James Belshaw has explained the role he is playing in developing a youthful Bristol Rovers back line. Belshaw is usually the most experienced out of the goalkeeper and his defence, which has seen him take on a leadership role to nurture his teammates
Belshaw is the experienced head in the Bristol Rovers back line, with Joey Barton opting to usually play a back three with an average age of just 21.
In the defeat to Boreham Wood, James Connolly, Lewis Gibson and Bobby Thomas were deployed by Barton, and are seemingly the Rovers boss’ preferred defence for the season.
Behind them lies Belshaw, who aged 32 is entering what is widely recognised as a goalkeeper’s prime, and looks to use that experience to guide his young back line.
He said: “It’s a young back three, their game, they will all go and win headers, play football and they’ll all have excellent careers in the game.
“The lads put in performances that are mature beyond their years and all three of them will go on to have very good careers.”
It is a defensive partnership that Rovers may not have next year, with Thomas and Gibson on loan from Burnley and Everton respectively, although the latter’s contract is out at the end of this season.
“For me behind them, when you’re working with a younger back four you’ve got to keep them honest, keep them on their toes and sort of talk them through games.”
“It’s part of football, I don’t necessarily have the right answers all the time but I can see things that other lads can’t from where I am on the pitch.”
“I just want to keep them organised and keep a solid structure in front of me, which gives me less work to do.”
Barton has always wanted to keep his defence younger, with last season and his first full one at the club being no different.
Then Cardiff loanee Connolly was partnered with 20-year-old Connor Taylor on loan from Stoke in the centre of defence. Nick Anderton, who turned 26 in March and teenager Luca Hoole gave the Gas a strong foundation. It saw them concede 49 goals, which is the sixth lowest.
Belshaw added: “We had a similar back line last year in terms of age, so you’ve got me, Couttsy and Sam (Finley) on each side to kind of marshall it as experienced heads.”
“For me especially as I get into the next few years of my career, I want to talk more and organise more because then I imagine it’ll save me throwing myself round the goal and overlap on the right wing when I’m 38 or 39.”
There is an issue for Belshaw and his youthful backline to contend, which has been their frailties when defending set-pieces. Boreham Wood manager Luke Garrard admitted that the National League side was looking to expose them before dumping the Gas out of the FA Cup.
Rovers’ defence is one of the leakiest in the division with 33 goals conceded, only Burton Albion and fellow newly promoted club Forest Green Rovers have shipped more. Out of the 33 goals conceded, nine of them have come from set-pieces, which is 27% of their goals.
Belshaw was in goal when an unmarked George Broadbent’s shot deflected off of Will Evans to open the scoring for Boreham Wood from a shortly-taken corner kick with the shot-stopper helpless to deal with the effort. To combat the issue, the team has been working on the training ground to try and rectify the problem.
He said: “It’s hours on the training pitch, it’s looking how we counter specific threats and then, ultimately, it’s about the XI on the pitch taking accountability for their roles, sensing danger and doing whatever they can to block a shot or stay with their runner.
“If you start taking that number down, in terms of our goals conceded from a set-piece, and you start looking at a very different second half of the season.”