By Gerry PrewettAfter improving on their recent run of great form by demolishing third placed Macclesfield Town in a second-half display of attacking intent Bristol Rovers entertain West Country rivals Torquay United. It was a home defeat to the Gulls back on 12th April last year that sent Rovers into a serious spin down the table.
Both teams played out a very nervy first-half with very few chances but it was the away team that took the lead just after the hour mark. The ball was floated in to the box from a free kick and Shaquille Coulthirst rose and headed past Mildenhall in the Rovers goal.
On 75 minutes, Lee Mansell doubled the lead for Torquay. His shot took a wicked deflection off a Rovers player and flew into the back of the net.
Rovers thought they might have pulled a goal back when David Clarkson headed against the underside of the bar, but the ball had not crossed the line. In the final minutes of extra time Rovers staged some sort of fight back and managed to net a goal through Danny Woodards.
Looking at United’s overall record in Bristol, it is not a good one with 9 wins, 7 draws and 23 victories to Rovers from the 39 matches played there. It is over 30 years to find anything greater than a single goal difference between the teams in Bristol. Having said that the Devon team has won three of its last six visits to the Mem.
Speaking after his team’s latest game, a 0-0 draw at Welling manager Chris Hargreaves said his team was lacking confidence in front of goal, "It was a tough game, no doubt about it," he said. "They were very resilient after a loss to Dover Athletic and they had worked on a few things, you could tell that. They were quite stubborn to break down.”
"We had some good chances in the game and a good spell in the second half where we were totally dominant but we don't have that confidence now to put the ball in the back of the net. We fight on. A clean sheet is a positive, there were some good performances out there, but we obviously wanted a victory."
Hargreaves made six changes to the side that lost to Rovers on Boxing Day, recalling Downes, Tom Cruise, Ben Harding, Louis Briscoe, Jordan Chapell and Ashley Yeoman, while goalie Martin Rice failed to make the squad because of illness and young left-back Levi Ives because of a back problem.
“We had a few good chances, especially in a good spell in the second half, but we’ve not got a lot of confidence at the moment, and that sort of things often shows in front of goal. It was a frustrating draw, because we obviously wanted to win, but it’s a clean-sheet, which is a positive, and we fight on. Now Bristol Rovers is a great next game for us.”
Hargreaves changed formation at Park View Road, from 4-1-4-1 to 4-4-2 before the end of a first half spent mostly on the back foot. “We wanted to be less likely to concede, which was why I changed the shape,” he said, “Ryan Bowman needed some more support, and I thought that worked for a spell in the second half when we were totally dominant. But we didn’t score, and, if you don’t, you don’t lose.”
The game marked the return, after a four-match suspension, of Torquay centre-back Aaron Downes. “Aaron did well, and we’ve missed him,” Hargreaves added. “He’s determined to achieve something this season.”
One of the Gulls’ top priorities this week has been to get their captain and midfield playmaker Luke Young fit for the trip to the Mem.
Young, 21, had to go off in the second half at Welling with a recurrence of the thigh injury which knocked him out of the recent 2-0 defeat at Braintree. Hargreaves rated him ‘50-50’ to face the Gas. But with a home game against Alfreton Town to come on Sunday (3pm), it was unlikely that the Gulls will take any risks with Young’s fitness at this stage of the season.
“He’s a tough cookie, and we’re hoping that he’ll be OK,” said Hargreaves, “It’s the same thigh which caused a problem before, but we got Luke off as soon as he indicated that he was struggling, the last thing we wanted was for him to make it any worse,”
“Luke is the type of lad who’ll always turn out if possible, and we’ve got a few days to work on him, so fingers crossed that he makes it for Thursday.”
Goalkeeper Martin Rice has recovered from a bout of ’flu to rejoin the squad, but Dale Tonge and James McQuilkin are both ruled out by knee injuries.
Non-contract man McQuilkin is back in light training, but right-back Tonge was due to undergo ligament surgery this week.
Gulls also have the huge incentive of looking to avenge the Boxing Day defeat. “We played well in the first-half against Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day and were punished by one defensive mistake, and then a set-piece,” said Hargreaves.
“The wind was terrible in the second-half and that made it difficult, but I fully believe my players reaching their full potential are capable of beating any side in this division. We have shown what are capable of achieving with our run at the start of the season and we can do that again. This league is so tight and three wins on the bounce propels you right up the table.”
“Our objective is to do that and, when I look at my overall record since taking over, the money I have spent on players I have brought in stands up well. We now just need that run of form, hopefully starting tomorrow.”