By Nathan BeesFor Rovers to find themselves in second place and just 6 points behind Barnet after a haul of 13 points from a possible 15 over Christmas is nothing short of remarkable.
The management and playing staff deserve huge credit for the way we performed in our five festive fixtures and they thoroughly deserve a free weekend to regain full fitness and get over any niggles.
Prior to the Gateshead game three weeks ago people were wary that we were starting a very difficult looking run of matches. After Gary Mills’ side had visited The Mem we faced a double header against Torquay United, a home game against high flying Macclesfield and an away trip to strugglers Nuneaton Town. There was cautious optimism that we could acquire a good points total, but I don’t think anyone was brave enough to predict we would go unbeaten and edge ever closer to league leaders Barnet.
We did, though, and with some aplomb. The enthralling 3-2 triumph over The Heed on BT Sport was a huge result given the way we were outplayed in the first half and it was a statement of intent to the rest of the division. All 3 Gas goals were scored by central midfielders and it was only right that Stuart Sinclair scored the winner given the way he ran proceedings in the number 10 role in the second period. He was here, there and everywhere and drove us on to come from behind twice and ultimately claim all 3 points. The decision to play him in that role was a stroke of genius from Darrell Clarke.
That win boosted everyone’s confidence and set us up nicely for the next four games, where, on the whole, we displayed a welcome ruthlessness in front of goal. At Torquay we dominated the game and scored two good goals, although loan goalkeeper Fabian Spiess punched into his own net to gift our hosts a lifeline. We didn’t collapse at that point though and after a great team performance we saw the game out, despite a late scare with a disallowed Gulls goal. Had it counted it would have been the biggest injustice in football history given the way we ran them ragged, but thankfully the linesman wasn’t caught off guard and raised his flag.
Then, two days later, the lads put in their best performance of the season to hammer Macclesfield 4-0. There were two headers, a close range tap-in, a penalty, a clean sheet and an impromptu light show at The Mem and it truly was a superb afternoon. The light show spectacle, started by a couple of people in the South Stand, epitomised the feel-good factor amongst supporters and the players seemed to love it.
The performance showed the level the team can reach when they are firing on all cylinders and the other runners and riders at the top of the Conference will have sat up and taken notice, that’s for sure.
Somewhat disappointingly given our previous three results and performances, we had to settle for a draw at home to Torquay on New Year’s Day with Matty Taylor equalising from the penalty spot. We weren’t at our best and fell behind early on with near enough Torquay’s only shot on target, but we rallied and pushed for a leveller which was eventually forthcoming.
The linesman controversially signalled for a penalty after spotting an infringement from a set-piece, which the referee then awarded, and he sent Angus MacDonald off for a second bookable offence in the ensuing protestations. Taylor slotted home the spot-kick for 1-1… phew.
In the circumstances it was a good comeback draw and 7500 Gasheads went home pleased with their side’s never-say-die attitude keeping the unbeaten run going.
The final festive fixture was a potential banana skin trip to Nuneaton Town and in spite of worries that little recovery time was going to take its toll, Rovers put in a thoroughly professional performance to claim a comfortable 2-0 win. Earlier in the season we may have drawn this type of game against a team scrapping for their lives, but we were clinical enough at key times to come out on top and that was incredibly reassuring.
The other positive to come out of last Sunday’s victory was the fact Barnet were smashed by in-form Lincoln City, allowing us to claw back some ground on them at the summit. Gasheads were like blocks of ice stood on Nuneaton’s metal away terrace, but I can tell you now each goal Barnet conceded cheered us all up no end. It prompted optimistic discussions on the way home and everybody was asking the same question: ‘Do we have enough to catch them?’.
My answer to that was a guarded ‘yes’. We picked up more points than The Bees over Christmas and the fact they have stuttered recently with a defeat and a draw at home to Dover Athletic suggests they may be experiencing their first blip of the campaign. If they respond well in the weeks ahead then their fate remains firmly in their own hands, but I would suggest it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that their slump continues.
They have a difficult runs of games ahead and if they don’t get back to winning ways quickly it could hand us a huge psychological lift as the season’s end approaches.
Don’t get me wrong, our coming fixtures look difficult as well, particularly on the road, but we are set to tackle them whilst confidence is sky high and the team are playing well. We have lost just once in 20-odd league games and nobody will relish the prospect of facing us, especially if Darrell Clarke is able to add new players to his squad before February.
We have a lot of work to do in order to catch Martin Allen’s men but it most definitely isn’t an impossibility. They are vulnerable to slip ups, as they have proven, and as long as we maintain our consistency we can take full advantage.
Clarke said yesterday that he hoped to unveil two new signings on Monday if things go according to plan, and that would give the manager plenty of time to integrate them into the squad before next Saturday’s trip to play-off chasing Woking. Marcus Stewart has said that any new recruits will have to be good enough to come straight into the first team fold and that means competition for places will be fierce.
It would be harsh for any player to lose their place given the way we are playing at the moment but in football you constantly need to try and improve things and it is essential Rovers do that. Luton Town, last year’s Conference champions, strengthened in January and it stood them in good stead to go on and secure the title; hopefully we can follow suit.
This weekend may be slightly boring without a game tomorrow afternoon, but never fear…
Woking will come around before you know it!