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31 July 2013

Nathan Bees takes a look at the season ahead.

The countdown to the new season is well and truly underway as the 2013-2014 Football League season kicks-off this weekend with supporters up and down the country eagerly awaiting 3PM on Saturday afternoon.

Everyone harbours hopes of a good year at Rovers and with a squad full of young homegrown players aiming to make their mark at first team level, we’re sure to be in for an exciting 9 months.

The message from manager John Ward right at the very beginning of the summer break was that wholesale changes were not required and that ‘stability’ was pivotal right throughout the club. After a few pre-seasons of upheaval, it was hard to argue, despite every football fan’s wish to see several superstar signings.

Big changes just were not needed. We had the foundations of a strong squad with our young players complimenting the experienced spine of senior pros we had in the first team.

The aim was to keep the majority of the squad together and only add a couple of new signings to strengthen us, with our loan heroes from the new year being our top targets.

Factor in that a few first team players were due to return from long-term injury to bolster the ranks even further over the summer, Ward was confident he would have a strong enough squad heading into the new season.

Once contracts were sorted with the likes of Michael Smith, Mark McChrystal and Matt Harrold the club immediately turned their attentions to bringing goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall back to the club at the expiry of his contract with Millwall.

Chairman Nick Higgs also began negotiations over the ambitious permanent signing of midfielder John-Joe O’Toole from Colchester United, who impressed many clubs with his performances in the blue and white quarters.

Ward stressed that in regards to O’Toole the club would have to be patient if they had any chance of landing their man so his priority was ensuring he got the experienced Mildenhall on board.

After a few weeks of talks the shot-stopper penned a permanent deal to complete what looked on paper to be a very strong defensive unit. The players had proven in the second half of last season that they could keep clean sheets so confidence was high that the same personnel could replicate that again this season.

Focus then switched to pre-season training and the beginning of the friendly matches before Gasheads got the news they had been praying for last week when O’Toole was announced as a Rovers player on a 3 year deal.

After the player himself revealed he wanted to be playing at a higher level at the end of his loan spell, many feared that the popular central midfielder would not make a return to the Mem given the interest he had from elsewhere.

However, Ward’s perseverance paid dividends and a transfer was completed last Wednesday to the delight of everyone connected with the club. It is quite a coup and serves as a real statement of intent ahead of the new campaign.

Now with our two summer targets on board, marking a successful recruitment drive for the club, hopes are high amongst the players, management and supporters that we can enjoy a good year.

If our topping of the form-guide in the new year is anything to go by, when we were comfortably beating the best sides in the division, there should be a real confidence that we can do the same again for the entirety 2013-2014.  

 Sky Bet League Two will be as competitive as ever though and with the introduction of former-Premier League club Portsmouth to proceedings, a lot of press coverage will centre on teams in the fourth tier.

The Fratton Park outfit are billed as the bookmakers’ favourites for the title and have recruited well over the summer months to justify that tag after being taken over by Pompey supporters at the end of last season.

They are restricted in how many players they can sign due to the financial problems they have had under previous owners but the quality of their new additions has certainly caught the eye.

An impressive 10,000 supporters have snapped up season tickets as the club strive to bounce back at the first time of asking and it’s difficult to look beyond them being around the promotion mix come May.

The clubs in and around the play-offs last season will look to feature at the top once again, with Chesterfield and Fleetwood Town having strengthened considerably over the summer.

Bury and Scunthorpe United, who were relegated alongside Portsmouth, will have their eyes set on bouncing back at the first attempt and Plymouth Argyle look like another club eyeing the top end of the table after a few years of struggle at the bottom.

John Sheridan has instigated a recruitment drive where it has been a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’ as the Pilgrims look to be a lot more competitive this time around.

There is always a surprise package in every division and predicting the identity of League Two’s dark horses is not an easy task. Generally speaking the bigger clubs have signed some good players while the smaller clubs have tried to improve their squads with limited resources.

New boys Mansfield Town and Newport County fall in to that bracket. Promoted from non-league, both clubs will be delighted to be back in the Football League but won’t be content to just make up the numbers. 

With the stadium and previous FL experience that Mansfield have, they look the more likely to adapt quickest to League Two and therefore compete in the higher echelons of the division. They may be a good outside bet.

There are a clutch of clubs who will be fighting to retain their status come the business end of the season, as they do annually, and as we discovered in late 2012, no club is too big to become embroiled in a relegation battle.

Having been dealt that reminder last year, everyone associated with Bristol Rovers will be working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen again. We'll be keeping our eyes firmly fixed on a successful finishing position.

 We’re going to face a tough 9 months as John Ward’s squad look to combat the physical games played by some clubs and the passing games employed by others.

Opening day opponents Exeter City generally adopt a more patient passing approach but we will face a real cross-section of tactics in the first month of the season, with Scunthorpe, Newport, Northampton and York all lining up against us.

Our experienced manager, aided by the younger duo of assistant manager Darrell Clarke and development coach Marcus Stewart, has got his team playing a good brand of football that allows us to mix things up, should it be necessary, at any given time during a game.

With our exciting wingers happy to counter-attack if a more responsible approach is required, we look able to overcome and pose threats to any team we play against.

The players have always been confident that they can enjoy a successful campaign and with the return of the talismanic John-Joe O’Toole to boost spirits even further, why shouldn’t we be optimistic about the new season?

With the full support of Gasheads behind the team in every game, we always give ourselves a good chance.

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