By Nathan BeesIn what is fast becoming a theme in the opening paragraph of my blogs, Rovers lived up to their reputation of never doing things conventionally. The events that unfolded in 90 minutes of football at the Racecourse on Tuesday night will live long in the memory, even if the result does not.
It was a frustrating 0-0 stalemate but entertainment-wise every fan in the ground got their money’s worth. Intriguing and finely poised at half-time due to misfortune for both sides, you could not have called either side ‘favourites’ for the second half and that made for a thrilling 45 minutes despite the lack of quality in and around both goals.
It was the beautiful game at its crazy best.
Lyle Della-Verde going off injured was hugely disappointing because he has been our most influential player over the last couple of weeks, but we did have more than adequate replacements on the bench. When goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall sustained a knee injury, however, we quite literally could not replace him and that posed a much, much bigger problem.
Darrell Clarke employs the common Conference tactic of not naming a substitute goalie on the bench and while 99 times out of 100 it will not pose any issues, there are occasions when it will. Unfortunately for us it did in an away game against a strong side when we were not playing all that well. Typical.
I don’t mind admitting, therefore, that I feared the worst when central defender Mark McChrystal pulled on Mildy’s gloves and took his place between the sticks. I thought there was no way a makeshift shot-stopper was going to go near enough an hour without conceding at least one goal - and I wasn’t alone in harbouring that pessimism.
Every time Macca touched the ball he was cheered and applauded by Gasheads and although it was because we were fully supportive of him and the rest of the lads, a lot of it was borne out of sheer relief that he hadn’t let the ball slip through his fingers and into the back of the net!
I think we may all have been doing him a disservice, though. With each passing catch, kick and save he seemed to grow in confidence and it soon rubbed off on everyone else. After a while the idea that the Northern Irishman could keep a clean sheet was not so far-fetched as we feared. The way he and his team-mates applied themselves in such adversity was very encouraging as it just seems like nothing fazes us anymore.
There is no doubt that the debatable red card Wrexham’s Rob Evans received on the stroke of half-time helped us in our quest to remain unbeaten, but overall I don’t think our hosts were handicapped in the same way we were. I definitely would have preferred to be in their situation than our own because any side with a centre half playing in goal is essentially down to 10 men anyway - especially away from home. They could have taken the game to us knowing that our main objective was to protect our stand-in goalie with plenty of bodies behind the ball.
Rovers were caught between a rock and a hard place really. We couldn’t afford to go too gung-ho in a bid to capitalise on our numerical advantage because we it would have left Macca exposed, but at the same time we knew we had enough about us to cause them problems. It was a catch 22 and Darrell Clarke had to make a judgement call as to how we were going to play in the circumstances.
In the end we found a satisfying balance whereby we got at them a few times without leaving ourselves open to the counter attack. We fashioned a few decent openings through Matty Taylor and substitute Angelo Balanta, and I thought for all the world that Alex Wall’s rocket of a free kick was going in before it cannoned back off the crossbar. It was some strike from the loan striker and had it nestled in the back of the net it would have been a more than worthy winning goal.
Wrexham were surprisingly unambitious in their attacking play, despite the incentive they had to pepper our goal with shots. It made Macca’s life a lot simpler than it could have been.
He still had to make a couple of timely interventions with his feet, though, and he did so with aplomb. There was no indecisiveness and no obvious sign nerves, and that stood him in good stead when he had to leave his penalty area to sweep up a few balls played in behind our defence. The one shot on target the home side did muster was coolly plucked from the air by Rovers’ Tuesday night hero and it epitomised the ease with which the whole team adapted to the circumstances.
When the final whistle was sounded I couldn’t have been much more pleased. We had just gone to Wrexham, which is a difficult place to go, and defended resolutely despite not having a recognised goalkeeper on the field of play for over 50 minutes. We came closest to breaking the deadlock and on another day Wall’s free kick would have bounced off the bar and over the line, but we just couldn’t find the slice of luck we needed.
The reception the lads received was, as you would expect, tremendous and everyone chanted Macca’s name in appreciation for the way he stood up and got counted when we were suffering from a goalkeeping catastrophe. Our tough tackling centre half never gives too much away but you could see he was pleased to have kept a first (and hopefully only!) clean sheet of his career.
An away point is a solid one all things considered but we can make it look a very, very good one if we can do the double over Welling United tomorrow. With half the division not in league action this weekend, we have the opportunity to cement our place in the top three and close the gap on leaders Barnet. It makes victory absolutely huge and if we are able to pull it off we ramp up the pressure on all the sides around us.
We will need to be slightly more energetic and forceful than we were at times against Wrexham but we proved last weekend that we can comfortably beat this Welling side so we should be full of confidence heading to Kent.
Come on Rovers, come on you blues.