Bristol Rovers' retained list creates major vacancy and leaves a situation in the balance

(From left to right) Antony Evans, Jordan Rossiter and Harvey Greenslade -Credit:PPA/UK
(From left to right) Antony Evans, Jordan Rossiter and Harvey Greenslade -Credit:PPA/UK

As we enter May and the summer looms ever closer - although it doesn't quite look like it when having a glance out of the window - focus from reflecting on the past season to looking ahead to the next will shift quickly. To add to that transition, the publication of Bristol Rovers' retained list has given supporters a clearer idea of the resources that the Gas are beginning the summer with.

Thirteen have now left Rovers, seven of those permanently contracted with another six loanees who will return to their parent clubs. In all honesty, there were very few surprises with the writing already on the wall for most of the departing players who haven't received new contracts and it almost feels as though the Matt Taylor era can actually begin finally.

No doubt the Gas manager has had to deal with an abundance of situations that have been far from ideal behind the scenes, while he himself certainly isn't immune from criticism for Rovers' poor second half of the season which saw them take 23 points from the final 23 matches. An average of one point per game across the entirety of the campaign would have seen them narrowly avoid relegation.

Whether it's hyperbolic to suggest that the wins over Cheltenham Town and Cambridge United last month saved Taylor's job after a club-record goalless streak of seven matches is up for debate, but the run certainly didn't do the 42-year-old any favours and there is certainly pressure on the new-look squad that he assembles alongside the recruitment staff over the course of the next four months to start next season strongly.

However, this an opportunity to almost reset and start over and the retained list has certainly suggested that that will have to take place with Rovers losing essentially half of the past campaign's roster. But now that there is a bit more clarity about who is staying around and who is leaving, here are some of the biggest talking points on the back of the retained list's publication.

One in and one out

Of no fault of their own, Luca Hoole and Lewis Gordon have often been mentioned in the same sentence when futures have been discussed given that they're both young full-backs whose contracts were expiring. In terms of what was looking more likely, it felt as though there was more chance that both would stay on as opposed to both leaving but it's a case of one in and one out with Hoole offered a new deal and Gordon released.

Obviously, there's no guarantee that right-back Hoole will sign the contract put in front of him but you would expect him to, while with left-back Gordon it's not surprising but there is a feeling that the 23-year-old could have still played a part in Taylor's plans, admittedly not as a regular starter.

Whether or not the fact that the decision to keep Hoole on was partially influenced by his homegrown nature is something only Taylor and co. can clarify but it would make sense. Additionally, at 21, the right-back is two years Gordon's junior and has worked his way up to being a key member of Wales' Under-21 squad. If you were to compare the two right now, you would suggest that Hoole's ceiling is higher.

However, it certainly wasn't a straightforward campaign for either player who were affected by injuries as was the case for the vast majority of their teammates over the course of the season. Hoole made 25 appearances while Gordon made 28 but the duo both started the campaign as first-choice in their respective positions with the transfer window still open.

Summer arrival George Friend had to wait until the fifth league game of the season against Wycombe Wanderers to make his debut due to injury, forcing Gordon out of the side while the same effectively happened on the opposite flank as late arrival Jack Hunt first came in for the same game.

Luca Hoole has been offered a new contract by Bristol Rovers -Credit:Phil Mingo/PPAUK
Luca Hoole has been offered a new contract by Bristol Rovers -Credit:Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Both Friend and Hunt endured their fair share of injury issues over the course of the campaign, particularly the former who retired in February to become the club's Director of Football after just 12 appearances. At left-back though, Harvey Vale's emergence kept Gordon out of the side for a bit longer while Hoole seemed to slot back in whenever Hunt was absent.

Assuming he signs the contract, you would assume that the pecking order will see the Welshman remain behind Hunt but if the 33-year-old can't shake off the niggles that have held him back in the second half of this campaign then opportunities will certainly open up for the young right-back.

