By Gerry PrewettBristol Rovers entertain Oxford United for their opening home League game of the 2016-17 season.
Last season Rovers chased the high-flying Oxford team all season and despite failing to catch them managed to clinch an automatic promotion place.
In the early season home game last season Rovers, who had started the game strongly, but were reduced to 10 men with just over 15 minutes played as Ollie Clarke was shown a straight red by referee James Linington for a suspected elbow on Oxford midfielder Danny Rose.
Numbers were up just before the hour mark as, following some neat interplay by Jermaine Easter and Matty Taylor, Taylor was bundled to the ground by Liam Sercombe who was shown his second yellow of the game.
On 62 minutes the away team’s Kemar Roofe was allowed space to shoot on the edge of the area and curled one into the top right hand corner of the goal with the ball clipping the crossbar on it's way past a helpless Aaron Chapman.
On Tuesday night United had shown Rovers how to beat higher ranked opposition when Liam Sercombe grabbed the extra-time winner at Birmingham City.
Unlike Cardiff, the Blues made six changes to the side held to a goalless draw by the Welsh team on Saturday, and dominated the first half. Alex MacDonald worked hard to keep Oxford moving forward as the game wandered aimlessly into extra time. Then up popped Sercombe who was positioned perfectly to head home a left-wing cross two minutes from time.
Looking at the history of games between the teams, there have been 50 meetings since Oxford first entered the League back in the mid 1960’s, replacing Accrington Stanley.
In terms of results the games between the teams have been remarkably even over the years with Rovers winning 19, United 18 and 13 draws. In all respects it’s the home teams who dominate in these fixtures with 5 United away wins and 7 Rovers away wins. Of course last season both games ended in single goal away wins!
The first game between the two teams was played on 18th September 1965 at Eastville. There were four goals scored, all by Jones, one by Oxford’s Tony, but the star of the day was Rovers’ Bobby who bagged a hat-trick.
However my vivid memory of that day was the Oxford custodian, Harry Fearnley who was smoking during the game! He used to rush into the back of his net whilst play was at the other end and have a quick puff. Also in the Oxford team was "Big Fat" Ron Atkinson, who the Evening Post noted failed to keep a tight grip on Bobby Jones.
The most goals scored in a Rovers’ home game was a stunning 6-2 win at the end of the 2000-01 relegation season, which ended up being meaningless as Rovers’ season fell apart at the death.
That two goal haul was only the second time the U’s have managed two goals on Rovers territory. However the next time they registered that number at the Mem was in 2002-03 season when they secured a 2-0 win.
Rovers have not beaten the U’s at home since 2 October 2004, when they won 2-0, with a Junior Agogo double. Since then there have been three draws and an opening day defeat.
United opened the scoring on 21 minutes, Adam Chapman fed the ball into Jake Forster-Caskey, who turned and shot on the edge of the area. Alfie Potter doubled Oxford’s lead just after the half hour mark, after a slip from Michael Smith near the half way line. The Oxford winger made a great solo run, and slotted the ball home past Walker in the Rovers goal, which saw Rovers season open with a 2-0 loss.
Prior to last season the previous meeting was in the 2013/14 campaign, and finished 1-1. James Constable scored Oxford’s goal, before John-Joe O’Toole netted a late equaliser.
United’s Aaron Martin believes his will gain from Rovers having had the Cardiff game screened on television. Although they have video analysis sessions before every game, the centre back felt he would be able to pick up useful pointers from being able to watch the whole 90 minutes.
Martin said, “We always watch a lot of stuff anyway, but when you watch them a few days before I think you can really get to grips with how they will play.It’s good for us.”
United Boss, Michael Appleton is pleased with the early season performances of 21-year-old right back Sam Long. Hehas done well since stepping into the role, producing a man-of-the-match performance in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Chesterfield, before contributing to a clean sheet in the midweek 1-0 EFL Cup win at Birmingham City.
Appleton said, “Sam keeps coming up against the quickest players on the pitch, but he’s standing up to it. We’ll sit here until August 31 knowing if we need to delve into the market for a loan then we can do. If a right back came in today, he would be sitting on the bench. Longy is doing pretty well and if he continues to play like he’s doing, I’ve got no issues with that.”
Talking about potential signings Appleton said, “One of them was a centre forward which having got Kane (Hemmings) means it isn’t going to happen. The other one is a wide player. I think the opportunity to train has gone out of the window, but not in terms of being able to get him in if we feel it’s right for us.”
Aside from long-term absentees Rob Hall and Christian Ribeiro, Oxford do not have many fresh injury concerns following their victory over Birmingham in the EFL Cup on Tuesday. The only new doubt, having come off as a precaution against the Championship side, is striker Wes Thomas, who had felt tightness in his groin last week against Chesterfield despite scoring in the 1-1 draw.
It is unclear whether Chey Dunkley will be available after hobbling off with hamstring problem on Saturday, but Aaron Martin will likely be involved after returning to the side against Birmingham.
Talking about Sunday’s game Appleton said, “It was funny last year because Bristol Rovers did ever so well and had a lot of momentum from going up the season before.
They probably had the better of the game at their place and it’s quite an intimidating ground, where they get right behind their players. To come away with a victory and a clean sheet was great but Rovers probably felt a bit hard done by.”
“But then when they came to our place we felt we dominated for 85 minutes and got mugged and lost the game 2-1! So even-stevens and I’m sure it will be a tough game again.
"I’m sure Rovers will do well again this year and good luck to them, but we also feel we are moving in the right direction. We need to make sure we compete as much as they do and if we can do that then I believe we have the talent to hurt them.”