By Nathan BeesChristmas may be just six days away, but it isn’t the thought of a few presents and some mince pies that has me excited for the festive season.
Oh no, I love this time of year for football and the large number of matches we play in a short period of time - beginning tonight live on BT Sport against Gateshead.
A victory would set us up nicely for the three games we play in the week after Christmas Day and it would also ramp up the pressure on the sides around us to pick up points in their matches tomorrow afternoon.
Last weekend’s defeat to Bath City was bitterly disappointing as the performance was so far below par that I barely recognised the team. Everything about our play was lifeless, limp and there seemed like a total lack of urgency from the back four through to the front two. When your opposition senses what they perceive to be a lack of interest, it is inevitable they will go all out to attack and put you under pressure and that is exactly what Bath did.
They were by no means a great team but what they did have was a strong desire to win the game and it was evident in everything they did. Their midfield were strong in the tackle, they were always looking to get forward and put us under pressure and they certainly didn’t show us too much respect like other visiting teams do. Despite how lacklustre we were I thought it was an even contest until the second half but it soon became apparent that only one team was going to go and win the game and it definitely wasn’t going to be us.
Bath thoroughly deserved their win and I don’t think anybody who was at the game would disagree.
Gasheads’ reaction at full-time was warranted in the sense that we played so badly it was impossible to justify clapping the lads off, but I do think that in context with our season it was incredibly harsh. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, is it a big deal to lose in a non-league cup competition when our sole priority this season is the league?
With all due respect, the FA Trophy was the least important competition we were involved in this year, so I think a lot of the fall-out since then has been a massive overreaction. Don’t get me wrong, I was not impressed with the performance and we clearly need to step it up now we are returning to league action, however, let’s take a second to look at the only thing that matters - the league table.
We currently sit third and without a shadow of a doubt it is all to play for. Now, be honest, does a team that sits third in the league deserve to be booed off after one poor cup performance? No, not in my opinion, and I am pretty sure most of you would say the same. It is easy to dramatise when it is your club that has suffered the bad result - I get that, and when I was younger I would have been inclined to do the same - but sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We are on course to achieve what we want to achieve in 2014-2015 and that is all that matters.
We now need to focus purely on what is a tough game tonight against fellow play-off hopefuls Gateshead. Led by experienced non-league manager Gary Mills, The Heed have lost just five times this season and only two of them have come on the road, so they will arrive at The Mem confident they can leave with at least a share of the spoils.
They are renowned for trying to play the game the right way and while it has proven to be effective, it could actually work in our favour. Darrell Clarke encourages his team to get the ball down as often as they can and a fair few of our goals this season have come at the end of free-flowing moves. Unfortunately when we face sides that employ direct tactics we tend to get dragged into doing the same, but that isn’t a problem we should be facing tonight.
If we can get the ball into the feet of Angelo Balanta and Matty Taylor and get them running at the Gateshead defence they will cause them all sorts of problems. It is exactly what we need to do from the first whistle to prevent them from settling into the game. If we can, we have a much better chance of getting ourselves a positive result.
As with all night matches I am anticipating a good atmosphere that the watching nation will be able to hear loud and clear on TV. With it being a Friday there should be a good number of Gasheads at the game who can’t often make Saturday afternoons and that should make for a healthy crowd - even though there isn’t likely to be a large away following.
I alluded to how important 3 points would be at the beginning and it really would send out a message to the other teams we face over the festive period that we mean business. We have stuttered lately away from home by failing to win when we should have, so if we can earn a victory tonight both Macclesfield Town and Torquay United will know they are going to face a confident Rovers side here at The Mem next week.
There is a fear factor associated with playing Bristol Rovers away and that is the same for teams in the relegation zone and teams at the top, like Barnet. You could sense The Bees’ trepidation as they stepped out on to the pitch back in November and Rovers took full advantage of it by outplaying them for a large portion of the game. What this demonstrates is exactly what we can do when we take the game to the opposition from the first whistle.
I would love nothing more than to see us do the same thing to Gateshead tonight and, hopefully, win the game.
This is my last blog of 2014 so I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Here’s to a much better 2015 for our beloved Bristol Rovers - we definitely deserve it.
Up the Gas!