As for Gordon, the left-back's departure, alongside Vale's return, means that Rovers currently have zero left-sided full-backs which makes it the stand out position that must be addressed urgently.

Fans frustrated as youngster isn't given a chance

Probably the biggest surprise that came from the retained list was the fact that Harvey Greenslade wasn't given the opportunity to stay on at the club he joined as a seven-year-old. A boyhood Gashead, the striker earned one first-team appearance in the EFL Trophy last term and has spent this campaign on loan at Truro City in the National League South and then at Oxford City in the National League.

Scoring three goals in the fifth tier for a side that ended up being comfortably relegated, the 20-year-old certainly caught some eyes and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a National League outfit come in for the young forward but after the success the club have had with Jed Ward as an academy graduate this term, it would have been sentimental at least to see Greenslade given another year.

Bristol Rovers academy graduate Harvey Greenslade has been released by the club -Credit:Will Cooper/JMP
Bristol Rovers academy graduate Harvey Greenslade has been released by the club -Credit:Will Cooper/JMP

However, that year would likely have been used to send him out on loan again so, albeit ruthless, you can see why the decision has been made. Taylor has been able to get a first-hand look at the striker in training while he's been playing for Oxford City but, in terms of game time, a training game against Newport County is the only in-person assessment the Gas manager was able to get of the departed forward.

It's a shame, especially for a lifelong Rovers fan who has received touching tributes from family members and fans on social media, but football moves on and you would expect that the 20-year-old won't be short of offers a level or two outside of the Football League.

Additionally, although he came through the ranks at Weston-super-Mare before being signed by the Gas as a teenager, Ryan Jones also hasn't been given an extended opportunity to show the manager what he can do having endured a tough season. The 21-year-old went out on loan to National League side Bromley, initially on a deal until January. However, despite picking up an injury early on into his time at the fifth-tier side, Jones saw his loan extended until the end of the season before the now-National League play-off finalists then made the call that he was surplus to requirements. Since, he's been back training at The Quarters but will now have to look for a new club.

Meanwhile, a youngster who has been given an opportunity to continue at the club is Jerry Lawrence who saw the one-year extension option in his contract activated. The midfielder has earned a couple of appearances on the bench but didn't get on the pitch for the first-team this campaign having played three times under Joey Barton. You would certainly assume that the 19-year-old will get decent opportunities to impress during pre-season.

New captain to be appointed

One of the most common points Taylor has made over the course of his brief tenure at Rovers is the lack of experience most of the sides he's had to put out have possessed. There are senior heads in the squad but most, if not all, would have liked to have been available more often than they ended up being with the entire roster plagued by injuries all season.

However, one who was frequently available was club captain Sam Finley but the midfielder was one of the seven players released with it becoming clear lately that the 31-year-old wasn't in Taylor's plans.

Although the Gas boss insisted in press that Finley had picked up a reaggravation of a hip issue, the skipper was kept out of the final six matchday squads. Not to suggest that Taylor was lying but it certainly feels as though there was more to the decision than just an injury. The same can be said for John Marquis who missed the final five with "hamstring tightness."

The leading candidate to take the armband on a permanent basis will no doubt will be Antony Evans who wore it in Finley's absence. Admittedly, the 25-year-old isn't a senior head in the squad but he leads by example having been Rovers' best individual over the course of the campaign.

As much as supporters won't want to think about it though, can we realistically expect the midfielder to still be a Gas player by the end of the summer transfer window? You would suggest not, or at least, it's very much up for debate.

Antony Evans has captained Bristol Rovers in Sam Finley's absence -Credit:Mat Mingo/PPAUK
Antony Evans has captained Bristol Rovers in Sam Finley's absence -Credit:Mat Mingo/PPAUK

Evans will be entering the final year of his contract and there are currently no signs that he will be putting pen to paper on an extension in the near future. Additionally, the playmaker has established himself as one of the best in his position within the division and it would be a major surprise if there's not at least some external interest in the attacking midfielder from clubs higher up the pyramid.

