By Gerry PrewettBristol Rovers head up to south west London on Boxing Day to the Cherry Red Records Stadium to face an AFC Wimbledon team sitting in 14th place in the Division Two table. Wimbledon are currently in a six game winless streak, having picked up just 4 points in that time.
Prior to their current run they had 3 consecutive wins under their belt. On Saturday they pulled back from a 2-0 half time deficit to earn a 2-2 draw at Newport. The Welsh team began on the front foot and were soon ahead. Alex Rodman thundered a 25-yard strike past Dons goalkeeper James Shea after 14 minutes.
On the half hour mark, Swansea loanee Ollie McBurnie forged an opening for the second as County went route one. McBurnie chased a long ball downfield and harried AFC Wimbledon centre-back Paul Robinson, who could only poke the ball into his own net.
Lenell John-Lewis nearly made it three when he rounded Shea but could not slot home from an acute angle. The Dons hit back with Lyle Taylor bundling home just 14 seconds after the restart. The turnaround was completed in the 79th minute when Taylor sprinted through and stroked the ball past Newport's Joe Day for his eighth goal of the season.
Speaking after the game Don’s manager Neal Ardley said, "When you're 2-0 down after half an hour a point's a great result. I'm actually disappointed we didn't go and win it in the end because I thought we were the team that were most likely to.”
"We couldn't have got much more wrong in the first 25 to 30 minutes. We lost every first ball, every second ball and we just looked all over the shop. I thought the way we came out in the second half and the way we played through it all was immense, we've just got to learn not to start the way we did."
In 2011/12 Rovers’ opening day fixture saw Paul Buckle’s team visit Kingsmeadow for the South West London team’s debut in League football. The live televised game provided great entertainment. Goals by McGleish and Harrold had Rovers cruising within 20 minutes. AFC then fought back and Stuart was on the scoresheet 7 minutes before half-time. On 67 minutes Kingsmeadow erupted as Ademeno pulled AFC level. It was left for Adam Virgo to spoil the party with an 84th minute penalty to take all 3 points back down the M4 to Bristol.
Rovers should have had the game out of Wimbledon's reach by half time, but allowed their hosts to get back on level terms before they settled things with that late penalty. The team contained ten players making their Rovers league debut.
The following season an appalling first half display saw Rovers give away 3 goals in 14 minutes to lose any chance of taking anything from the game. To cap it all they finished the game with ten men after Tom Parkes picked up his second yellow card of the evening on 83 minutes.
It was no real surprise when Wimbledon took the lead on 14 minutes. A ball in from the right seemed to catch everyone by surprise and appeared to hit Gary Kenneth on the shin and roll into an unguarded net. Incessant pressure from the home side saw them rewarded with a second goal on the half hour mark. Midson was the provider, slipping the ball out to the right to Rashid Yussuff who comfortably slid the ball past Neil Etheridge from six yards.
Three minutes later goal number three arrived. Tom Parkes was penalised with a yellow card for a poor challenge out on the right, George Francomb floated the free kick into the area and Antwi was credited with the final touch, though from the stand it appeared to go in off of Kenneth.
With just 18 minutes remaining Rovers recovered some semblance of dignity when David Clarkson set up Eaves for the fourth goal of his brief Rovers career. Winning possession some 25 yards from goal, he squared the ball to his strike partner who fired a superb shot into the top corner of the net.
Any hopes of a dramatic fight back were dashed seven minutes from time when Parkes made a rash challenge on Luke Moore and was booked for his efforts. It was his second booking of the evening, and he headed for the dressing room knowing he faced another suspension.
Rovers’ last visit to the Cherry Red Records Stadium was on 4 April 2014 as they fought out a dour 0-0 draw.
Ardley hopes the spirit his players showed at Newport goes a long way to reassuring supporters that the fire is still burning in his AFC Wimbledon squad. Wimbledon were booed off at Kingsmeadow seven days earlier following defeat to Stevenage and Ardley described the aftermath of that loss as his lowest point as manager.
Off-the-field issues with goalkeeper Ben Wilson, who was sent back to Cardiff after a Twitter spat with supporters, only made matters worse in a disastrous few days. There was growing dissent among the Dons faithful after the week from hell and Ardley would have been fearing the worst as his team put in a shocking first 45 minute’s work at Rodney Parade.
He didn’t read them the riot act at Newport though, that had been done on Monday morning as he reminded the players of the club’s values, and the second-half display was much-needed.
“My overriding feeling is I hope it’s shown a real genuine spirit among the group because that was probably criticised a bit last week. If ever you’re going to show it, you’ve got to show it at 2-0 down.
“We should not have been in that situation in the first place, but it takes a lot of character to turn it around when you are all over the shop. The players deserve all the credit because they came out in the second-half and showed what they are capable of.”
“A manager’s job is to try and affect the game from the side. I made a brave substitution at half time and went with three up front. We had a chat in there at half-time and there was no ranting and raving. The only people who could change it were the players and they did that.”
“We had the momentum and we could have scored two or three in the first five minutes. We didn’t and they got a bit of control over the game again. We made another couple of substitutions and changed the shape again, but the spirit and commitment shone through.”
Meanwhile Ardley confirmed that Jake Reeves is back available again. Midfielder Reeves missed the Newport game due to personal reasons, but he has trained this week and is back in contention for the Boxing-Day game.
Ardley said, “Jake came back into the group and trained on Tuesday so that is great news to have him back. He is such a good player. Everybody is fighting hard and we are determined to try and get that momentum back, but there are no easy games in this league and we have to earn that right.”
Talking about Darrell Clarke, Ardley said, “Darrell took over towards the end of the season when they got relegated and that was a big blow, but it was a great response to get them back up. They have kept that momentum going and are doing well this season. They find ways of winning games.”
“I have watched lots of League 2 football this season and there have been the odd stand-out team here and there, but most sides just find ways of winning games. Sometimes they don’t necessarily deserve to, but they do certain things better than the other team. That’s something that we have to master because we have been very good in games and not won. We have been punished when we’ve been poor.”
“We need to find ways of winning all sorts of different games. We will certainly try and do our best over the Christmas period, before having a look in January to see where we go with it.”