By Gerry PrewettWhen Bristol Rovers face Luton Town at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night they will renew acquaintances with their former Manager John Still, who delights in managing on a tight budget and developing players.
His record at Dagenham and Redbridge was outstanding and he has done great things at Luton. Still is the only manager to lead three different clubs to promotion out of non-League football.
He has a reputation for spotting young talented footballers in the non-League game, particularly during his time at Dagenham. A number of players that Still has developed have gone on to play in the Championship and the Premier League.
In their last game at home to Oxford on Saturday the Hatters looked to have all three points in the bag when they took a 2-0 lead with just 20 minutes left.
The home team went ahead two minutes before half-time when Luke Wilkinson headed home from Paddy McCourt's corner. Then in the 69th minute Cameron McGeehan's low finish made it 2-0.
Chris Wilder’s team were given a clink of light with just eight minutes left as Kemar Roofe deflected strike found the back of the net. McGeehan was then wasteful for the home team as he blasted a great chance over in injury time and the Hatters were made to pay when Pat Hoban poked in an equaliser in injury time to give the U’s a share of the points.
Still refused to blame his goalkeeper Mark Tyler for his part in the goal that gifted Oxford a point, but admitted he was 'very angry' with one of his other players afterwards. The Luton boss appeared to give full back Scott Griffiths a dressing down during their usual post-match huddle. Refusing to name the subject of his ire, Still commented that there would be repercussions when the player returns for training on Monday.
"I was very animated and very angry. I wasn't happy with one of my players," the manager revealed. It's nothing to do with good, bad or indifferent [play], but a lack of discipline has led to them getting the ball to score the goal. He's only got to do one thing. He knows what he's got to do.”
"It's small margins. People don't trip over a mountain, they trip up the kerb because it's small and you don't really see it. You've got to make sure you keep all of the small things in check and we had a great opportunity to do that and we didn't.”
"They regained the ball and [Oxford's goal] actually came from that. Was that the reason Mark Tyler missed the ball? No it wasn't. But that situation wouldn't have happened. I deal with it Monday."
Tyler made his first league start in six months but in a rare moment of poor judgement the 38-year-old misread the flight of an injury time cross and Pat Hoban scrambled the recycled ball into an empty net, "You [media] probably know Mark more than me," Still said, adding: "He doesn't really make mistakes, but he made a mistake. We all make them, so we'll live with it."
"You can't do a lot about the first goal. That's football. Mark, 99 times out of 100, would deal with the second one, but he didn't, so we had to go with a point.
"[There was] lots of good play from us, lots of good positions, lots of good opportunities and I was really pleased with how we played, but I'm obviously disappointed to concede."
Talking about McGeenhan’s late miss Still said: "Cam scored and I think he should have scored again, which would have made the game over. He didn't and that's football. There are lots of good things in our game but you've got to take the errors out. We all make them and sometimes they hurt you and sometimes they don't. This one hurt us."
Rovers have a long history of games against Luton Town going right back to the inaugural Division Three Season. Rovers won both those games, 2-1 at Kenilworth Road on New Years Day 1921 and 5-0 at Eastville on 29 March. In fact, despite meeting every season it wasn’t until 26 September 1925 that the Hatters recorded their first victory over the Pirates, a 1-0 win in Bedfordshire at the 11th attempt.
Without doubt the most notable match between the teams occurred on 13 April 1936 and it was certainly an unlucky day for Rovers. Town’s Joe Payne notched up a record 10 goals that day as his team recorded a 12-0 win over the hapless Rovers. Payne later recalled that one of those goals even went in off his backside! The teams had met 3 days before at Eastville and fought out a 2-2 draw, but there was no Joe Payne in the Hatters line-up. The previous January Rovers had gone down 6-2 at Kenilworth Road.
On 19th February 200 Phil Gray gave the home team a 1-0 lead on 13 minutes, but goals by Jason Roberts (27 and 90 mins) and Jamie Cureton (38 and 58 mins) secured a memorable 4-1 win.
Rovers last League games against the Bedfordshire team took place in 2007/08 season, when Rickie Lamberts scored a stunning volley at Kenilworth Road as part of a double to give Rovers a 2-1 victory. The Boxing Day fixture at the Mem finished 1-1, with a Rickie Lambert penalty and a David Edwards goal for the away team.
Prior to Saturday’s game John Still spoke about the fitness of his squad, noting “Having come through the pre-season and had two games, most people have taken part now, other than Ryan Hall, whose a touch behind.”
“Luke Guttridge and Alex Lawless as well, they’ll probably be a touch disappointed, but I’ve tried to do what I can for everybody to show where they are with their fitness, their organisation, disciplined manner that they should play in and their quality levels. I’ve been really pleased as two games have told me where 99 per cent of the squad are and I think we’re in decent shape.”
One of that squad is Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu whio is finally over last season’s injury nightmare and believes he's returning to a Luton squad that is stronger than last term and targeting promotion. The midfielder made only 18 appearances last term, suffering with a rare calcification of the hamstring injury, but he returned to competitive action as a second half substitute in the 1-1 League Two opener at Accrington Stanley.
He looked sharp in pre-season and though John Still thinks Ruddock Mpanzu will take a few more weeks to get fully fit, the manager noted, "It's like [having] a new player."
Mpanzu said, "It's the first time I've been injured for that long, so it was hard mentally but I'm strong now and hopefully this season I'm injury free and promotion is a must for us. I'm fine now. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks I'll be fully fit and hopefully start."
With Mpanzu’s return and 11 new signings in the summer Town one of the bookmakers' favourites to win promotion this term. Mpanzu commented, "There's a lot of quality. Paddy McCourt is an international and Craig Mackail-Smith. There's a lot of depth in our team and hopefully they can push us on to promotion."
Going on to comment on the new signings he said, "I think they've settled in very well. Paddy started [against Accrington] and so did Josh [McQuoid]. Scott Cuthbert at right back played well and everyone is gelling and getting to know each other.
"There was me, Cam [Cameron McGeehan] and Gutts [Luke Guttridge] on the bench and obviously, I'm a centre midfielder but if the gaffer needs to play me out wide, I'll play out wide. There is competition for places and it keeps everyone on their toes."
Talking about a former West Ham team mate, Dan Potts he went on to say, "I didn't know [he was signing] until he came to training. It's pleasing for him. He wants to play games like me. I told him Luton is a good place and he came to sign. Hopefully he can push on as well."