Taylor expects his star player to be at the club next season but if the most popular candidate to take the armband from Finley isn't going to sign a new contract, then a difficult decision will have to be made. Right now, it's not crystal clear who will be listed as Rovers captain for the opening game of the new campaign.

If the worst case happens and Evans isn't at the club come the opening day on August 10, looking at the current squad James Wilson has worn the armband before but few other candidates stand out, meaning that it isn't farfetched to suggest that a signing made over the summer could be appointed as captain.

Will three contract offers lead to three players staying?

Right now, the question remains rhetorical with answers only guessed at this stage but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that at least two of the three players out of contract offered new deals will extend their stays. Hoole, Scott Sinclair and Jordan Rossiter have been offered new deals and, as mentioned above, you would expect Hoole to sign while Sinclair has previously said on record that he would like to stay at the club should the door remain open for him. However, there's a bit more uncertainty when you inspect Rossiter's situation.

As has been evident from the players released from the club, there is still a significant influence from the previous regime, one that many of this season's squad were particularly loyal to and you would have to include Rossiter in that mix.

One of the four players in, what Finley called on social media, "the Scouse mafia" which also included Evans and James Connolly, the midfielder will be seeing at least one of his closest friends in the squad leave and it isn't impossible that at least one more could depart too.

It's never nice to assess a footballer's situation with the suggestion of "if he stays fit" but after 16 months out and a previous history of injuries, that is unfortunately the case with the 27-year-old. Admittedly, the reason for the midfielder's lengthy spell on the side lines was due to an infection as a result of surgery which had a one in 10,000 chance of occurring.

Jordan Rossiter was excellent for Bristol Rovers after making his return from injury at the end of the season -Credit:Tom Sandberg/PPAUK
Jordan Rossiter was excellent for Bristol Rovers after making his return from injury at the end of the season -Credit:Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

After working his way back to playing and impressing in all four of his starts at the end of the season, seeing Rossiter put pend to paper will have the feeling of a new signing but it's about whether or not he wants to stay on at the club.

Naturally, as someone from Liverpool who played all of his football up north as well as above the England-Scotland border at Rangers before coming to the South West when joining the Gas, it would be totally understandable if the 27-year-old wanted to return closer to home, especially after the torrid year he's been through.

But if Taylor can convince him to put pen to paper on a new deal then already there's a player who has proven he's good enough to be a regular starter and getting a frequent run of games out of the midfielder would be a major boost. It's just a matter of how likely that actually is while also happening at this football club.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing

Looking back now having seen the retained list, Taylor had already begun indicating who were and weren't in his plans by his team selections over the course of the final handful of matches. The Rovers manager admitted after the Cheltenham victory, which put an end to his side's woeful run without a goal, that he hadn't been picking the team he wanted but instead what he thought other people wanted.

"I probably tried to do that [give chances out] in the last few weeks and it’s backfired," the 42-year-old said that day. "The stick I was getting on Tuesday, I was trying to do the right thing for the club and for everyone else who’s indicated they want to see this and that so I thought, ‘okay if I’m going to get some stick I may as well put what I think is the best team out there.’

"So it’s not going to be like that for the last few games and if we do have to make substitutions as the games go on, so be it. I’m going to put what I feel is the best group of players on that pitch from the start."

Within the final four matchday squads of the season, which began with the win at Whaddon Road, none of the eventually released players got on the pitch with Gordon the only player who was included on the bench for any of those games. Obviously, Ryan Jones and Greenslade were ineligible because of their loans while James Gibbons was away at Cambridge United but that's when we started getting an inkling that Finley, Marquis and Josh Grant were on their way out.

Admittedly, Taylor explained that all three had their own respective injury issues which was what was keeping them side lined. However, now that we know that they haven't won over the Gas boss there is no doubt speculation that that could have all been a front while Rovers got themselves over the line through the final handful of games.