By Gerry PrewettBristol Rovers entertain Crawley Town on Saturday looking to ‘put right’ one of their more disappointing games of the season.
Rovers went to Sussex on 21 November to face a struggling team but two early goals made the Gas’ task almost impossible and they came back empty handed.
Having entered the League in 2010/11 Town won promotion at their first attempt. After three seasons in Division 1 they were relegated on the last day of the 2014–15 season following a 1–2 defeat at home against Coventry City. Under Mark Yates the Reds have found it difficult to make any real progress this season and a 2-0 defeat at home to Exeter on Monday did little to help their cause. It meant that Crawley have only one victory from their last seven home games.
Crawley keeper Callum Preston, making his first home appearance since the end of September, was soon in action with important saves from Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes in the opening 10 minutes. The away team went ahead in the 28th minute when Ollie Watkins set up Taylor in front of goal and he slipped the ball past Preston for his second goal of the season. The Devon team secured their victory after 74 minutes through a powerful close-range header from Watkins after a cross by Taylor to notch the Grecian’s second goal.
Speaking after the game Yates admitted his team were lacking defensively and in midfield as they paid the price for a poor first half display. Despite going into the fixture on the back of a five-game unbeaten run, the Reds looked off the pace and after a number of attacks by the visitors it came as no surprise when they took the lead just before the half hour mark, former Crawley loanee Jake Taylor the scorer.
"I don't think it's that we didn't turn up, I think they showed what a good side they were, particularly in the first half. We didn't set out not to make tackles and not to stay with runners but I felt the goal was coming, as did the crowd by the sounds of it. We didn't take enough warning and we didn't stay with our men properly and they scored.”
"We responded really positively and pleasingly in the second half. Without Matt Harrold in the team we felt we need to be a bit more solid in the middle of the park and have that extra body in there but we didn't really get near them first half in the middle of the park.”
“We felt we had to change it, and when we got back to doing what we do best, I felt we gave them a right game. We made their keeper make four or five good saves, unfortunately we got done on the break and paid the price. The second half was pleasing for me because we asked questions of them and I thought if we had got one it might have been a different story. If we had got one even at 2-0 down, I still think we would have been asking question until the end."
Looking at the record between Rovers and Crawley it’s the away team who have the advantage with two wins, two draws and one defeat. The first tie saw the Sussex team demolish Rovers 4-1 on 3 September 2011. The return fixture at the Mem ended 0-0 as Crawley went on to promotion.
They next met in the FA Cup in 2013-14 and the game at the Mem again finished 0-0. In the replay a dramatic finale saw Rovers score twice through Eliot Richards and John-Joe O’Toole to go through to the third round. They had trailed to Andy Proctor’s 14th minute goal and didn’t look their best in the opening period, even though they created two very good opportunities. They came more into it after the break and improved as an attacking force following the introduction of substitutes Chris Beardsley and Ellis Harrison.
In the game at the Checkatrade Stadium in November Rovers went down to just their second away defeat of the season. The home side started positively using ex-Rovers man Matt Harrold as the main focal point for their attacks and it was Harrold who had the best chance in the opening five minutes as he connected with Jimmy Smith's cross but headed over the crossbar.
The home side went one nil up moments later as the ball fell to Rhys Murphy in the penalty area and the Reds man made no mistake poking the ball past Lee Nicholls. Less that 60 seconds after the restart Murphy hit the back of the net again, this time from long range catching out Nicholls to give Rovers a mountain to climb if they were to get anything out of the game.
With only two minutes of normal time remaining Billy Bodin was bundled to the ground in the penalty area giving referee Trevor Kettle no option but to point to the spot. Matty Taylor stepped up confidently and sent Flahavan the wrong way and pulling a goal back for Rovers, but it was too little too late for the Gas
Much like Rovers the Reds have recently come under new ownership in Ziya Eren, who is a Turkish businessman and president of Turkish second division side Kayseri Erciyesspor. Eren is looking for the Reds to reach the Championship within the next ten years.
