FORMER Exeter City team-mates Liam Sercombe and Tom Nichols could hardly have experienced more contrasting fortunes in their first season as Bristol Rovers players.
And that comes as a huge surprise to me because I thought both would prove excellent signings by Darrell Clarke when the manager recruited them last summer.
While Sercombe already has a double figure goal tally to his name, having fitted seamlessly into Rovers’ midfield, Nichols has struggled to show even glimpses of the exciting form I often saw him produce for Exeter.
The striker’s only two goals came in successive games during October, in League One against MK Dons and the Checkatrade Trophy against West Ham under-21s.
While Sercombe had started 36 of Rovers’ 38 League and cup games this season, Nichols has found himself on the substitutes’ bench for half of the 37 matches in which he has featured.
When Clarke has selected him in the starting line-up, Tom has been hooked off before the end a dozen times. Yet when he netted in the pre-season game against West Bromwich Albion, I confidently predicted he could fill Matty Taylor’s boots.
It may still happen. Nichols would not be the first striker to make a poor start with Rovers and go on to prove his critics totally wrong.
A certain Jason Roberts, signed from Wolves for £250,000 in the summer of 1998, scored only once in 12 starts and five substitute appearances at the outset of his time with Rovers before an FA Cup hat-trick against non-League Welling United signalled a dramatic upturn in form.
I am not suggesting that Nichols is in the same class as Roberts, who went on to notch 48 goals in 88 starts for the Pirates before enjoying further success with West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers.
But a comparison can be made over the difficulty both players experienced in launching their Bristol Rovers career. Roberts began his time with the club playing alongside and then competing for a place with Barry Hayles and Jamie Cureton. It was only when Hayles was sold to Fulham and manager Ian Holloway began to pair Roberts and Cureton up front on a regular basis that Jason began showing his true worth.
Nichols has had a similar problem fitting in alongside Ellis Harrison and Rory Gaffney and contesting a place with them. His longest run of consecutive starts is three matches, which he has managed three times.
The first two of those sequences saw him up front with Harrison in each game, while the last featured two appearances alongside Gaffney and one, in the Checkatrade Trophy, with Dominic Telford in harness.
In other words, Nichols, like Roberts at the beginning of his Rovers career, has not had much chance to work on and develop an effective strike partnership.
While it could be argued that Tom’s form has not been good enough to earn a more regular place, his time may still come. And if he does start scoring the goals to justify a longer run in the side we may see a very different player.
No such problems for Sercombe, who at the age of 27 celebrated his 400th first-team appearance in the recent 2-1 home defeat by Shrewsbury Town.
As wrong as I have so far been proved about Nichols, I did write last June that Liam looked “guaranteed to add goals and assists to Bristol Rovers’ team”.
I had seen him powering forward from midfield during his Exeter days and wasn’t surprised when he scored 17 goals in a season after moving to Oxford in May 2015.
It may not be beyond Sercombe to repeat that figure in his first campaign in a Rovers shirt and he already looks certain to be a strong candidate for the ‘Player of the Season’ award.
More than a decade has passed since Liam made his debut for Exeter, then a Conference club, as a spindly teenage substitute against Altrincham.
He still recalls the occasion fondly. “I was like a little kid on the side-lines, only 17,” he told Rovers’ official website. “Andy Taylor got injured after eight minutes. I was really nervous to come on. I’m proud of what I achieved at Exeter because it’s where I grew up and I still keep an eye on their results.”
Nichols can say the same, having also graduated through the youth ranks at Exeter where Rovers assistant- manager Marcus Stewart was one of his coaches.
Working with Stewart again was another reason why I expected Tom to rediscover his best form at Rovers after an in-and-out spell at Peterborough United.
Don’t write him off yet. There is a very good player waiting to reemerge and, as with Roberts 20 years ago, it may take just one good game to restore confidence and set Nichols’ career back on the right path.