From tough spot to Bristol Rovers Player of the Year - James Belshaw’s whirlwind year

James Belshaw quickly became a fan favourite at Bristol Rovers. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)James Belshaw quickly became a fan favourite at Bristol Rovers. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
James Belshaw quickly became a fan favourite at Bristol Rovers. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images) | Getty Images
The 31-year-old was named Player of the Year in the most remarkable of seasons in Bristol Rovers’ history

Last summer, James Belshaw was without a club and pondering his future, a year later he was named Bristol Rovers’ Player of the Year in the most remarkable promotion winning campaign.

Discarded by Harrogate Town, a club he had been at for four seasons, he was their goalkeeper as they clinched promotion from the National League.

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The Yorkshire side sought a shot-stopper with more Football League experience, despite the fact Belshaw had given them 11 clean sheets in 38 appearances in their first season in the fourth tier.

An uncertain future followed and as Joey Barton tried to assemble a side capable of winning promotion, he had to entrust the views of goalkeeping coach Tony Warner.

Belshaw, had to earn his contract through a two-week trial during pre-season and the rest then was history.

The 31-year-old displaced Finnish international Anssi Jaakkola as the first-choice goalkeeper and went on to play 42 times, shutting out teams on 17 occasions.

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He played a huge part in Rovers’ remarkable run since the turn of the Year, going from 17th to third where they celebrated automatic promotion on the final day.

To top off what has been a memorable few months, he will also tie the knot with his wife, who supported him whilst his career was in limbo.

In an interview with the club, Belshaw said: “I was in a very tough spot last year and my family will have seen that. I was forced out of my old club and I wasn’t wanted. I had nothing throughout the summer.

“As a footballer you think where is your future going to lie. I always backed myself, I knew I had the ability but I just needed that chance.

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“The call came from Tony Warner and we want to have a look at you. I think Tony had to stand on his head and say no this is the guy you want.

“I had to come in on trial, I had a two-week trial period and I sort of proved I was worthy of a contract.

“To have been voted as Player of the Season, a year is a long time in football. I’m getting married this summer and it’s going to be hard to top this.”

After playing 25 league games since the start of the New Year, Rovers picked up 16 wins, six draws and just three defeats.

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Thirteen of the clean sheets that Belshaw accumulated had come in that run of form as Rovers successfully navigated through a tricky patch.

But there were other performers such as Connor Taylor, who in his first professional loan away at Stoke City, dealt with the challenges of senior level football.

As did Antony Evans, who after a difficult year at Paderborn and Crewe, showcased his obvious talent.

Evans had been taken on a one-year deal to show to Barton what he could do and he delivered just that.

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Two assists and two goals, including setting up Elliot Anderson for the winner, made for a tremendous campaign for the 23-year-old.

This season had plenty of players who could emerge as contenders for the prestigious award but after a vote taken by the first-team squad, it was Belshaw who they deemed to be the most consistent in the team.

He said: “It’s an incredible feeling and an incredible way to cap off an unbelievable season. Any of the lads, Evo (Antony Evans) and Connor (Connor Taylor), they have had unbelievable seasons.

“For me, to be voted for by the lads to be their Player of the Year is the highest honour you can get in football, to be recognised by your fellow peers.

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“What we did was special and that euphoric feeling is something that we will take with us for the rest of our lives.

“In five, ten or fifteen years time, we won’t be here. All those Rovers fans will be and they will remember the team of 2022 that did the impossible. I am so fortunate to be a part of the most incredible team in Bristol Rovers history.”

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