A look ahead to tomorrow's opening league fixture
Bristol Rovers, open the 2013-14 campaign with a West Country derby at Exeter City. Rovers will face this season full of hope after a very strong second half to last season which saw them rise rapidly from relegation worries to the fringe of Play Off contention.
There is little doubt that John Ward’s knowledge and expertise helped in this regard but also strengthening the central spine of the team was crucial. The final part of the off-season preparations was completed by the ‘will he won’t he’ signing of last season’s loanee John-Joe O’Toole during the latter part of July.
Whilst Rovers were rising in the table in early 2013, opponents Exeter fell away badly after occupying third place for much of the campaign, just one point in their last 7 games saw them finish 10th.
A tightening of the purse strings over the summer has forced the release of 21 goal top-scorer former Gas player Jamie Cureton and longest-serving player Steve Tully.
Looking at the history of games between the Grecians and the Gas, the first ever meeting took place in Exeter on the opening day of the 1908-09 Southern League fixtures on 5th September.
An 8,000 crowd saw an entertaining 3-3 draw with goals by Roberts (2) and Peplow for Rovers. In the return game on 2nd January, Rovers ran out 5-1 winners, with goals by Corbett (3), McGubbin and Roberts sending a 10,000 Eastville crowd home happy.
The first Football League fixture wasn’t until the closing weeks of the 1920-21 season. Interestingly the fixtures were played in ‘pairs’ at that time (this lasted for about four seasons).
In the first game on 2nd May at Eastville, Rovers ran out 5-0 winners with goals by Syd Leigh (4) and Ellis Crompton (who was later to captain the Devon team). Leigh became the first player to score four goals in a League game for Rovers.
Five days later Exeter gained their revenge at St James Park with a closing day 1-0 win, with Rovers Jessie Whateley scoring an own goal for the home team.
Gerry Francis had a brief spell as manager at Exeter during the 1983-84 season and it was a real eye opener to him. Whilst they played very open and attractive football their defence leaked goals alarmingly and they were relegated. Rovers won both their games against their Devon rivals that year.
In the previous season there was a remarkable evening Eastville game in which Exeter threw everything into attack and were very unlucky to be held to a 4-4 draw. Paul Randall scored two goals that evening, one of them a trademark run from near the halfway line.
It was obvious to all in the North Stand that Randall was well offside when he started his run. But as we all know the Referee is always right, even when he’s wrong! Rovers’ scorers were Holloway, Randall (2) and Viney o.g. Delve, P Rogers (2) and McEwan replied for the Devon team.
Last season Rovers recorded their first win of the season with a 2-1 victory at St James’ Park. The Gas took the led on 5 minutes when a long ball forward from Tom Parkes saw Craig Woodman fail to control it and Clarkson nipped in to rob the defender before slotting a left foot shot past Artur Krysiak from twelve yards.
The goal that Exeter had been threatening to score came in time added on in the first half. Jamie Cureton was able to roll the ball into the net after Etheridge had committed himself to trying to gather a cross from the right. He failed, the ball reached Cureton and he made no mistake, though he didn’t celebrate scoring against his former club.
Eliot Richards, who had replaced Tom Eaves 11 minutes earlier, scored Rovers’ winner on 70 minutes. The striker took advantage of a slip by Tommy Doherty on the halfway liner and set off for goal, where he switched the ball from his right foot to his left and fired past Krysiak who managed to get a hand to the ball but couldn’t stop it entering the net.
In recent seasons goals aren’t generally a feature of games between the two teams, although Rovers did secure a 5-0 FA Cup replay victory on 15 December 1998 after a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park. In Exeter there have been 43 League and Cup games since 1920 and of those Exeter have won 20, there have been 13 draws and just 10 Rovers victories.
Key Grecians player, 30 year old Alan Gow hopes that the injuries that plagued his first full season at Exeter are behind him. The Scot missed 20 of Exeter's 49 League and cup encounters last season after suffering ankle injuries during the course of the campaign.
Gow noted, "The ankle is all right now, it's a lot better than it was, definitely. I have done a good rehab. I have been running all summer and trying to keep myself fit.
"There's a big responsibility because there are a lot of young boys coming through and they need some help. But probably the main responsibility is on the striker's for losing so many goals with Curo going," he added, "I think we have a good squad of boys. There have been a few new faces as well since the end of last season and I am really looking forward to the challenge."
City have a full squad to choose from. Asked whether that gave his side an advantage, Grecian Boss Paul Tisdale said: "No, I don't think so. You can spin any situation for or against, but I don't think that is something we aren't going to worry about.
"They have got enough good players and we certainly don't need to be complacent about the fact that they have got one or two injuries."
Commenting ahead of the season opener, Tisdale said, "I think we always look forward to the opening day of the season because you always have longer to anticipate this game than any other. Sam Parkin will more than likely make his first competitive appearances for us, so there are lots of reasons to be very excited about the game."
"I would be pretty surprised if Bristol Rovers don't bring a good number down. They always support their team terrifically well," he said.
Speaking of Rovers’ prospects Tisdale commented, "There are two factors, I would say, that suggest that they are going to be a contender regardless of last year's results, because so much can change from one season to the next.
"One, they have got a very effective manager in John Ward, who understands the league and understands Bristol Rovers, having shown on more than one occasion that he can produce a good Bristol Rovers team.”
"And secondly, they have a number of very good players. So with the manager and players that they have, that would suggest they will be a contender. After that, you look at last year's form as an extra.
"But just taking it on the basis of their manager and their players, you would have to say they are going to be one of the leading teams in our league."
Having had slow starts to the last two seasons and having to play ‘catch up’ Rovers would like to get off to the best of starts possible. The fixture list has given them an exciting set of opening games and with a full backing from travelling GasHeads they would expect to be able to gain maximum points.
Written by Gerry Prewett.