Season Review | Matt Taylor


Following the conclusion of the 2023/24 season, manager Matt Taylor sits down to talk about his first six months in charge, what he is looking for from his side, and plans for the summer and pre-season ahead of the 2024/25 camapign...

Matt, how do you reflect on your first six months in charge of Bristol Rovers?

"It’s certainly been an interesting six months. I think there is a lot more to come in terms of results and points from games, and the quality of our performances within that.

"I think a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes since even before my time here in terms of a bit of a restructure, in terms of the way the Club functions on a daily basis both at the stadium and at the training ground as well. We’re looking forward to that coming to the fore at the start of next season, and certainly in terms of pre-season, that’s going to be an important six-week block for ourselves.

"It’s important to say that I’ve never experienced a full eight weeks off and I don’t think many of our playing personnel have either. So they’ve got to use that time wisely and rest, recuperate, spend time with loved ones and go away with families and then we will start to work towards what’s going to be a positive pre-season and a good schedule to look forward to."


What’s it like as a first-team manager, doing your job day-to-day, with those restructures going on in the background?

"It’s part-and-parcel of any progression at a football club. I think it’s needed, both here [at the training ground] and at the Memorial Stadium. We’ve got a fantastic stadium and there are so many traditions within, and we are looking to improve it, improve the capacity and improve the matchday experience for our home games.

"Then, in terms of the training ground, I think we all know there are bigger plans further down the line. It’s about making this place function to the best of its ability in the meantime before those plans come to the fore, and you get all the planning and building permissions you need for the future. It’s a lot to look forward to.

"The pitch work began straight away. Our ground staff were on that and that should all be ready for the start of pre-season. And then, in terms of the way the structure in terms of the inner building works, that’s down to the staff in each provision. Here at The Quarters, we’re separate in terms of the gym and physio room and I’m trying to connect those two buildings a little bit more, which will be to the staff’s benefit as much as the player’s. That’s easier said than done, when that building is where it is, but that’s where we are."




You mentioned following the last game of the season about this being Rovers’ second year back in League One, and the difficulties that can come with that…

"That comment was meant to reinforce for people how difficult this level is. When you get promoted you have the natural bounce that comes with it, and the extra natural feel-good factor which can take you all the way through to the following season. But that’s why so many promoted clubs really struggle in that second season.

"I think it’s fair to say that the expectation going into that second season at Bristol Rovers was totally different to most other clubs, in terms of the hope around a higher league position and a better record really. We probably threatened to do that at different stages of the season but it never really materialised, and then in the second half of the season it has probably gone the opposite way in terms of what you’d hope and expect as a manager; certainly in terms of the performances and the points at the end.

"There have been so many mitigating factors we could talk about in relation to that but the truth of the matter is the team didn’t function in the way I needed it to or wanted it to. As a manager, that’s my responsibility. We have to understand now that pre-season is going to be an important part of the way we start next season as well."


Is there a particular match that stands out for you, from your time here so far, that epitomises what you want from your Bristol Rovers team?

"In some of the early fixtures, the players really attacked it consistently and got their rewards on the back of that. I really enjoyed the Norwich City away game in the FA Cup. I thought that was a high-quality game. We were obviously playing a Championship opponent but just the feel of that day, and the support of our away fans, that sticks out.




"But that was also a big moment for myself and the team in terms of not progressing in that opportunity. We also lost Grant Ward that day and then a few weeks later, Aaron Collins left on the back of that. The dynamic of the team has changed then and that’s not all on the back of two players, but in terms of what I want and expect from a team, being able to cover the ground at pace is a really important thing for any team to do. That was a big shift and then losing the replay put a dampener on what might have been a game at Liverpool.

"Then we had the inconsistency of the two months after that with our league form, and that was there for all to see. We almost became ultra-dependent on the Chris Martin and Antony Evans combination and then, towards the end of the season, either through availability of form, when that didn't quite function in the same way then our results dropped off."


With the end of the season comes the departure of some players who are out of contract…

"I think it’s important that we pay testament to each and every one of the players leaving us, and none more so than Sam Finley. He’s been the captain for the last few years and captained the Club through promotion, and he’s been a real stalwart and a strong figure. I’ve really enjoyed working with Sam. We wish him all the best for the future and he’ll be one that will be missed inside and out.

"Another big personality in John Marquis is departing the football club. He probably hasn’t had the game time that he always wants. He’s that big No9 that probably needs to be the main focal point. Maybe he’s not been able to hold that down for a consistent period of time here, but we threatened to do it during the early period of my tenure and started scoring goals. But then Chris’ form overtook it a little bit and Chris continued his form. So John’s been a little bit unlucky in the latter stages of this season but he’s another player we wish all the best.




"Josh Grant is a player I rate, and I said that to him. And it sounds so strange to say that to a player you’re releasing but his playing availability has kind of hampered him. When I wasn’t here at the club, last season, there was a serious side to the injury he had. I think he had an operation on both knees. His availability has been so much better this season around but even when we’ve tried to get him on the pitch for longer and more consistently, his body has just broken down. It’s a real shame for him because he’s a talented, talented player, and he’ll go on to a fresh environment and a new beginning and I’m sure his body will feel totally different. He won’t have the mental scars where he’s been hampered by injuries and i’m sure he will go on to have a fantastic career in the game.