He is looking at every aspect of the club, with a view to making changes over coming seasons. Much like the Gas, Crawley also seem to have experienced a ‘feel good bounce’ since the announcement of the new ownership, they have had one win and three draws and Monday’s defeat in their last five matches, as Yates’ side look to end the season on a high.
Yates has demanded a positive end to the season, insisting that they will be looking to get at least a draw from the game this weekend. Nineteen points above the League Two drop zone, Crawley are all but safe from relegation but Yates wants to see his side finish the season strongly, with a summer of change expected under the new owners looming.
Yates commented, "We want to finish positively, every game is tough for us, doesn't matter if it's York away or Exeter at home, and 99 per cent of the time we have applied ourselves in the right way. I'm looking forward to the next six weeks.”
"Bristol Rovers have been in great form and I think they had six wins out of six before Easter Monday, so it will be tough. A lot of the teams that get out of the Conference can go through this division and they have carried that momentum on and have been in great form. They score goals and they keep clean sheets, and that's obviously a winning formula.”
"We know it will be a tough game but we will dust ourselves down and see where we are with a couple of injuries. Hopefully one or two players will be back. The lads have worked extremely hard and the result against Exeter was a tough one to take. It's up to us to show what a decent side we are and we can go back and put ourselves in a winning position.”
"As I've said throughout the season, whether you are playing Northampton at the top or Dagenham at the bottom, every game is tough. We have to go there with the attitude that we can get something from the game."
Harrold missed Monday's defeat by Exeter City with a knee injury but Yates says he may make changes ahead of this weekend's fixture, "I did that against Exeter, if you like. With the injuries, with the few knocks we were carrying, it was right to give people games. I just pick teams that I will try to win games.”
"Ideally, I'll have a look at one or two to see if they will be in my plans for next year or if we can get something out of them for that game. Every game is vital whether it's me or the players, we are always looking to improve."
One player looking to make an impression is 20 year old keeper Callum Preston. He impressed in Monday’s defeat, the highlight being a fantastic save to deny Ollie Watkins early in the first half. He has had to spend time on the bench before breaking through recently. He has worked with young Newcastle loanee Freddie Woodman, veteran Darryl Flahavan and the experienced Paul Jones, who has been recalled by Portsmouth.
“I’ve had to be patient. People forget I’m still only 20 and am still learning the game and am not the finished article yet. But the more games I play I feel I am getting a lot better. I am now feeling a bit more comfortable playing League Two football.”
“I’ve played eight games now and they have been great to learn off, even though Freddie was only 18 and Darryl who was 17 years older then me! But they have really helped me a lot with my game and now I feel I am feeling the benefit of it.
“League Two football is very direct and you can create chances from the goalkick, particularly with someone like Matt Harrold in the side. I want to be the best I can be I prefer to play in front of a big crowd, as a young lad you dream of playing in as big a house and in the best atmosphere possible.
“We’ve shown we can beat get something from the bigger teams, having beaten Bristol Rovers here, Luton away and drawn with Plymouth and hopefully we can get something from the game. I’ve really settled down here and I’d love to sign for next year. I want to play as many games as possible and obviously Jack (Rose) does as well and we’ll be pushing each other and it will be great for us.”
Returning to the team is expected to be central defender Joe McNerney who has been out of the side since October due to a knee injury. He managed the last 11 minutes of the Exeter game and Yates said, “It’s great to have Joe back. Like Lanre Oyebanjo, Joe has been out for a lot of the season and he’s been desperate to return.
“He had 90 minutes against Portsmouth in a friendly a couple of weeks ago, so Monday was another step forward. We’ve got another seven games and I’m sure Joe is keen to finish the season strongly.”
McNerney commented, “I’ve not been much fun to be around in the last few months. Like Banj, I have never been out for this length of time and it’s extremely tough mentally as well as physically with the rehab work you have to do.”
“But I felt fine on Monday and hopefully I can get plenty of games between now and the end of the season. For me it almost feels like the season’s starting not nearly finished and I want to play in as many games as I can, hopefully starting at Bristol Rovers this Saturday.”