By Gerry Prewett
This weekend Bristol Rovers take on the team promoted with them via the Play Offs, AFC Wimbledon.
The Wombles got off to a dreadful start to the season, losing their first 3 League games and drawing the next two before they defeated Chesterfield 2-1 on 3 September. A fabulous October saw them win 4, draw 1 and lost just 1 game to elevate them up the table.
They have also shown they know the way to goal having beaten Bury in successive weeks 5-0 and 5-1 (the first game in the FA Cup) and in their last home game they thrashed Port Vale 4-0. However their latest game was a different story.
In the away game at Roots Hall they could have taken a 5th minute lead against a Southend team unbeaten since early October. Dominic Poleon outpaced the home defence to latch on to a weak back header but his shot struck stand-in keeper Ted Smith and rebounded to safety.
But the home team took advantage of the let-off five minutes later when a Ryan Leonard long flat throw on the right caused indecision the statuesque Dons defence, with no one attacking the ball it fell into the path of Southend striker Simon Cox, who lashed a fierce shot past James Shea from the edge of the six-yard box.
Soon after Cox got a toe to another cross which hit the crossbar. With 40 minutes on the clock and half-time approaching Lyle Taylor was caught napping by near the left touchline by Marc-Antoine Fortune, the ball quickly found its way into the Dons penalty area where an unmarked Will Atkinson hit a diagonal shot past Shea to double the home team’s lead.
Neal Ardley’s half-time talk and a change in formation seemed to have an immediate effect and on 50 minutes a cross from the left found the head of Tom Elliott and his goal-bound header was excellently tipped round the post.
With 25 minutes of the game left Taylor received a knockdown on the edge of the penalty area and curled a shot narrowly past the post with the keeper beaten. The game then changed as Taylor, already on a yellow for a rash first half challenge received a second yellow card for a late challenge on the Blues Anton Ferdinand.
Their frustration increased minutes later when referee Lee Collins sent manager Neal Ardley to the stand after sarcastically applauding the sending-off. With just four minutes remaining the game was made safe for the Essex team as Cox bore down on the Dons goal and calmly lobbed the ball over the advancing Shea into the net.
Looking back at previous fixtures the results are strongly in Rovers favour with 5 wins, 2 draws and 1 defeat in the 8 games played, with Rovers having won all 4 of the home fixtures.
In 2011/12 Rovers’ opening day game saw Paul Buckle’s team visit Kingsmeadow for the South West London team’s debut in League football. The live televised game provided great entertainment. Goals by McGleish and Harrold had Rovers cruising within 20 minutes. AFC then fought back and Stuart was on the scoresheet 7 minutes before half-time. On 67 minutes Kingsmeadow erupted as Ademeno pulled AFC level. It was left for Adam Virgo to spoil the party with an 84th-minute penalty to take all 3 points back down the M4 to Bristol.
Rovers should have had the game out of Wimbledon's reach by half time, but allowed their hosts to get back on level terms before they settled things with that late penalty. The team contained ten players making their Rovers league debut.
The following season an appalling first half display saw Rovers give away 3 goals in 14 minutes to lose any chance of taking anything from the game. To cap it all they finished the game with ten men after Tom Parkes picked up his second yellow card of the evening on 83 minutes.
It was no real surprise when Wimbledon took the lead on 14 minutes. A ball in from the right seemed to catch everyone by surprise and appeared to hit Gary Kenneth on the shin and roll into an unguarded net. Incessant pressure from the home side saw them rewarded with a second goal on the half-hour mark. Midson was the provider, slipping the ball out to the right to Rashid Yussuff who comfortably slid the ball past Neil Etheridge from six yards.
Three minutes later goal number three arrived. Tom Parkes was penalised with a yellow card for a poor challenge out on the right, George Francomb floated the free-kick into the area and Antwi was credited with the final touch, though from the stand it appeared to go in off of Kenneth.
With just 18 minutes remaining Rovers recovered some semblance of dignity when David Clarkson set up Eaves for the fourth goal of his brief Rovers career. Winning possession some 25 yards from goal, he squared the ball to his strike partner who fired a superb shot into the top corner of the net.
Any hopes of a dramatic fight back were dashed seven minutes from time when Parkes made a rash challenge on Luke Moore and was booked for his efforts. It was his second booking of the evening, and he headed for the dressing room knowing he faced another suspension.
On 30 November 2013, David Clarkson opened the scoring for Rovers, before Tom Parkes doubled the lead on the half-hour mark. Matt Harrold rounded things off from the penalty spot just before the final whistle, to complete an emphatic 3-0 home victory.
Last season on the 8 March Rovers took the lead on 28 minutes when Jermaine Easter nodded Rovers ahead from Lee Brown's cross. Ollie Clarke doubled the lead with a low right-footed shot 1o minutes later.
Jon Meades' header on 52 minutes brought Wimbledon back into the game but Matt Taylor's 12-yard finish on 78 minutes, his 19th of the season, sealed victory. The Don’s Adebayo Akinfenwa was sent off for dissent in added time.
The Don’s Assistant Manager, Neil Cox has urged his team to finish the year on a high note, “It’s been an absolutely brilliant year. We are not going to have a go at the players for one disappointing display at Southend. It is not going to ruin what we have done, but we cannot afford for it to happen again. Now we want to go on and have another good season. We had a meeting with the players this morning. We told the players how well they have done in the last year, but we said that now is the time to kick on and get stronger. We want to get through this last game before the New Year and have another good year.
“The lads did a lot of their own work today with what they needed to do. We’ve watched the DVDs and gone through a few clips. Then we managed to get over an hour in, but the pitches are still firm so we have to be careful with them. They (Bristol Rovers) are in good form and it will be difficult. They play 4-4-2 sometimes or 3-5-2 and they score goals. It’s a difficult place to go. It’s our last game of the year so we want to go there and try to get three points.”
Cox also praised current Dons goalkeeper James Shea for grasping his opportunity since Kelle Roos left at the end of last season “James was left out of the side, but he did not sulk. He put his head down, worked really hard every day with ‘Bayzo’ and he took his chance. If I get a chance to speak to Kelle I will say to him that he should be disappointed not to be in the side, but work even harder to get back in.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming game Cox said, “Every time we’ve had a bit of a disappointing result we’ve had a right good fight-back. The boys were in there afterwards having a chat about it. We will get them ready and organised so that we are ready to go again for New Year’s Eve.”
"We had fantastic support yet again with brilliant travelling fans. We are a bit disappointed with the way we played in the first 30 minutes. But we had a right good go and on another day we could have got something from the game.
“We showed a lot of character in the second-half and played a bit more on the front foot. We had nothing to lose and Tyrone (Barnett) came on and caused them problems. On another day he could have had a couple of goals, but he was a bit unlucky.”
He highlighted the opening as being critical to his team’s defeat, “It was the first 20 minutes. We did a lot of work on their set pieces, including defending throw-ins, and we went over it again this morning, but we did not start the game well. We got punished from a long throw-in with a flick-on and Simon Cox was left unmarked at the back post. That was really disappointing on the day.”