Bristol Rovers pre-season priorities as Joey Barton and players report back for work

Bristol Rovers players and staff have reported back to base as they prepare for the 2022/23 League One season
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Bristol Rovers players and staff have returned to The Quarters training ground in Almondsbury to begin their pre-season.

Seven weeks on from scoring seven goals past Scunthorpe United to get promotion from League Two, Joey Barton and his staff will go through four weeks of pre-season to get his side ready for a new division.

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Some league rivals have already gone back already but for the Gas, a slightly longer break can be afforded given their achievements last season.

Two major boosts will be the fact that Antony Evans and James Connolly will be at the training ground today.

Talisman Evans signed a new three-year contract a fortnight ago meanwhile Connolly made his loan move permanent from Cardiff City for an undisclosed fee, though a claim in Wales claims it was seven figures.

There will also be two new boys involved too with Jordan Rossiter joining from Fleetwood Town for an undisclosed fee, whilst James Gibbons has moved from Darrell Clarke’s Port Vale on a free transfer.

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With so much happening in the off season over the past two weeks and a home season opener against Forest Green Rovers to look forward to, here is what is coming up in the next week.

James Norwood pursuit

What will be a key topic on the agenda is the pursuit of striker James Norwood, who is free to discuss a move to his next club after leaving Ipswich Town. According to Football Insider, he has held advanced talks with Rovers.

The 31-year-old has the same agent as Barton and others, whilst the pair went on a golfing holiday together, as well as being a close friend of first-team coach Andy Nangan.

He is a long-term target of Barton, having also wanted him during his time in charge at Fleetwood Town.

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They will face competition however from league rivals Oxford United, who already have Billy Bodin and Matt Taylor in their ranks. A decision is due to be made next week but there is also interest from Charlton, Portsmouth and Plymouth.

A new forward is perhaps needed given the departures of experienced duo Brett Pitman and Leon Clarke.

Aaron Collins took his time to get the goals coming but then he went on scoring streaks and ended up as the top scorer, leading the line in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

That is despite the January signing of Ryan Loft from Scunthorpe United, who Rovers fought off competition from league rivals. Loft struggled for a consistent run in the side and only scored once but that was in a huge match against Vale.

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Given Harvey Saunders didn’t feature much last season, the addition of Norwood would be a welcomed one given his success in the EFL.

He bagged 28 goals in 88 appearances for his former club and scored double figures in his first season at Portman Road. His best season did come in League Two, scoring 29 goals in 45 games for Tranmere Rovers but that could be carried over to the next tier.

New goalkeeping coach

One task to carry out will be to recruit a new goalkeeping coach after the departure of Tony Warner to Reading.

A year after coaching at the Mem, the Trinidad & Tobago international reunited with Paul Ince after playing with him at Liverpool and working under him at Blackpool.

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Warner was a massive part of the staff last season and personally persuaded Joey Barton to sign James Belshaw who later became the Player of the Season.

Commenting on his move to Berkshire Live, he said: "It was an interesting one. We had such a successful season at Bristol Rovers and the way we finished the season was amazing, with all the emotion involved in that.

"But having worked with the manager before, and having the opportunity to work in a higher division.

"The training ground at Bristol Rovers was very, very good, but the environment is better here obviously and you take these things into account.

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For me, it was another step on the journey really, so I decided to come. Was it hard? I had to have a think about it, but once I had made the decision, that was it, my decision was made."

During Barton’s time at Fleetwood, Dave Lucas was the goalkeeping coach, but a reunion remains unlikely given he is the Head of Academy Goalkeeping at Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Preparing for Melksham Town friendly

It was announced last week that no match would take place in Portugal and instead an open training session would be held in its place for those that are going out there for the second week of July.

Up first though is a friendly match at nearby Melskham at the Oakfield Stadium, which is set for a massive crowd by their standards.

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Melksham play in the Southern League Division One South, the eighth tier of English football, so they will offer a different kind of opposition to what Rovers will come up against.

It is a chance however to try out any new systems should things change from last season. At the start of last season, we saw a back three of centre-backs but from January onwards a new system came in.

Whether Barton will want to try that again with new players at his disposal or whether he might tweak his system of having just one forward remains to be seen.

Friday night’s match though is an early opportunity to see whether things will change or whether it’ll be more of the same.

Return of any other loanees?

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The return of James Connolly just shows the position of the club to be able to exchange a fee for such a highly rated player. Connolly made a massive impact last season after signing in January and him rejoining brings a much needed continuity to the side.

A key question to ask however is whether we’ll see the return of his trusted partner Connor Taylor.

Taylor is to be given a chance in pre-season by Stoke City as they run the rule of whether he could deal with the Championship.

They have already signed Aden Flint on a free transfer from Cardiff City, so that will make his task of breaking into the first-team that much harder.

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First-team manager Michael O’Neill did admit though that perhaps the next step for Taylor is to try himself in League One. Stoke are familiar with giving Barton players for longer as for a season-and-half, Harry Soutter played under him on loan.

Another loan move would be the best option for both parties but there could end up a situation where Taylor is lining up against Rovers at the Mem in their final pre-season friendly.

One player who may not return however is Luke Thomas, who started for Barnsley under new boss Michael Duff on the weekend.

Thomas, who wasn’t a regular figure in Rovers’ squad but was someone that Bartojn wanted to keep, may be given a new lease of life at Oakwell.

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That then brings us to Elliot Anderson and surprisingly, speculation has since died down on where he will end up.

A host of Championship clubs have been linked with a move for him but the plan remains the same that he will be given a chance in pre-season and then a decision will be made.

Whilst the preferred option would be to have your new signings in as early as possible, Anderson is a player worth waiting for.

The 19-year-old tore up League Two last season and will go down as one of the best loanees in the clubs history, which is amazing given he was only at the club for five months.

Sion Spence is available on a free transfer after leaving Crystal Palace but given he didn’t play much, that is an extremely unlikely option.

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