By Gerry Prewett.
With 4 games of the season to go, Rovers travel to the Cherry Red Records Fans Stadium to face a relegation-threatened, but an in form, AFC Wimbledon.
Despite last weekend’s dramatic win, Rovers are not quite safe themselves yet and will be for points to edge closer to the final hurdle of safety.
In their last six games the Dons have the 9th best set of results in the Division. It is their away form that is so impressive ranking second, above even Luton.
The Dons have banked 21 points from their last 11 League One matches, with only Luton, Charlton and Sunderland claiming more. Having been rock bottom when Wally Downes took over, the Dons looked doomed. Neil Ardley was very reluctantly shown the door and Downes invited back to the Club he loves so much. Much like Rovers, Wimbledon were not getting thrashed but found goals hard to come by.
Downes commented, “We’ve done a lot of hard work in the last few months and it has paid off, let’s hope it pays off this month as well. That [producing title-winning form] was the challenge set us [to beat the drop]. Everyone at the club has stepped up; from the office right through to the kitmen or people in the bars who are all volunteers. It’s been like a promotion push and we’re still on track to achieve what we want to do.”
Wimbledon have also seen their injury issues dissipate, reflected in the fact that Michael Folivi, Andy Barcham, Deji Oshilaja, Mitch Pinnock, Kwesi Appiah and Shane McLoughlin are all back in contention for first team places.
On Saturday, when Rovers were seeing off a spirited Bradford City team, the Dons ground out a 0-0 at Oxford. Dons’ keeper Aaron Ramsdale made two excellent saves, the best with his legs from Oxford substitute Jamie Mackie in the 71st minute just after the striker had come off the bench.
The visitors had a good early opportunity, with James Hanson heading over, but the U's then began to assert themselves with Mark Sykes catching the eye in midfield. Luke Garbutt was denied by a fine save from Ramsdale when he connected with Gavin Whyte's pull-back.
And after Jerome Sinclair poked a shot wide at full-stretch as Ramsdale raced out, Cameron Brannagan fired against the outside of the post. A succession of stoppages for injuries disrupted the flow early in the second half, which finished with the home side pressing hard for a winner, but unable to find it.
The Dons remain in the bottom four, but are now crucially just one point behind Rochdale and Scunthorpe above them.
Speaking after the game Downes was full of praise for the work ethic of his team and especially keeper Ramsdale, “Everyone in front of him, especially the front two, worked their socks off. The midfield boys put themselves about, the defenders defended for their lives when the ball came in. When all of that failed Aaron did his job and he did it superbly.”
“The good thing is that we’ve come away with a point and I can now highlight the errors to them. We can watch it in the classroom and continue their education. There was nothing calamitous and we got away with it.”
“If I was Oxford’s manager I would be thinking they had the better of it and they should have won. But I am really pleased that we got a point because with the effort we put in we deserved it.”
Rovers record in these ties is excellent with 8 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats in the 13 games played. The first game was actually AFC’s very first League game at the start of the 2011/12 season. The live televised match provided great entertainment. Goals by McGleish and Harrold had Rovers cruising within 20 minutes. AFC then fought back and Stuart was on the scoresheet 7 minutes before half-time. On 67 minutes Kingsmeadow erupted as Ademeno pulled AFC level. It was left for Adam Virgo to spoil the party with an 84th minute penalty to take all 3 points back down the M4 to Bristol.
Rovers should have had the game out of Wimbledon's reach by half time, but allowed their hosts to get back on level terms before they settled things with that late penalty. The team contained ten players making their Rovers league debut.
The following season an appalling first half display saw Rovers give away 3 goals in 14 minutes to lose any chance of taking anything from the game. To cap it all they finished the game with ten men after Tom Parkes picked up his second yellow card of the evening on 83 minutes.
It was no real surprise when Wimbledon took the lead on 14 minutes. A ball in from the right seemed to catch everyone by surprise and appeared to hit Gary Kenneth on the shin and roll into an unguarded net. Incessant pressure from the home side saw them rewarded with a second goal on the half hour mark. Midson was the provider, slipping the ball out to the right to Rashid Yussuff who comfortably slid the ball past Neil Etheridge from six yards.
Three minutes later goal number three arrived. Tom Parkes was penalised with a yellow card for a poor challenge out on the right, George Francomb floated the free kick into the area and Antwi was credited with the final touch, though from the stand it appeared to go in off of Kenneth
With just 18 minutes remaining Rovers recovered some semblance of dignity when David Clarkson set up Eaves for the fourth goal of his brief Rovers career. Winning possession some 25 yards from goal, he squared the ball to his strike partner who fired a superb shot into the top corner of the net.
Any hopes of a dramatic fight back were dashed seven minutes from time when Parkes made a rash challenge on Luke Moore and was booked for his efforts. It was his second booking of the evening, and he headed for the dressing room knowing he faced another suspension.
In 2016/17 season Rovers won both games, 2-0 on New Years Eve at the Mem and 1-0 at the Cherry Red Records Fans Stadium on 8th April, with a Billy Bodin goal in the first minute.
Last season roles were reversed, as was the scoring with Joe Piggott getting a last minute winner for the home team
Don’s keeper Aaron Ramsdale is confident about Wimbledon’s prospects of survival, “We’re in a great position. We’re a point off two teams and a win off two others, so we’ve got a great run-in. We’ve got Bristol Rovers at home on Good Friday. Luton is a bit of a free-hit, so hopefully we can get something there if they are already in party-mode. Then it’s Wycombe at home and one big push up at Bradford, who probably will have already been relegated by then.”
“We’ve just got to keep fighting; it’s what this club is all about. We have the fans and the players singing off the same hymn sheet and I believe we can stay up.
“When you look into the story and see documentaries and hear Glyn and the gaffer speak, you don’t want to see what might happen. We’re trying everything in our powers to make this a special season from a bad season, if that makes sense!”
Speaking about the Oxford result he said, “It was a great point on the road. When you think about it, we could have caved-in and not picked up anything. The lads showed great fight and resilience and we’ve ground out a very good point. It was a learning curve, but thankfully we got through to the end.
“It’s brilliant when the fans are singing your name. Even though there are thirteen other players involved, 1,300 people singing your name is a special moment. Other than that, they filled their section of the stand and didn’t stop singing and it really does drive you on at times. You can hear a little moan and groan because we haven’t played well, but they know it could be a great point come the end of the season. “