John Ward has stepped down as manager of Bristol Rovers, to be replaced by his assistant, Darrell Clarke, with immediate effect. Ward is now a Director of Football at the club. He will be helping with behind-the-scenes matters such as youth development, offering advice, and overseeing the building of the new UWE stadium.
The change of manager could be a move that suits all parties. Ward has had two spells as Bristol Rovers boss, the first beginning back in 1991. Although he did have a brief stint at Bristol City before he returned to the Memorial Ground, Rovers fans must have respect for the job he has done. Ward managed to turn around a poor run of results under Mark McGhee, and guide them to safety last season in style, with a comfortable fourteenth place finish.
However, Ward has been criticized for being somewhat tactically negative. He is a fan of the long ball game, and has tended to use a 4-5-1 system. Not all Bristol Rovers fans appreciated Ward’s style of football, particularly away from home. The Pirates have one of the worst away records in the Football League. In nineteen away games, they have had an average of less than ten shots per game. Often, they have less possession than their opponents. On the few occasions that the side has had more of the ball, the case has either been that they let in an early goal and needed to attack more, or there was a low number of shots, relative to possession. This suggests that players do not naturally get forward too much under John Ward.
Given how far Bristol is from most northern towns, and given that the team has a respectable away following, it is arguable that Pirates fans deserve to see more positive football away from home, and more than just one away win in nineteen attempts. Darrell Clarke might shake things up in that sense. Though the 36-year-old was employed by John Ward as a member of the coaching staff, his appointment will represent a slight change of regime.
Clarke is a more progressive tactician. By all accounts, he favours a high-tempo 4-4-2 system, with a more prominent use of wingers. Saturday’s match against Morecambe saw the team pass the ball out from the back more often than they might have done under Ward, who generally encouraged route one football.
It remains to be seen what Clarke’s plans are for John-Joe O’Toole. The goalscoring midfielder will return from suspension for the match against Bury on Tuesday night, but there are no guarantees he will start. O’Toole naturally looks to get into the box, in a Kevin Nolan type of role, yet his critics point out that he rarely tracks back and tackles.
In a 4-4-2 formation, if you have two attacking wingers and one midfielder breaking forward, there’s only one holding midfielder left to cope with opposition counter attacks. The versatile Tom Lockyer has often played in midfield, when he has not had to cover for injuries in defence. Ollie Clarke, like Lockyer, came through the Bristol Rovers academy, and adds a tenacity to the side, having recovered seamlessly from a long-term injury. Likewise, Seanan Clucas and Danny Woodards have suffered from injuries since signing, but the latter played and won the man of the match award on Saturday.
Darrell Clarke has plenty of options in midfield, all of whom would offer more of a defensive protection than John-Joe O’Toole. Part of the reason the midfielder signed for Bristol Rovers this summer, was to play under John Ward, who he worked with at Colchester. With Ward no longer manager, you might think O’Toole would be happy to leave. However, the 25-year-old is reportedly on high wages, and tied down to his contract until summer 2016. Given the financial problems with most clubs in League Two, and that O’Toole has not quite proved himself in League One, it is possible that no-one will want to pay a transfer fee for him. He might remain at the Memorial Ground next season, but in a more bit-part role.
Bristol Rovers may have Elliot Richards back in the side next season, if Darrell Clarke favours him up front. He has already scored ten goals this season, and was bizarrely loaned out to Exeter in February, until the end of the season. Bristol Rovers have lacked a clinical striker this season, although perhaps due to a lack of creativity in midfield, and Richards could be that man.
Individuals aside, Bristol Rovers have the nucleus of a very talented young side, underlined by the average age of the squad which faced Morecambe on Saturday being just twenty-four. A lot of unproven youngsters were put on the bench, which indicates Clarke’s willingness to continue to introduce youth. If they can keep the core of their team together in the next few years, brighter days may lie ahead for Bristol Rovers.