By Gerry PrewettAs the season approaches its climax Bristol Rovers have their penultimate home game with a fixture against an Exeter City team five points off a Play Off place.
Whilst Rovers automatic promotion hopes suffered a setback in their game at Stevenage on Tuesday, the Grecians went down at home to Mansfield.
The Devon sides hopes were dented after just 11 minutes as the Stags Ryan Tafazolli side-footed strike went through the crowd and rolled past Bobby Olejnik on its way into the net for the opener. It stayed at 1-0 until half-time.
It was ironic that it was just 11 minutes into the second half when the Grecians task became even harder. Despite a wonderful save from the home team’s custodian Bobby Olejnik to keep out Matt Green, Malvind Benning unleashed a screamer which flew past the Austrian to make it two.
Eight minutes later Exeter’s Football League Young Player of the Month Ollie Watkins beat his man to fire in and give his team some hope. Home team substitute Christian Ribeiro produced a 79th minute thirty-yard screamer to deliver a dramatic leveller for City. However it took just two minutes before Tafazolli put the visitors back in front he drilled a half-volley in past the helpless Olejnik,
Speaking after the game, Exeter Boss Paul Tisdale said, "It was a very good game but is one we have lost. At this stage of the season it is all about points and we just feel really frustrated we have ended up with nothing. I have to be careful, with the emotion of missing out, that I don't look at things too harshly. I need to step back and think about it a bit more, but we have got three games to go and there is going be ups and downs. It is clearly a more difficult task but we are still in it."
"The opposition were highly organised, allowed us to have the ball and stopped us from getting into dangerous areas," he said. "We had to be disciplined in what we did and not to concede that early goal. It was a disappointing first goal to concede. It was just a free-kick hit high into the air and it sort of bobbled into the net."
"Their second goal was something special and it's hard to criticise anybody for that, but the first and third goals are just very, very bog-standard balls into the box that end in a half challenge from one of our players and lands at the feet of one of their players to put it in. That can happen. You can get everything right. You can have the right mentality and be in the right place and that can still happen.”
"I have got to be careful what I think and what I say so soon after the match when we are so disappointed. But we didn't play badly. It was a very different game. The first goal was a key goal for us as I'd have been very happy coming in 0-0 at half-time and building a performance, but we were a goal down at that point and things changed for us."
"We certainly hadn't given up at 2-0 and the players responded to the changes," he said. "We made those changes and we changed the shape and we got into their half more often and we looked likely. At 2-2 it was anyone's game."
Speaking about his team’s chances of winning promotion he said, "Anything is possible. It is one of those leagues. Teams that you think will lose will win, and vice-versa. You have just got to stay with it and you never know."
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 goal 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 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 the 15 games since then, neither team has scored more than 2 goals.
This season the Grecians away form, much like Rovers, has been very impressive and they are chasing their sixth away win in a row, something which they have never managed to achieve in a single campaign before.
Tisdale, speaking ahead of this weekend’s game commented, “We have to believe we can do it, there is no reason why we can't. If you look at the 10 games before Mansfield there is no reason why we can't win those last three.”
"It's an increasingly difficult situation, but we just have to move on and get our mind very much focused on Bristol Rovers on Saturday. I have to say I am really looking forward to Saturday. They have got a really decent, controlled nature in the way that they play. They have got a goalscorer in Matt Taylor who is doing particularly well and we will have to be on guard against him.”
"It is going to be one of the best League Two games that weekend. The atmosphere is going to be wonderful and I think we will take a lot of fans, like we did against Yeovil, and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity for our side to enjoy and play and make the best of it."
Joel Grant and Clinton Morrison may be back in contention for a starting place on Saturday, following spells out with injury and illness. However, Matt Oakley is unlikely to feature as he recovers from a back spasm.
Speaking of Oakley, the Exeter Boss said, "The truth is we don't know how long he'll be out for, he has had a back spasm and those things, once they settle down, can clear up in a couple of days. It could be better by Saturday or it could be another week, but I think it is a bit premature to say that he is going to be out for the next two to three weeks. We have to just take it day by day, but he has improved in the last five days and I am certainly not writing him off yet for the rest of the season."