By Gerry PrewettBristol Rovers take the short trip down to M5 to Devon to face Exeter City having hit a real drop off in performances in recent weeks, that has seen five defeats in the last seven games.
City are three positions and two points above Rovers having recorded maximum points in their last two games, away at Plymouth and Mansfield. On Tuesday night, whilst Rovers were going down at home to Stevenage, the Grecians were returning from Mansfield with a maximum haul,
Although they had more of the ball in a poor first half, Mansfield went in at the break two goals in arrears. The first goal saw Mansfield-born Lee Holmes get down the left on a counter-attack and cross low for Joel Grant to turn home his third goal of the season from six yards.
Mitch Rose and Jamie McGuire both headed chances wide for the Stags, before four minutes from the break Grant burst through attempted challenges from three opponents before setting up an unmarked Holmes to his right for a low finish from 10 yards.
After the game Boss Paul Tisdale was asked about the scorching form of youngsters Ollie Watkins and Jamie Reid and whether they would face Rovers.
"It is hard to predict the future," said Tisdale, "I will start by saying that Jamie has recovered to the form he had two years ago. That is great news for him and for us. Nothing is set in stone for the future (form can come and go) but he has now put himself alongside the other attacking players for selection and that will be judged game by game."
"Ollie Watkins, is a different situation as he is a bit younger. It has been a process for him over the last couple of years and it is probably in the last two or three weeks that I have seen a difference in him; a competitive difference. It has been the nature of his play that has encouraged me to look at him closely. Both he and Jamie earned their selection against Plymouth. They earned it in training and they earned it in the reserve games, and that has literally been in the last 10 days to two weeks.”
"We have suddenly got a squad coming back to full fitness. We have suddenly now got competition for places. I picked a tone for the Plymouth game and Bristol Rovers might be different, but the more players playing well can only be a good thing. It gives me a headache, but it's certainly better for me than fewer players, playing poorer."
Looking at the history of games between the Grecians and the Gas, the first ever meeting took place in Exeter on the opening day of the 1908-09 Southern League fixtures on 5th September. An 8,000 crowd saw an entertaining 3-3 draw with goals by Roberts (2) and Peplow for Rovers. In the return game on 2nd January, Rovers ran out 5-1 winners, with goals by Corbett (3), McGubbin and Roberts sending a 10,000 Eastville crowd home happy.
The first Football League fixture wasn’t until the closing weeks of the 1920-21 season. Interestingly the fixtures were played in ‘pairs’ at that time (this lasted for about four seasons). In the first game on 2nd May at Eastville, Rovers ran out 5-0 winners with goals by Syd Leigh (4) and Ellis Crompton (who was later to captain the Devon team). Leigh became the first player to score four goals in a League game for Rovers. Five days later Exeter gained their revenge at St James Park with a closing day 1-0 win, with Rovers Jessie Whateley scoring an own gaol for the home team.
Gerry Francis had a brief spell as manager at Exeter during the 1983-84 season and it was a real eye opener to him. Whilst they played very open and attractive football their defence leaked goals alarmingly and they were relegated. Rovers won both their games against their Devon rivals that year.
In the previous season there was a remarkable evening Eastville game in which Exeter threw everything into attack and were very unlucky to be held to a 4-4 draw. Paul Randall scored two goals that evening, one of them a trademark run from near the halfway line. It was obvious to all in the North Stand that Randall was well offside when he started his run. But as we all know the Referee is always right, even when he’s wrong! Rovers’ scorers were Holloway, Randall (2)and Viney o.g. Delve, P Rogers (2) and McEwan replied for the Devon team.
In 2012-13 Rovers recorded their first win of the season with a 2-1 victory at St James’ Park. The Gas took the led on 5 minutes when a long ball forward from Tom Parkes saw Craig Woodman fail to control it and Clarkson nipped in to rob the defender before slotting a left foot shot past Artur Krysiak from twelve yards.
The goal that Exeter had been threatening to score came in time added on in the first half. Jamie Cureton was able to roll the ball into the net after Etheridge had committed himself to trying to gather a cross from the right. He failed, the ball reached Cureton and he made no mistake, though he didn’t celebrate scoring against his former club.
Eliot Richards, who had replaced Tom Eaves 11 minutes earlier, scored Rovers’ winner on 70 minutes. The striker took advantage of a slip by Tommy Doherty on the halfway line and set off for goal, where he switched the ball from his right foot to his left and fired past Krysiak who managed to get a hand to the ball but couldn’t stop it entering the net.
The following season Rovers went down to an opening day defeat. Exeter opened the scoring on the hour when Craig Woodman’s corner from the right found Coles at the far post and the former Rovers defender headed back across Steve Mildenhall and into the net.
Eight minutes later Rovers were level when Harrison’s ball into the box was met by Richards, who swept the ball home with some aplomb.
Neither side seemed likely to break the deadlock at that point, but Exeter went back in front with ten minutes remaining when Parkin’s diving header from a cross from the left beat Mildenhall before nestling in the corner of the net.
In recent seasons goals aren’t generally a feature of games between the two teams, although Rovers did secure a 5-0 FA Cup replay victory on 15 December 1998 after a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park. In Exeter there have been 44 League and Cup games since 1920 and of those Exeter has won 21, there have been 13 draws and just 10 Rovers victories.
One player returning to full fitness at St James Park is winger Lee Holmes, who was one of the Grecians' big summer signings, having been brought in on loan at the tail end of last season from Preston.
However, he has had a frustrating opening four months to this season, having been hampered by injuries. Having recovered from a groin injury to set up one goal and score the other in the win over Mansfield he is looking to build on his latest success.
"I was pleased to get a goal," he said. "I have got a target of what I want to get to at the end of the season and I have probably taken a little longer than I thought I would to get to where I am now on two, but the assists keep coming and hopefully I can keep ticking them both off and at the end of the season it puts us in a good place."
"This season has been a little bit stop-start with injuries. I have been out a little bit longer than I would have liked, but I'm just making sure I'm right. I don't want to be coming in and then going back out again. I feel good and it was obviously nice for us to get the win against Mansfield. It was a big one for us to get back-to-back wins and it is up to us to kick on now."
"I will be looking to start, but that is up to the manager," said Holmes. "We have got strength in depth and that's a good position be in. Tis made four changes for the Mansfield game and if you can do things like that and the team stays strong then you are in a good place. But that 60 minutes has done me well and hopefully I can kick-on now."
"It is a big game for us," added Holmes. "They will be looking for the win as well. They have got a good away form, but it is time for us now to put our heads down and go on a run."