By Gerry PrewettFor the second year in a row on Boxing Day Bristol Rovers take the short trip down the M5 to the South Devon Coast to visit Torquay United. Last season both teams were paying in Division 2 this season they find themselves competing in the Vanarama Conference.
Last season’s fixture ended up all square, 1-1. The home side took a sixth minute lead when they were awarded a penalty which John Marquis duly despatched.
Almost constant Rovers’ pressure was rewarded on 27 minutes when Matt Harrold was on hand to bundle the ball over the line from Lee Brown’s corner on the right.
Last weekend the Gulls faced the same ignominy as the Gas did earlier this season when they went down 2-0 to Alan Devonshire's Braintree part-timers. James Mulley, Chez Isaac and Sean Marks all went close before Marks gave the the Essex team the lead in the 20th minute.
Mulley crossed from their right, Gull’s custodian Martin Rice came off his line, hesitated and Marks header looped over him into the empty net to open the scoring.
In the 45th minute Braintree punished an Angus MacDonald foul when Mulley whipped the free-kick in behind United's defensive line and Simeon Akinola headed in off Rice's fingertips to double the home team’s advantage.
Gulls manager Chris Hargreaves did not mince his words after the game, "That was not acceptable. Normally, my team is at it, but they weren't today, and I can only apologise to our travelling fans. It was poor.”
"All credit to Braintree, because they did all the basic things, the ugly things if you like, better than us. They were the better side. We deserved no more than what we got."
"We were missing a couple of important players, but those in the squad should relish the chance to prove themselves," said Hargreaves, "A lot of people here are fighting for their futures, 10 contracts are up in the summer, and I wanted a reaction from the players. Unfortunately it didn't happen.
"But we will recover, the players will react. On the whole this season, 99% of the time, they've been at it for me. I believe in the group, I believe there's a good 11 there, but today they've fallen below the standards that the fans expect and that I expect at this football club."
Despite that performance the Devon team are unlikely to sign any players in January. The Gulls have released winger Niall Thompson after he came to the end of his six-month contract at Plainmoor.
Hargreaves has brought in former Plymouth Argyle defender Durrell Berry and ex-Walsall midfielder James McQuilkin on non-contract terms.
"I don't see us moving in any way to get any players. There's simply no money," said Hargreaves, "The only possibility is players moving out on loan or if they would like to play for another club.
And Hargreaves feels his squad, who have not won back-to-back games in the Conference since a six-game winning run in September, have the talent within their squad to challenge at the top of the table.
"This season we've proved that we're good enough many times and we'll prove it again. The players have got to find it in themselves to react in the right way, I still back them, I believe in them, so it's got to be from within this squad."
Meetings between the Gas and the Gulls go back a long time, the first being an FA Cup tie on 27 November 1926 when the game at Plainmoor finished 1-1. Four days later Rovers won the replay 1-0.
The first League meeting took place on 29 October 1927 and Rovers thrashed United 5-1 at Eastville. It took the Gulls five more attempts before they were victorious on 2 April 1930, 2-1 at Plainmoor.
Rovers’ record in Devon is not a bad one, with 10 wins, 11 draws and 17 defeats in their 38 visits. The one black mark was back on 29 March 1932 as United ran riot winning 8-1. The irony of this score was that the teams had played out a 1-1 draw 3 days earlier in Bristol.
You have to go back 18 games to find anything greater than a single goal difference between the teams and 24 games to find a greater margin (a 4-0 League Cup victory for Rovers at Plainmoor, their best result there, on 15 September 1983 with goals by Nicky Platnauer, Mike Barrett, Paul Randall and Archie Stephens).
During the late 1960's there were some very close games between the two teams. Torquay included John Bond, Ken Brown (both ex-West Ham players who went on to manage teams with great success), John Benson and the lethal strike force of Jim Fryatt and Robin Stubbs.
Rovers found it so difficult to contain Stubbs that in the summer of 1969 they bought him. He went on to score twice against his former club; both his goals helped his new team to victory in each game.
During those late 1960’s games there was never any more than two goals between the teams. Away victories were rare although Rovers twice collected full points in Devon, in 1968-69, 1-0 and the following season when they won 2-1.
Rovers are currently seven points better off than Torquay and Hargreaves will wait until as late as it takes to give injured duo Luke Young and Durrell Berry time to pass fitness tests. “They’ve both got a chance.”
James McQuilkin, who limped off last Saturday with a knee problem, is also improved, and striker Elliot Benyon (stomach bug) and winger Courtney Cameron (infection) have both returned to training this week.
The Gulls’ boss admitted: “There were lessons to be learned from Braintree , and we’ve had a bit of straight talking this week.
“You have to look on games like this, on occasions like this, as big chances. They give you a stage to step up and show what you can do. You have to grab those chances and make the most of them.”
Talking about his 21 year old captain Luke Young and his former Plymouth Argyle team-mate Durrell Berry Hargreaves said, “We’re doing everything we can to get Luke and Durrell back for Boxing Day – and we’re hopeful that they will make it. They were both big misses last weekend.”
“Our fans had every right to have a go after the Braintree game. There have been only two games this season where I’ve been disappointed with our whole application; Aldershot in the FA Cup and Braintree.”
“Although we lost at Kidderminster after Aldershot, we then went to Barnet and won.” He noted.
“We got that reaction then, and we need another one now. I’m expecting everyone to be firing on Friday, because I know we can beat Bristol Rovers at our best.”