Joey Barton suggests major change at Bristol Rovers which could cement ‘legacy’

The Bristol Rovers manager has set himself a task of improving the academy structure at the club by 2026
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Joey Barton says he is keen to reform Bristol Rovers’ Under-21’s team as he looks to bridge the gap between the academy and the first-team.

The Gas disbanded their development squad in Barton’s first full season in charge which meant limited opportunities for those on the periphery of the first team.

After getting themselves back in English football’s third tier, there is a desire to bring it back as a ‘finishing’ school for the academy set-up from the boss.

The 40-year-old has admitted to having discussions with Rovers owner Wael Al-Quadi about reinstating the Under-21’s side that was dissolved alongside the club’s relegation to League Two.

He pointed to the success across the city at inter-city rivals Bristol City as a team that has been able to get the best talents in the area, with Bristol-born Tommy Conway the most recent example.

He said: “For me, it’s something we have to have sensible conversations about, it’s important when you’re a club and a city the size of Bristol that we’re a gateway for the southwest.

“Alright, it’s not Liverpool and London in terms of being a hotbed for producing football players but there are still lots of players that come from this area.

“I think Bristol City have clearly got a bit more of an infrastructure and a foothold in terms of maybe getting the best products around.

“There’s no point in us having an academy if we don’t have that finishing school, it’s like having a primary school and a high school but no sixth form before you go to university.”

A lack of Under-21’s side has made for a considerable gap between the clubs Under-18’s side and the first-team.

Senior opportunities have been limited to the EFL Trophy, which doesn’t allow for wholesale changes to the side from the previous league match.

The likes of Jed Ward, Harvey Greenslade and Jerry Lawrence have been training with the first-team squad over the last year or so, but have sought moves elsewhere for game time.

Ward, who acted as back-up to James Belshaw last season is on a season-long loan at Hungerford Town, meanwhile Greenslade has recently joined National League South outfit Chippenham Town.

Lawrence has been in and around match day squads, mainly when Zain Westbrooke was axed from the squad in early August, but faces stiff competition in his position.

Despite lesser resources at academy level, Alfie Kilgour and Luca Hoole are graduates of Rovers’ ‘finishing school’ and are certified first-team players.

Kilgour and Hoole represent Barton’s vision of what a Rovers team should look like in an ideal world.

He said: “I’d much prefer these players to come through our academy and the whole of Bristol and the surrounding areas to be aligned because when I look at Alfie Kilgour and Luca Hoole, there’s nothing better than standing on the terraces and having a player out there that you know could’ve been standing next to you and singing the songs for the team.

“For some reason, the homegrown players make a different connection with the fanbase. I never played for Everton, that was my team. I had opportunities but never played for them and I’ve got a good relationship with other fans, but I can’t imagine the bond you must have when it’s someone who is from the terraces, on the pitch then back into the terraces.”

Despite not coming through their own academy system, Barton’s teams have been on the youthful side, which last year brought success to the Memorial Stadium.

Last season’s defence which consisted of a centre-back partnership of two on-loan centre halves Connor Taylor and James Connolly, two 20-years-olds, made for an average age of 21.5 years.

Wales Under-21 international Luca Hoole also brought that number down after forcing his way into the team from January onwards.

Barton added: “Look how young my teams are, last year everyone was crying out for experience and I think I’m the only manager that goes in League Two and picks kids in the back line and chances it.

“I think I did that at Fleetwood in League One, most go for tried and tested especially in that central corridor at the back but I’ve had great success with these young lads.

“I believe in giving youth a chance and there are going to be some scary moments with that but I believe the upside in getting it right with them outweighs taking the tried and tested. History will stand me right or wrong with that but the two jobs I’ve had so far, its paid me dividends.

“I’m keen for us to leave something here that stands the test of time, you know when we do eventually pass on the custody to someone else and they take the reins, I think having a strong academy and a strong finishing part of it that closes the gap between the academy and the first team would be a good legacy to leave.

“That will come down to finance and as I say it’s something that I’m keen to see by the time my contract expires in 2026 and I’ll constantly keep fighting for that because I’m an academy product myself who was given an opportunity and I’ll constantly be probing and asking questions because I want to bring young players through.”