"Lewis Gordon has had a bit of game time but probably not enough consistently, within that. I think he got injured in my first game, Crawley Town away in the Bristol Street Motors Trophy, and we’ve been playing catch up ever since. Obviously, with Harvey Vale producing some strong performances in that left-back role, then it means that Lewis hasn’t had that game time he’s wanted or deserved. So we feel it’s best that he moves on to look for that elsewhere.

"James Gibbons has been out on loan at Cambridge United in the second half of the season, with Luca Hoole and Jack Hunt providing that competition for that right-back spot. So we felt that was the right thing to do and we wish him all the best.

"In a couple of the young lads, Harvey Greenslade and Ryan Jones, Harvey has done really well in his latest loan at Oxford City despite their relegation. And Ryan is a strange situation - one I inherited - where he was on loan at Bromley but they sent him back in January. But because he was still contracted there he wasn’t able to play for us or go back out on loan to a different club. So we couldn’t do anything in terms of game time. It’s a strange thing for any young player, and I’m sure he and Harvey will have an interesting time in the next six weeks in terms of pre-season and figuring out where they’re going to be. But they are both talented boys and we also wish them the best."


And, of course, we’ve had six loan players with us this season. All of them have played well for the Club at different points this campaign and now head back to their parent clubs…

"Like you say, all of them have performed well at different stages throughout the season. I think the majority of them, aside from Elkan Bagggott, being with us has been their first proper loans. Harvey Vale had a bit of time at Hull City but didn’t play, and they’ll have learned so much about themselves. That’s the inconsistency you will get with any young player, let alone ones from bigger clubs of a certain stature. So this has been their first real experience of men’s football, and they’ll have all picked up injuries and fatigue and had moments when they’ve been absolutely brilliant, and then times when the form just dips, and I always say that’s the rigours of lower-league football taking its toll.

"All of those players go back to their parent clubs in a better place. Some of them go back to a training environment, and some will go back to an international period in the off-season. One thing I will say is we look forward to hopefully working with some of those players again because they’ve been a real credit to themselves and a testament to their parent clubs as well.




"We’ll need that loan structure and loan format again next season to supplement our squad and I think we’ve built some strong relationships to move forward on. You look at some of the individual highlights, like Harvey Vale playing the most minutes of any player on loan from Chelsea, it’s a staggering feat and it’s a great stat. He also got in the top three of voting in the Rovers’ Player of the Season award, which shows what a solid season he had. You just know he will be a better version of himself next season no matter where he is playing his football.

"Brandon Aguilera and Elkan Baggott brought an international flavour and came in during the January window. Both picked up injuries that probably dampened their time here a little bit but both have shown signs of what good players they will be.

"Matt Cox has been here since day one. He was a consistent starter in the first half of the season and then had to fight for his place in the team with Jed Ward. We had two young goalkeepers going at it, both showing their strengths and weaknesses in their game, and one thing I will say is Jed’s progression has probably been a result of Matt pushing him. When he was called upon in the Cheltenham Town game, he performed fantastically.

"Both Harry Vaughan and Tristan Crama can be proud of their contributions to Bristol Rovers too."


Attention now turns to the 2024/25 season. What does a pre-season look like for a Matt Taylor team?

"It might sound strange to say but I won’t dictate too much of the pre-season schedule. There are better equipped people to do that in Tom Short [Head of Sports Science] and the medical team as well.

"But in terms of the day work, we’ve got to be fit. We’ve got to build a resilience and a robustness in terms of the squad. What we do in pre-season will be so, so important, also in terms of finding out about our style and working towards the philosophy that I want to see the team playing. A lot of that will depend on the next eight weeks of work, in terms of recruitment and who we can get through the door. And that’s exciting because that’s a new challenge. Even our currently contracted players will be seeing slightly different aspects to training and our daily work and structure. This is a working environment and we’ve got to work to get better regardless of age, stature within the group; I want that to be the mantra. And then we need to see how the new signings fit into the group, and where they can take us.

"We’ve got some fantastic pre-season fixtures to look forward to. We’ve got the usual week away where team bonding is important alongside some games and warm weather training. And then, in the last couple of weeks before the season starts, we’ll be into the real crux of it where we can hopefully get some home fixtures and our fans can come and see what the group looks like and what they can expect throughout the course of the season.

"I’m pretty sure, with the amount of work we need to do, it will continue all the way until the end of the transfer window in August in terms of players coming in and out."




You used the word philosophy there. What would you like to see from your team in terms of philosophy next season?

"I always say to anyone that asks me that question that there are wants and needs. You live your life by that as a football manager. We all want to play a certain brand, a certain type of football, but you need the players to be able to do that. What will happen in the next eight weeks, and then the eight weeks after that, will determine what we look like as a football team.

