By Nathan Bees
The new contracts that both Michael Smith and Matt Harrold have signed this week have injected fresh optimism ahead of the summer break.
The ever-improving right back and last season’s top goalscorer have both committed themselves to the club and will hopefully be the first of many over the coming weeks.
I’m happy for both players as they’ve always displayed 100% effort whenever they have been selected and it’s good that we will continue to have these types of characters at the club.
It’s clearly an important trait for John Ward who says ‘attitude’ and ‘effort’ rank as highly as ‘ability’ in his opinion. He wants his players to deliver all three and in that order.
I’m particularly pleased we have re-signed Michael Smith, who has been our most improved player in the last 12 months. Usually those sorts of plaudits are handed to a player who is noticeably better than he was before but still isn’t up to the standard of his team-mates.
That’s not the case with ‘Smudge’ though. He has, for my money at least, been our player of the season. Through the disastrous run we embarked on before Christmas he stood out as a shining light and he has flourished under the guidance of John Ward since then to establish himself as one of the best full-backs in League Two.
When you consider that he kept 2012 POTY Danny Woodards out of his favoured position after he had recovered from injury you begin to realise just how much progress he has made. I imagine Michael to be one of the first names on John’s team-sheet every week.
He has contributed to our outstanding defensive record in 2013 and cited our improvement at the back as one of the main factors in his decision to stay.
The modest Northern Irishman also explained that he is having the ‘time of his life’ at the club and that his intention has always been to stay. It’s refreshing to hear a player give a glowing assessment of his experiences at a football club, without sensing that it’s being said purely to appease those who pay his wages.
Michael, I believe, is genuine in his sentiments and I’m thrilled that he is proud to be representing Bristol Rovers. I’ve feared for a few months now that his consistent performances will have attracted admiring glances from clubs in the third tier and that, if a contract offer was submitted, he’d be tempted to move on.
Therefore it’s reassuring to see the club have been proactive in retaining his services by completing a new deal before the end of this season, preventing other clubs from stealing him from us.
If he continues to improve as he has done then we have ourselves a defender who could easily stake a claim for an international call-up in the next couple of years. You can quote me on that.
Michael’s, and indeed Matt’s, decision to remain at Rovers could serve to encourage their team-mates to follow suit. It’s a statement of intent that two valued members of the squad have signed on and hopefully others will now join them.
Having said that, departures are inevitable given the large number of people who are almost out of contract. The important thing is to establish who John wants to keep and ensure we retain their services.
The impression I have received watching Rovers recently is that there is a togetherness within the squad, something that isn’t evident at every club, and this will stand us in good stead.
It’s not an environment or situation that can just be created - it takes intricate man-management and a collective desire to succeed. John and his backroom team have instigated this new-found harmony and it is now clear that everyone is proud to be wearing the quarters. Unity counts for a lot in football and I hope that this is proven with further new contracts being signed very soon.
Whilst there may be a tinge of sadness associated with players being released it does allow the club to recruit new faces. Despite proving that we have the nucleus of a good team already, there will be areas that John believes we need to strengthen.
We have had few quality options in midfield all season and the situation worsened when loan hero John Joe O’Toole returned to Colchester a few weeks ago. His all-action displays made him a firm fan’s favourite and there would be many delighted Gasheads if he were to sign permanently.
There will be other players that the manager will want to sign in order to make us an even tougher proposition next season and it will be intriguing to see who he identifies.
We face two more games before the summer break, beginning with our final home game against Accrington Stanley. It promises to be a great day as we all celebrate the turnaround we have experienced in 2013.
The weather has improved significantly this week and with the sun shining on the Mem this weekend it would be great if there is a large crowd there to enjoy it. Remember, it’s ‘quid a kid’ so let’s get as many people through the turnstiles as possible!
Our league and cup winning U18s side will be parading around the pitch at half-time too so let’s ensure they are well aware of how proud we all are of their achievements.
Up the Gas!