that means he’ll score 25 this year. Also, the weird fixation of checking hourly about who may or may not sign takes a back seat for those who are already under contract.
An irritating quirk of modern football, fuelled by traditional media for huge clubs and social media for clubs like ours, is the transfer saga. I swear even as recently as the mid 2000s, we didn’t all obsess over the signing of one player like the fanbase appears to have done over Ryan Sweeney this summer, or John-Joe O’Toole a few years back.
Not a morning goes by without someone tweeting or posting that they know Sweeney will sign tomorrow. Then, that tomorrow becomes next week. Just wake me up when the decision is made.
Folk seem desperate to be ‘in the know’ but they end up looking silly, dull, arrogant – or all of the above. I’m sure these types told their tall tales in the pub in years gone by, but at least the boredom caused by it was confined to the four walls it was broadcast in back then.
Sweeney is, as we know from last year, a fine player who brought some steel to a worryingly porous defence. But he’s being talked about as if he’s Andy Tillson, somehow regenerated, Dr Who-style. If we sign him, great, but if not, I don’t think it’s the disaster it’ll be made out to be in some corners of the internet. Other centre-halves are available.
Anyway, old man moaning aside, the new campaign opens with a potentially tough trip to Charlton Athletic. The South Londoners finished 2016/17 well, not losing any of their final five games to end a woefully disappointing season on a high note.
Karl Robinson is a wily operator at this level, and a squad brimming with talent worthy of the league above has been added to, with Billy Clarke and Mark Marshall, both fine attacking players for this division, signing from Bradford.
The two drubbings handed out to us by the Addicks last season won’t have much weight on Saturday’s result; their 5-1 win at the Mem last autumn included a few ridiculous deflected goals and had Rovers playing with ten men for half an hour. Their win at the Valley in January was against an away side unrecognisable from the usual XI; bit-part players Puddy, Mansell, Easter and Lawrence started.
That said, it’s almost as hard a start as one could ask for. There are goals in this side and they boast a midfield full of creativity. I’d snap your hand off for a point now, given the chance. A defeat, unless it’s another absolute shellacking, should not cause widespread panic.
We’re not the finished article as a squad; a few more faces are needed. The manager acknowledges this. Also, Charlton will be there or thereabouts come May, unless something happens off the field. That, of course, cannot be ruled out, given their owner’s persona non grata status amongst the club’s fans, due to his ability to infuriate them with his every move.
Tuesday sees the Mem’s first competitive action of the new season with Cambridge United visiting in EFL Cup action. This should be a simple task for Rovers. Cambridge’s squad, other than a couple of decent wide players, screams mediocrity: good, honest League Two professionals, but nothing that should worry us, even if the manager rests one or two who play on Saturday.
A final word or two this week for Peter Aitken, who was rewarded for years of service with a testimonial against West Brom, managed by his old mate Tony Pulis, at the weekend. He’s a giant not only of Bristol Rovers but west country football in general – captain of both Bristol’s professional clubs, one of the players to tear up his contract to save our great rivals back in 1982 (at great personal cost), and represented various local clubs before returning home to Rovers to manage our community activities for 16 years.
Saturday might have meant absolutely nought in terms of predicting the season to come, but it was a fitting send-off for a legendary player and a man who served the football club with distinction for over half of his adult life. Enjoy your retirement, Peter.
Read more: Bristol Rovers season preview