"With that said, why can’t our philosophy be to be the hardest working football team in the league? The fittest team in the league? The team with the best attitude and intensity? A team that’s humble with respect running through it, and then the style and way of playing coming on top of that.

"One thing I’ve consistently chased since being at this Football Club is better basics both on and off the pitch. I certainly think that’s achievable next season and then we can look to influence a winning style, and hopefully a more dynamic style, than what we saw in the last couple of games."


On recruitment, we’re losing 13 players for certain this summer due to contract expirations and end of loans. Do you have an idea of an ideal squad size for the new season?

"Every manager will say they want to have the biggest squad possible. But then the finances and the budget dictates in relation to that. I think our first port of call is to get the spine of the team where it needs to be, and get the strength and the value on the pitch. No disrespect to anyone that has been here for any length of time, but we’ve had such depth in numbers but not a consistent starting group. As a manager, you always want somewhere between 12-15 players who are your go-tos; players who you can see playing bar something drastic happening like an injury or a suspension. They will be consistent performers and that’s something we want to work towards with some of the group who are here, and there will be new faces in the building too.

"In terms of the extra aspect, I think there’s a clear remit from the board to incorporate more young players. Hopefully, first and foremost, that comes from our Academy. If we can’t get them from our own pathway then we’ll look outside too and look at giving them the opportunity to grow and develop. We know that doesn’t happen overnight and we can’t be pressured into getting young players on the pitch straight away. That’ll be over a period of time, but there’s got to be a clear understanding of their pathways for when they become first-team players.

"The edge of the squad might look slightly different to what it has done this season because we’ve probably had experience all the way through. The edge of the squad probably looks a bit younger next season in terms of profile."


It sounds like a lot of work to do Matt, but it seems like an exciting challenge that you’re ready to attack and relish?

"It’s a lot of work but we’re doing it with good people and with good intent. We have to be so street-wise and sensible in terms of who we bring to this Club and with a bigger picture in mind of not just the first game of next season, but the following window, the end of the season and then the season after that. I know season 2025/26 seems so far away when we say that right now but we want to take this Club to the next level and we know that won’t happen overnight. It’ll be a consistent progress over a matter of time, but we’ve got a good foundation to start and I’m really pleased with the work we’ve done so far. Now it’s time to really build on top of it.

"We will make mistakes along the way. I know we won’t get it all right. Certainly not in terms of our fresh, new and young recruitment department. It’s fantastically headed up by George Friend and Chris Spendlove but it’s new and it’s not had a full season working towards this. They’ve only been together for three months so we know it won’t be perfect straight away. But we’re working with good people and the intent is right. Everything we’re trying to do is for the greater good of the Club, and I think that’s matched by the bigger picture plans of the stadium progression and the training ground progression.

"I’m excited to be manager of Bristol Rovers Football Club right now. I recognise that, on the back of the end of the season, some of our fans aren’t in that position in this moment in time. But I’m sure they will see some of the work that happens in the next eight weeks and then the following six weeks of pre-season, and it will start to build again. Then that anticipation and excitement will go into the start of the new season, and that season is going to be incredible to be part of. The challenge is huge. It will be a stronger league and the quality of teams will go up, and financially it will be another level to what it’s been this season.

"We know where we’ll be and that’s a fantastic challenge to be involved in, one we have to relish and hit with a forward mentality as a football Club. I want that mantra to go into the team as much as it possibly can. By the end of pre-season and the start of the season, I want a clear direction for this Club."


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For you personally, May 1 2024 is six months in the job. How have you enjoyed it so far, and enjoyed the city of Bristol and getting to know our fans?

"I’ve felt really welcomed. Me and my wife and, at the time, one child - we’ve since had another child - we’ve been very blessed. We’ve been so supported by everyone associated with Bristol Rovers, be it staff, players, fans. We’ve moved house within that time already too and we’re settling into the area, and what our lives look like moving forward. In terms of being close to the training ground, which is a fantastic place to work, and then being able to go towards the city and experience game days and seeing our fans first-hand. They are so passionate and I’ve probably seen both sides of that already.

"I remember my first home game, against Cheltenham Town, a 1-1 draw, and it was a pretty poor first half and the fans were understandably disgruntled. We’ve also had some real highs of some late winners like Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic, and the first half of the FA Cup replay against Norwich City was as loud as I’ve heard The Mem. I know our form derailed and the fan reaction is totally understandable. I know they’ve been frustrated and disappointed with the way the team has played at times, which is always a manager’s responsibility. As a manager, you take things at face value but they are always your responsibility. One thing I will say is we need as much energy as we can get from outside, moving inside to the Club, as we possibly can. I know that will come when they see the team in pre-season and then going into the start of the season.

"I know that this group will need help from myself, the staff, and the Club, but they’ll also need it from the fan base as well. Certainly going into next season, with the way the league will be, I don’t think there will be expectations of being at the very top, but we still want to achieve something special and we want to start building towards that."

Read Time: 19 mins