Peroxide blond, Luke Thomas stands out. Fitting for the outstanding player of Bristol Rovers’ turbulent pre-season campaign. Thomas has played just twice since his loan move from Barnsley last month, managing 70-odd minutes on both occasions. But the 22-year-old has shown enough in his brief moments as a Rovers player to make a reasonable assumption that he is the star of Joey Barton’s much-changed side. Brett Pitman, rightly, got the plaudits for a brace against Oxford United which showcased everything Brett Pitman is about: poacher’s finishes and moments of brilliance in a 3-2 win. But when the game was tough, Oxford were dominant and Rovers were on the ropes, it was Thomas throwing the counter-punches, landing a crucial blow to ignite Rovers’ turgid pre-season by winning – and converting in audacious fashion – a penalty to level the scores on the verge of half time. In little more than 100 minutes as a Rovers player, the nimble Thomas is already a Gasheads’ favourite, lapping up the merited applause from the North Terrace after he was substituted. If all goes to plan, Thomas will likely wear the blue and white quarters for just a season, but it promises to be fun while it lasts.
Thomas the crowd-pleaser Thomas’ impression at the Mem has been so instant that his touches of the ball are met with expectation. This is a crowd desperate to be pleased, desperate to enjoy something after a season laden with so much failure and painful period in all our lives. The former Derby County and Coventry City winger is keen to do just that, playing with an arrogance and intent which is sure to entertain. His direct running to win the penalty was eye-catching, and the Panenka finish displayed a striking confidence for a player who has suffered a slump on and off the pitch. 2021 had the makings of a write-off year in a promising career following a miserable loan spell at Ipswich Town, but the outlook is much brighter now. With time to focus on himself after struggles with his mental health in the spring, Thomas has arrived at the Mem with renewed impetus to succeed and just enjoy playing football again. We’ve certainly enjoyed watching him so far.
Brett Pitman of Bristol Rovers scores from long range.
(Image: Andy Watts/JMP)
Pitman’s presence Pitman’s second and third touches as a Rovers player after his arrival from Swindon Town on Friday indicated why Barton prioritised this signing for many months. First, he dropped into a pocket of space to receive the ball from the midfield, drawing the Oxford defence forward, before quickly popping it back and turning for the penalty area. Thomas’ angled delivery was superb, as was Pitman’s looping 16-yard header. Jack Stevens’ fingertips and the meat of the crossbar prevented a sensational start not long after coming on in the 61st minute. But it was merely a brief delay, with the 33-year-old equalising with a predatory header under the crossbar amid chaos in the Oxford defence 12 minutes from time. And the winner was a moment of brilliant imagination. “It was a lot easier than it looked,” he modestly said to reporters before their recording devices were enabled, but that speaks to his scoring instinct. Coaches and members of staff around the pitch in the aftermath of the game spoke of a player steps ahead of others around him, and this was definitely an example where the cliche of a player seeing the picture in their head before it happens holding true. Ryan Jones, who has staked a strong claim for first-team involvement when the season starts, fought manfully to win the ball off two Oxford defenders and Pitman instantly decided the first-time shot from 40-plus yards was the correct option.
Brett Pitman of Bristol Rovers heads the equaliser.
(Image: Andy Watts/JMP)
He was proved right with Stevens totally bamboozled by a loopy, curling effort, which drew a might roar from the Mem as it felt alive for the first time in almost 17 months. Pitman is certainly going to score more goals in the mould of his first than the second, but this is the kind of player Rovers’ have longed for since Jonson Clarke-Harris headed for Peterborough: a natural scorer. Swindon fans’ pleasure at Pitman’s departure was understandable in context. In a struggling team without legs and creativity around him, the weaknesses in his game are exposed and he could easily look lacking in effort. But in a team tailored to his strengths, asking him to be clever with his movement and earn his living between the posts, feasting off the chances laid on to him, it should be an enjoyable season a striker closing in on 200 senior goals. League Two defences beware Barton and his coaches will be delighted by the starts of Thomas and Pitman, and thoughts naturally gravitate to a future where Sam Nicholson is available too, and it must make for a concerning proposition for rival players and coaches. Nicholson is everything Thomas has shown to be in pre-season – pacy, direct and creative – and his return to action in a few weeks will give the Gas a three-pronged attack which, on paper, is among the best in League Two. With Thomas from the right, Nicholson from the left and the poacher Pitman in the middle, Rovers have most bases covered, with the likes of Aaron Collins, Brandon Hanlan, Sion Spence, Zain Walker and Harvey Saunders – who has been impressive with his sheer will – also in the mix. 2020/21 was perhaps the most lamentable season in the club’s recent history from an attacking perspective, but the Gas have the anatomy of a different beast nowadays. Defensive concerns Rovers may have finished pre-season in rousing fashion, but Clint Hill – facing the press for the second time this week – wasn’t kidding himself. As a former Premier League defender, he will strive for the highest standards at Rovers and he knew, at times, Rovers were well off it in the defensive third. The first goal was a nightmarish flashback to last season with Anssi Jaakkola pinned to his line by an effective block and Steve Seddon rose highest to head home the set piece, and the second saw Alfie Kilgour punished for attempting a risky pass on the edge of his own area after coming into the game cold. Pitman’s heroics may divert attention to Rovers’ need for a goalscorer finally being addressed, but it would not take a forensic examination of this game to conclude Oxford – a very good and settled League One side in fairness – could and should have been out of sight in the first half. Seddon almost tapped home a second, only for a last-ditch intervention from Harry Anderson, while Josh Grant was forced into a crucial block when Sam Winnall had a vacant goal to aim at. Those were just a couple of examples, but there were many more, with Rovers often tying themselves in knots on the edge of their own box by overplaying. Without Pitman or another physical striker on the pitch in that first half, Rovers had very little to aim at as an out ball, so they attempted to play through the thirds, right into Oxford’s hands and Karl Robinson’s side were profligate. On another day, they could have been 3-0 up in very little time at all. Rovers did weather the storm, and it must be noted that their defensive ranks in particular have been hit hardest by injury and COVID problems this summer, but they cannot afford to be so loose when three points are on the line. They have the instinctive and individual attackers to make things work up front without much time to gel, but the defence needs work and must be the immediate priority at The Quarters.
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Matty Taylor unites Gasheads Division has widened among Rovers fans after events in recent weeks and months, but the return of Matty Taylor to the Mem brought Gasheads back together for the afternoon. The former Rovers and Bristol City forward was on the end of a verbal volley from the terraces from the moment he was brought on, most of which was humorous – a few shouts less so – and it’s clear forgiveness has not been granted five years on from his infamous move across the city.