Partington’s move to the middle of the park has helped shore things up

Joe Partington has made an impact in the Bristol Rovers side since switching to a holding midfield role

Joe Partington may have found his niche in Bristol Rovers’ team almost a year after signing from Eastleigh.

And if that is the case the versatile 27-year-old will have seen his career come full circle in terms of position since it began with Bournemouth in 2006.

At that time Partington was considered a highly promising central midfielder. He became the youngest player to score a goal for the Cherries when netting against Swansea City in April 2008.

By that time Joe had already captained Wales under-17s as a midfield player and went on to represent the country he qualified for through his mother at under-19 and under-21 levels in the same role.

It was Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe who decided to switch him to defence after awarding him a new two-year contract in June 2013.

With that in mind, Partington went on a month’s loan to Aldershot Town in the Conference at the start of 2014 when he might have joined two League clubs who wanted to play him in midfield.

It proved a fateful decision as in a match against Dartford he suffered a serious knee injury, which required surgery and kept him out of the game for ten months. After recovering he moved to Eastleigh on loan and joined them permanently when released by Bournemouth in the summer of 2015.

After making a clean sweep of the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ awards in his first full season with them, Partington was made Eastleigh captain for the 2016-17 season. When he left to join Rovers in January last year, the fee was undisclosed but described by the sellers as their club record.

Now an established defender, Joe made his first start for the Pirates at full-back in a goal-less draw at Rochdale on February 4. He was immediately relegated to the bench again and made only three more full appearances last season.

Partington found himself among the substitutes again at the beginning of the current campaign. After three games he broke into the side, but it proved another false dawn and his longest sequence of first-team starts currently stands at seven, in late September and October.

Last weekend I rated him a strong contender for ‘Man of the Match’ in the 3-0 home victory over Southend United, which saw Rovers turn in arguably their best performance at the Memorial Stadium this season.

For Partington, it was a third successive appearance in midfield. The other two brought a much-improved team performance in defeat at Blackburn Rovers and a first win in seven matches at home to Rotherham United.

Darrell Clarke had to find a way of shoring things up after seeing his side concede 23 goals in the ten games after the 6-0 romp at Northampton Town.

Moving Partington to his original position appears to have done the trick. While Rovers let in two more against a strong Blackburn side, the last two home fixtures have seen them breached only once.

Clarke’s selections can often baffle, but he surely saw enough against Southend to make him persevere with the personnel involved.

Partington filled the role Ollie Clarke has often done with distinction, protecting the back-four and looks well-suited to the role of sitting midfielder.

But he wasn’t the only success on an afternoon, which saw Rovers finally throw off the shackles of their dismal run since the Northampton stroll and play with resurgent confidence.

Billy Bodin scored for the first time since his long and costly injury lay-off, while Ellis Harrison produced the sort of rampaging performance that can make him a scourge of lower division defences.

Just as importantly, at the other end Tom Lockyer and Ryan Sweeney looked the solid central defensive force of last season. Neither has been at his best this term, but you wouldn’t have known it from their dominant display.

Liam Sercombe netted his seventh goal of the season, the sort of return I expected when the former Exeter City midfielder signed from Oxford United in the summer.

And all over the pitch Rovers had players rediscovering the form that had created so much pre-season optimism.

Clarke has since been stressing how the poor run was a reality check and praising Rovers fans for revising their expectations.

While there is some justification for this, I felt the Southend game highlighted how many players have been under-performing.

It wasn’t unrealistic to expect Rovers to build on last season and press for the play-offs. They have simply not kicked-on as I, for one, anticipated.

But it may not be too late if last weekend’s performance proves an accurate guideline in a league packed with inconsistent sides.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.