Tough start but Rocks see signs of progress
Jamie Howell can already see an improvement in his new-look Rocks team at the start of what could be a tough campaign.
They opened their new Ryman premier season with a disappointing 3-1 loss at home to Lowestoft, but looked much livelier in a 1-1 draw at Merstham on Tuesday night.
With a number of key players having left at the end of last season, the Rocks and their fans know it will be hard to replicate their success of 2015-16, when they finished second in the league and shone in the FA Trophy and FA Cup.
But Howell can see plenty of positives as he and coach Darin Killpartrick mould a new – and at present relatively young - squad.
Ollie Pearce has been propelled into the role of main man up front following the departures of Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford, while young propsects like Jimmy Wild, Dylan Barnett and Ed Sanders are all getting their chance.
Howell says it’s a steep learning curve but believes they will have a strong squad once injured key men like Sami El Abd, Harvey Whyte and Alex Parsons are fit again.
The club are waiting for international clearance from Greece for winger Walter Figueira, who impressed in a pre-season win at Pagham. And Howell says they are looking for one or two more additions.
The manager was disappointed by the opening-day defeat in front of their own fans, a game that kicked off 86 minutes late because Lowestoft’s journey south was hit by two coach breakdowns.
Howell said: “It was a long delay and wasn’t ideal for either side. Our lads turned up at 1.30pm for a 3pm game and ended up hanging around not knowing whether to warm up, rest or what to do.
“Lowestoft were better than us on the day and a couple of their goals were too easy for them, and by the end everyone just wanted it to be over and to go home.
“Before they scored their first I felt we’d played well and created good chances, but you have to take one when you’re on top.”
The performance and result at Merstham felt like a big step forward and with a bit of luck late in the game, Bognor could have been heading home with three points, not just one.
Howell added: “Merstham were impressive – they have bought well in the summer – but we gave them a good game and probably had the better chances to win it late on.
“Ollie Pearce was excellent. He finished well for the goal and could have had more. We’ve asked him to step up to be the main man up front and so far he’s done it.
“Dylan Barnett has had an excellent start to the season as well, having played in two different positions. He’s versatile and we’re delighted with him.
“We have a lot of young players in the squad and you can’t expect them all to do the business straight away. Ideally we’ll get two or three of our more experienced players back in soon and have the right balance.”
Centre-half El Abd pulled a hamstring two minutes before the end of the final pre-season training session but could be in the squad at Grays on Saturday or at home to Staines next Tuesday.
The extent of defender Whyte’s knee injury, which may keep him out for about six weeks, should become clearer this week, while winger Parsons is a week or two from fitness after an ankle knock.
Another wideman Jason Davis – who like Barnett has joined on loan from Brighton’s under-23s – suffered a dead leg with his first kick after coming on as a sub against Lowestoft.
Striker Jimmy Muitt is still in the latter stages of recovery from a long-term knee injury.
Youngsters Fintan Walsh and Will Robinson, who play at right-back and in midfield, have been on the bench in the early matches and are also likely to see action.
Howell said: “I know it’s quite a frutrating time for fans – it’s not been a flying start. But we can see gradual progress and there’s more to come.
“We didn’t give a good showing on Saturday but I think we did on Tuesday and that’s the standard to try to maintain.”
Get the first reports from the Grays and Staines game at www.bognor.co.uk/sport
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