Popular Bristol Rovers figure James Belshaw lifts lid on showdown talks with Joey Barton

Fan favourite James Belshaw opens up on his time out at Bristol Roers

James Belshaw is back between the sticks for Bristol Rovers. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)James Belshaw is back between the sticks for Bristol Rovers. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)
James Belshaw is back between the sticks for Bristol Rovers. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)

Fan favourite James Belshaw has admitted that his brief exile from Bristol Rovers last month was a tough period for him to navigate through.

The 32-year-old found himself as a second choice for the first-time in his Gas career, which is approaching its second-full season. A rib injury allowed Ellery Balcome to play his required three games, which Brentford imposed when they recalled him from his loan from Crawley Town.

Belshaw recovered from his injury but did not immediately get his place back in to the side, with Balcome holding his place down in the side. The Bees goalkeeper did not record a win during his five matches in the side, and the former Harrogate shot-stopper could only watch on from the bench in the defeats against Lincoln City and Burton Albion.

For the majority of February, Belshaw had to watch on from the sidelines and he used the period to try and improve on areas of his game that would come as a benefit if he was to be reintegrated back into the side. The Nottingham-born goalkeeper credited goalkeeping coach and former rival Anssi Jaakkola as someone who played a supporting role during a period of uncertainty and doubt.

“As a footballer, you want to be playing games, and when you’re out of the side or you find yourself not playing it’s tough,” he said. “For the last four or five weeks it’s been a difficult time, and I’ve had some difficult moments off the field that has kind of been compounding everything.

“It was a tough sort of spell but as a professional and as a goalkeeper you have to keep putting the work in every day. It’s a difficult position because you’re not going to get brought on for ten-15 minutes to sort of stake your claim for a place. You’ve just got to be ready and training when your chance comes and for me, that was last Saturday, it’s nice to be back out there playing.

“Your first point of call when that happens is to look at yourself and think about what you can do differently and how you can improve. It took a bit of time to take stock of things and have a look at areas of my game, work with Anssi (Jaakkola), and look at the videos.

“I looked at where I can make tweaks to my game and get myself back into the side, and be ready when my opportunity comes. It’s been a tough few weeks for me, it’s been hard for Ellery, unfortunately, it’s the nature of the goalkeeping position that only one goalkeeper can play.”

The arrival of a new goalkeeper made sense given Anssi Jaakkola’s transition in to moving in to a coaching capacity, whilst the defence was shipping goals regularly, which stressed the need for reinforcements. A centre-back had been the priority but Jarell Quansah only followed after Balcombe’s arrival, and things did not improve immediately.

Both players suffered a 5-1 defeat to Morecambe on their debut, in which Belshaw was a substitute, and was later found to have a rib issue. The defeat to the Shrimpers was tough, and a section of supporters chanted Belshaw’s name, when patience was urged for their new goalkeeper.

Belshaw is a popular figure amongst the supporters, and despite there being the likes of Aaron Collins and Antony Evans, it was he who won the Player of the Year award last season. He kept 16 clean sheets on a tremendous winning run that concluded with promotion from League Two. It made for a difficult situation of any error that Balcombe made being met with chants of ‘Belshaw’ from a section of supporters.

In the build-up to the draw against Ipswich, Barton revealed to the BBC that Belshaw’s absence was not down to an injury, and instead he was missing after a supposed disagreement. Rovers were not required to start Balcombe after the first three games of his loan spell, and on Monday after the team was released, there was a disagreement.

It ended up with Belshaw being excluded from the 18-man match-day squad completely and warned that he could potentially find himself not playing for the club again. Fortunately it did not come to that, and Belshaw was able to return to action last Saturday with a clean sheet against Oxford United. He has since revealed that he had been contending with issues away from football, which complicated the situation.

He said: “The way it sort of played out was probably more attention drawn to the goalkeeping situation than anyone really wanted myself, Ellery and the gaffer. The gaffer has to make big calls and that’s what he decided to go with.

“Before the Ipswich game we had a disagreement and as a player you want to play games of football. It was dealt with, we shook hands and there was no bad blood with it.

“That week off the field there was a few things going on that compounded everything. It was a really tough week for me personally, there were a few family things going on behind the scenes that were tough to take.

“It felt like everything was coming at once but those are the kind of periods that you can learn about yourself, as a goalkeeper. There’s no animosity, I want three points whoever is playing, obviously if it is me you want to be in the jersey, the main thing is the team is winning.”

Such is life as a goalkeeper, that unlike your outfield peers, you are unable to impress the manager in a cameo off of the bench. Goalkeeper subs are only made usually when there is an injury or red card. As a back-up goalkeeper or someone playing understudy, It’s about waiting for a moment where you’re waiting for your moment, on the off chance that the manager may want to change things or be forced into it. You’re a rival of your teammate, but you also find yourself having to support them, through training sessions and preparing them for drills before they go out and play matches, whilst you watch on from the sidelines.

During Belshaw’s time out of the side, he was able to place himself in Balcombe’s shoes, analysing his teammates performance and trying to guess how he would have been feeling during a particular moment. He has backed Barton’s decision to bring in a goalkeeping rival, and whilst there is only one place in the team, he is happy to support the team whether it is him or Balcombe.

Belshaw added: “It’s a very strange dynamic and people say goalkeepers are strange anyway, but that kind of environment you create in the goalkeeping union. At every club it’s such a strange dynamic to explain to anyone who has not been in it.

“They are some of the closest people at the club because you’re spending all your time with them, when you watch Ellery you understand what he’s going through mentally and the decisions he’s making. You sort of see things from a different point of view there and it’s a difficult situation.

“The gaffer wanted to stimulate competition in the goalkeepers department and he has done that. We’ve got a great goalkeeping department whoever plays and it’s about turning this form around, getting three points, trying to shoot up the league and whoever is in possession of the gloves is doing that, and good luck to them.”