By Nathan BeesOur FA Cup adventure for the 2014-2015 season begins tomorrow afternoon and I’m sure Darrell Clarke’s men will be hoping that they can embark on a long and successful run in the competition.
For the first time, though, we enter at the fourth and final qualifying stage and that means we have to win three games before we can even dream about landing a Premier League club in the Third Round proper.
That is quite a daunting thought, but in a best-case scenario we can reach that stage in less games than it took us last season - when we entered one round later!
In the First Round a year ago we faced divisional rivals York City and progressed after a replay at Bootham Crescent on a Tuesday night. Then, in the Second Round, we forced a replay against League One side Crawley Town and with the game at the Broadfield Stadium finely poised midway through the second half the match was abandoned due to an increasingly waterlogged pitch.
Happily, we returned to West Sussex a week or two later and beat the Red Devils with a late winner to set up a tie with Championship side Birmingham City at St. Andrews.
Unfortunately the run ended there and whilst it wasn’t exactly a ‘glamour match’ it was certainly a high point in an otherwise disastrous season. We took a huge number of supporters, chanted loudly and proudly for 90 minutes and saw our team play in a big stadium. It was the sort of occasion that every fan and player relishes.
There is definitely no harm in setting our sights high and hoping to progress beyond the opening stages of the competition once again but, to coin an overused football cliche, we need to take each game one at a time. First up is an away tie at Southern Premier outfit Dorchester Town.
This is a huge game for our hosts, a fact underlined by the fact they have given Gasheads 2500 tickets - half of their ground’s overall capacity. They understandably want to maximise every potential revenue stream that they can from their FA Cup run and clearly they figure that getting as many people through the turnstiles, regardless of their allegiance, is going to be of benefit.
Their first taste of the competition this season came way back in August in the earliest qualifying round, so for them to reach this stage and land Bristol Rovers is a very, very big deal. In relative terms - and to use yet another cliche - this is their cup final and they will do whatever they can to make it a memorable day.
For that reason we are not in for an easy game at the Avenue Stadium, despite the fact we compete two levels higher than our opponents.
As we know from our own cup exploits in years gone by, league standings count for absolutely nothing on FA Cup weekends. The form book goes out the window and anyone can beat anyone. Dorchester will firmly believe they can cause an upset on home soil and we will have to stand up to that or risk coming unstuck in embarrassing fashion. Nobody outside their camp is expecting them to win the game so they have absolutely nothing to lose by giving it a damn good go.
The FA Cup is an English institution and it is a tradition that at least one team a season executes a giant-killing. Everyone associated with Dorchester will believe they can be the ones to make a name for themselves and that is what it’s all about.
It is the fairytale stories of the underdogs having their day that makes this competition so intriguing and so popular around the world. The Magpies will be thinking: ‘we can beat Bristol Rovers’; and why shouldn’t they? Come 3pm it is 11 men against 11 men and anything can happen.
That is me talking about the FA Cup purely from a purist’s perspective. From a Rovers point of view, which is all that matters, I want us to be party-poopers and ruin the day the Dorchester players have been looking forward to since the draw. When you’re a neutral it is exciting to see small sides beat bigger opponents but when it’s your team involved any romantic sentiments go right out the window.
A large number of Gasheads will descend on the Avenue Stadium in the hope of seeing Rovers put together a strong performance to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat to Forest Green Rovers. We need to respond in the right way from that setback and get back on the winning trail as soon as possible.
Tomorrow is a fantastic opportunity for us to do that and we can’t let it pass us by. It isn’t very often that after a first defeat in several weeks your next game comes against a side two divisions lower. It is undoubtedly a potential banana skin but it is something we should embrace because if we’re on our game we should come out with a confidence-boosting victory.
I think it will be interesting to see what team Darrell Clarke selects to start the game. Both Adam Cunnington and Dave Martin have been given permission to play by their parent clubs, which is good news, but Clarke has a dilemma in regard to who plays up front. Neither Cunnington or Matty Taylor have been firing on all cylinders so far and there would certainly be justification in giving either Jamie White or Ellis Harrison the chance to show what they can do.
I wouldn’t be against that happening because we need to find a way of scoring more goals but in general play both the current occupants bring a lot to the team and don’t necessarily deserve to be dropped. I suppose for Clarke it is about striking the right balance between being fair to all his players and keeping faith with the ones who were a big part of our long unbeaten run.
It’s a tough one to decide but I am happy to back Clarke’s judgement on it. He sees every one of his players in training every day and he will have a better idea than anyone about who warrants a start and who doesn’t.
Whoever makes the starting XI will receive superb backing from Gasheads and it is down to them to win the game and retain their shirt for next weekend’s meeting with AFC Telford. Do that and it could be the start of an enjoyable FA Cup experience for Bristol Rovers in 2014-2015.