A number of Bristol Rovers players will spend Christmas and New Year fighting for a future with the club.
That much became clear listening to manager Darrell Clarke’s condemnation of his team’s weak performance in last weekend’s 4-1 hammering by League One strugglers Gillingham at Priestfield.
The defeat followed successive home wins over Rotherham United and Southend United, which ended the worst sequence of results since Clarke took charge and led many, myself included, to speculate that the corner had been turned in a disappointing campaign.
Events at Gillingham proved otherwise. Watching the manager’s verbal reaction and facial expressions when interviewed after the game, it was obvious he had run out of patience with the inconsistency of his squad.
I have questioned Clarke’s selection policy in this column, suggesting that one reason for up and down results might be the number of unforced team changes he makes.
But at Priestfield he named the same side that played so confidently against Southend and saw them roll over tamely once Gillingham grabbed the opening goal.
Skipper Tom Lockyer said afterwards that he went into the game in a more confident frame of mind than at any previous stage this season, convinced his side would build on their efforts against Rotherham and Southend.
Perhaps successive home victories had made the players over-confident. They started well against Gillingham and had a good chance to take the lead.
But once they conceded all the frailties of the run that brought nine defeats in ten games returned. Lockyer was the first to admit that the home side had found it far too easy romping to a 4-0 advantage.
We are talking about a Gillingham side, who had won just one previous home game this season. Not surprisingly, Clarke pulled no punches with his post-match comments.
Describing his squad as “bog standard average League One players until they achieve some consistency”, he also used phrases like “I feel let down”, “We conceded very cheap goals”, “Not one of my players deserved any credit” and “If you don’t turn up, even the strugglers in League One will turn you over.”
Rovers’ wretched run before the two home victories followed immediately after the 6-0 win at Northampton. The latest setback indicated again that, no matter what results have preceded a game, it is impossible to predict how the team will play.
The players have run out of excuses and I suspect Clarke already has a busy January transfer window in mind. More telling than his views on the Gillingham game were statements like “We face a fight to stay in League One” and “We have four games to assess things before the window. There could well be a few in and a few out.”
The conclusion is inescapable. Darrell has reached the conclusion that the squad he put together for this season is not good enough to achieve the success he demands.
“I need players who want to be better than League One, I want ones with a desire to be in the Championship. I want those with a hunger for success,” he said.
“If that is not the case, they will fall by the wayside because I will change things around.”
Clarke has already admitted to having made mistakes last summer. It is notoriously more difficult to get value for money in the January window and it will be interesting to see how far Rovers directors are prepared to push the boat out midway through a season.
If their conviction is that the current squad can achieve mid-table security, they could make an argument for keeping financial powder dry until next summer.
But unless results improve markedly, that might prove dangerous. Rovers went into yesterday’s home match with Doncaster Rovers, having already lost 13 League games this season.
That is relegation form. With some fans already accusing the Board of lack of investment in the team, there is likely to be an outcry if the window passes without a quality signing or two.
Clarke is not one to let things stand still at any time in a season and will no doubt push to splash out more than the £135,000 net he claims to have spent so far as Rovers boss.
If the manager does make January signings, I anticipate several players leaving, at least on loan. Chief interest will surround the club’s most valuable asset Billy Bodin.
At the same stage a year ago Clarke lost Matt Taylor for a ridiculous fee due to a clause in his contract and the leading marksman has so far proved impossible to replace.
The top-scorer tag now applies to Bodin, who has long delayed signing a new agreement. If he goes too, as may well happen, it is hard to see how Rovers can hope to build on the progress of the last three seasons.