By Gerry PrewettAfter a single season out of the league Bristol Rovers open their 2015/16 campaign with a much anticipated home game against Northampton Town.
The East Midlands team will be looking to build on a campaign that took them to the fringes of the Play-Offs last season and Manager Chris Wilder will be looking to better that.
The Cobblers recorded four wins from their seven pre-season friendlies which included impressive displays against Championship opposition Derby County and Birmingham City. Speaking after their last game, a 3-0 victory over non-League team Sheffield, Wilder said, “We’re ready for the season. The players are ready to go and they just want to play football now. We’ve had a really good pre-season.”
“We’ve come through it pretty much injury-free. There’s been a few little niggles but generally the attitude of the players has been outstanding, our play has been really good and the game against Sheffield was a fantastic test for us. We wanted pre-season to be varied. We were the big boys on Friday as Birmingham and Derby were against us and the game football is interesting at times because you don’t always get what you deserve - you have to earn the right and fight and scrap and do what you have to do and we were certainly in a battle on Friday.”
Northampton struggled to get going in an evenly-matched first half against a battling Sheffield team, but Wilder opted for a more direct approach after half-time and it quickly paid off with Marc Richards putting the visitors ahead on the hour-mark before two more goals, the second by Ricky Holmes, provided a clear 3-0 result.
“Physically and mentally I think that was possibly our toughest game of pre-season,” commented Wilder “I thought the opposition caused us problems that we’ve not really encountered in other games; they were lively, they were competitive and they wanted to win. We were off the pace in the first half but we got our act together. They sat a lot deeper than many teams have done against us in pre-season and the pitch was slow so it was difficult to move the ball about.”
“We changed the tactics a little bit at half-time and went a bit more direct and that’s something we’re going to have do sometimes because we’ll need to be flexible in terms of how we go about trying to get results and solving problems and I thought we did that second half.”
“We sometimes have to set our line a little bit deeper but because we had a lot of the ball on the halfway line we were always open to a counter-attack. And the pitch was slow so we didn’t move the ball as well and as quick as we could have but we did in the second half and they didn’t really cause us any problems in the second half. In the end we looked comfortable winners but for quite a period of the game it wasn’t comfortable.”
“I understand it’s always difficult for the players a week away from the season starting because you’re close and you’re a little bit hesitant, a bit apprehensive because all the boys want to play at the start of the season and I understand why it possibly wasn’t a committed performance as we’d have liked.”
As members of the old Third Division (South) Rovers have a long tradition of games against the Cobblers. The first meeting between the clubs took place in the Southern League in 1907/08 season Rovers ran out 1-0 winners at the County Ground on 11 January 1908. The first League games took place in one week in 1921. The first game saw Rovers win 2-1 at the County Ground on 12 March with goals by Sid Leigh and Billy Palmer with Bill Thomas scoring for the home team. On 19 March Rovers doubled the dose with a 4-2 Eastville win, Harry Boxley, Billy Palmer and a double by Ellis Crompton for the Pirates with George Whitworth and a John Bethune own goal for the Cobblers.
In the first four post-World War II meetings between the teams the away team won the lot!
The 1989/90 Championship season probably summed up the difference between a winning and losing team. In the game at Twerton Park on 29th October 1989, the Cobbler’s Bobby Brown was running the Rovers defence ragged and the undefeated home record looked in danger. Goals by Devon White and Paul Nixon had the game tied at 2-2.
Late in the game Devon White was controversially brought down in the box and Holloway converted the penalty to give the Gas an unlikely lead. Then with the seconds ticking away an unlucky Trevor Quow guided a clearance into his own net to give the final score of 4-2. It was all 6 points to Rovers largely due to their 'never say die' spirit, after another Ian Holloway penalty secured a 2-1 win at the County Ground.
The previous time Rovers had 'done the double' over the Cobblers was back in 1967/68 season. Two goals in the home game by the towering centre-half Stuart Taylor secured the points at Eastville. However it was the game at the County Ground that had been so remarkable.
Rovers’ away record was nothing to shout about, of their first 7 away games they had won 1 drawn 2 and lost 4, the Cobblers had won 5 of their previous 6 games. Converted Left Half Ray Mabbutt had a field day in the County Ground mud.
Frank Large gave the home team an early lead but Rovers were quickly level when a Johnny Williams pile driver was parried by Bryan Harvey straight to Mabbutt, who stabbed the ball home. Soon after Large was brought down in the box and Mackin scored from the spot past Ronnie Briggs. It fell to Bobby Jones scoring against his old club to restore Rovers to parity.
A 30-yard shot from Johnny Williams gave Rovers a 3-2 lead but that man Large made sure things were all square by half time. It was some while into the second-half before the goals started to roll in again, Mabbutt accepting a simple tap in past Harvey before Large scored the Cobblers fourth goal and completed his hat trick. Not to be outdone Mabbutt scored once more to complete the only hat trick of his career and to give Rovers an incredible 5-4 away win
In the 1997/98 Play-Off Semi-Finals, having secured a 3-1 home win many Rovers fans were already booking tickets for Wembley. However the Cobblers thought (quite rightly, as it turned out) that their away goal, scored late in the game, would be crucial. So it turned out, the 3-0 reverse at Sixfields was stunning.
One player looking to make an immediate impression is new signing Sam Hoskins who completed a successful trial spell at Sixfields and was handed a one-year deal by manager Chris Wilder. The striker commented, “It’s a good club and I wanted to prove to the manager what I can do. It’s good to get signed and now I want to show the fans what I’m all about.”
“We’ve got a really strong group of lads and this season will be a good one if we can play how we’ve proven in pre-season. All of us attacking players are building up an understanding of each other. It’s good to get a few games under my belt with them so that when the season does start we know what each other can do.”
By way of contrast right-back Brendon Moloney who sustained a knee injury during the closing stages of last season and after an early pre-season recurrence of the injury faced an operation. Wilder, believed the club were given bad advice about how to handle the 26 year-old’s injury following the initial incident against Burton Albion.
Moloney commented, “It could be a case of the game coming just too soon, but we haven’t given up hope yet. I really hope to be involved but we’ll just have to see day by day how the recovery progresses. We’ll step up my routine and I’m sure I won’t be too far away from a return now. You don’t want to rush coming back after an injury as that could have a longer term effect and you’ll then have another setback, so we’ll take it day by day and see how it develops.”
“There’s good competition for places here. You need that in the squad and need the competition all over the pitch to have a successful side, and I think we have that now.”