By Nathan BeesWhat did we learn during the August Bank Holiday weekend then?
Quite a lot, I think, and I take great encouragement from it. We got a good win under our belts against Telford and then earned a respectable point at Forest Green Rovers 48 hours later, which suggests we may finally be finding our feet in the Conference.
The team are growing in confidence and we are beginning to see a glimpse of what this Rovers side can do. We played some decent stuff in the second half of the Telford game and then outplayed Forest Green for 70 minutes on their own patch in front of the BT Sport cameras.
Given how poor we were against Barnet and Altrincham it was like watching a completely different team.
The turning point? Unquestionably Ollie Clarke’s superb strike last Saturday.
When the midfielder’s shot swerved beyond the goalkeeper and into the back of the net, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from the shoulders of every single player in the quarters. By going in front they achieved what had eluded them in their previous three league outings and the mentality of the team changed in an instant.
Gasheads were understandably relieved, Darrell Clarke and the back room team were relieved and the players seemed to relax a little and enjoy the game.
I said in previous blog posts that I hoped all it would take was scoring the opening goal in a match to bring to life this newly assembled Rovers side and that seems like it may be the case.
Dave Martin became increasingly threatening on the left wing, stand-in captain Lee Mansell was beginning to dictate play from central midfield and the combination of Matty Taylor and loanee Adam Cunnington up front was looking like a promising partnership.
Factor in the positive cameo performance of substitute Ellis Harrison as Telford legs began to tire and it was a positive day’s work for Darrell Clarke’s men.
The scoreline wasn’t emphatic by any stretch of the imagination but it paved the way for a much more confident approach, on and off the pitch, in the Forest Green game two days later.
It was billed as a ‘derby’ game by BT Sport and everyone outside the Gas camp were tipping Forest Green to win quite comfortably given their undefeated start to the campaign.
With Lee Hughes and Jon Parkin leading their front line it was obvious that Rovers would need to deal with an aerial bombardment if they wanted to take anything from the game and, pleasingly, they did just that.
In fact, we didn’t just defend well, we actually played some very good football and were undisputedly the better side. We were on top throughout the first period and forced Sam Russell into a couple of important saves, most notably from a Mansell free kick just 60 seconds in.
It only took 10 minutes of the second half for us to find a deserved breakthrough, however, and it came courtesy of experienced midfielder Andy Monkhouse. Lee Brown delivered a centre from the left wing and Monkhouse got in front his man to direct a downward header in off the post.
The 1800+ Rovers that had made the short trip to Nailsworth went mad and there was a real belief that we would go on to secure back-to-back victories.
We continued to look dangerous going forward and Taylor should have doubled our lead with a header from point-blank range, but Russell made a good save to deny him and keep the hosts in contention. From there the game seemed to open up a little and, disappointingly, we ended up conceding a really unfortunate goal.
Substitute Marcus Kelly’s shot from 18 yards inadvertently hit the arm of an unaware Parkin and the ball ricocheted into the bottom corner. As undeserved as it was, that’s what happens when you don’t take your chances and we only have ourselves to blame if we’re being honest.
We mustered a couple of opportunities after the equaliser to snatch a winner but nothing seriously troubled Russell between the sticks. Rovers did have a last minute free kick that had Gasheads praying for a Brown vs Wycombe Wanderers Mark 2, but the left back’s effort drifted just wide of the keeper’s near post.
The full-time whistle sounded just after and the game ended all square.
Initially I was really disappointed because we could and should have won the game. I’m always dissatisfied immediately after a game if we haven’t won it but on this occasion I had to accept that it was actually a very solid point.
They’re in third position for a reason and few sides will leave the New Lawn with anything other than a defeat, so a draw is by no means a disaster.
There were definite positives - defensively we were sound throughout the 90 minutes, with Neal Trotman in particular performing terrifically well, and we played some neat football that caused Forest Green all sorts of problems.
On another day we would have scored two or three and that’s what we have to take solace from. Darrell Clarke’s main job on the training ground this week will have been accentuating the positive elements of our performance and looking at ways we can build on that in the weeks ahead.
FC Halifax Town are next up at the Mem tomorrow afternoon and they arrive on the back of a five match winning run. Looking at their fixtures you would have to say they have had a much kinder start to the campaign than we’ve had but that doesn’t make their form any less brilliant.
The Shaymen will believe they can set us back a peg or two and make it six from six, despite facing what they admit is their toughest challenge yet, and we will have to rise to the challenge if we want to record consecutive home victories.
Both sides will be thinking they can come out on top so it should make for an entertaining game - although I would take a boring 90 minutes of football if we ultimately came out with 3 points.
There is a difficult September ahead of us and it would be great if we can go into the seven game month with more points on the board.
Come on Rovers, come on you blues.