By Gerry PrewettTonight’s game sees 6th placed Rovers face off against 7th placed rivals AFC Wimbledon.
The Dons have had a tough three fixtures prior to this game, having lost at home to Oxford, drawn at Northampton (ending their outstanding series of victories) and drawing at home to Accrington on Saturday in controversial circumstances.
Stanley were denied potential victory in the goalless draw when they had a goal chalked off on the half-time whistle. It led to the wonderful headline on one website “John Coleman lets off steam at Kettle's whistle after Accrington goal ruled out”. It evoked memories of the infamous moment when referee Clive Thomas blew for time just as Zico scored a potential winner for Brazil against Sweden at World Cup 1978.
Stanley, who also had goalkeeper Ross Etheridge sent off, thought they had gone ahead when Billy Kee unleashed a low shot past Dons keeper Kelle Roos, but referee Trevor Kettle ruled it out saying that time was up before the ball crossed the line.
Earlier Lyle Taylor had a shot easily saved by Etheridge for the Dons, and Connor Smith also hit the post. Etheridge was dismissed for handball late on in the game and that incident was not without controversy either!
AFC manager Neal Ardley admitted that his team were lucky to keep a clean sheet, “If that had gone against me, I would feel exactly the same as John has, that the decision was absolutely ridiculous. In fairness to the ref, the only thing I can say is that the fourth official had told him time was up 20 seconds earlier. The play had gone well over the three minutes added on and if the referee had blown up at that point, fine. Given that he chose to play on, it’s led to a controversial decision.”
Unsurprisingly he agreed with Kettle’s decision to give a straight red to Etheridge for handling Lyle Taylor’s shot outside the area, and questioned substitute goalie Jason Mooney for his timewasting or lack of professionalism when coming on following the incident.
“(Mooney) had no socks on, no shorts on, no top on...it was like my wife getting ready for a night out! As a substitute you always have your gear ready and he was completely the opposite. Credit to the first keeper as I think he has stopped his team losing 1-0 with his save, but he was a yard outside the box.”
“I think we should count that as a good point. All the games I’ve watched against Accrington they dominate possession and play, and so we worked hard on our shape off the ball. In the end it was a scrappy game on a scrappy pitch, but we limited them to very little.”
Looking back at previous 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.
Rovers last home fixture against the Dons was on 30 November 2103, 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
Rovers’ last clash with AFC was at Cherry Red Records Stadium on Boxing Day, when the home team held out for a 0-0 raw after an early sending off ruined the game.
Ade Azeez has been unlucky to miss out on more first team game time in recent games as Ardley explained to the Press after the Northampton game, “I would have put Ade on if we hadn’t had to take George off injured,” he said. “That meant we had two subs left and we wanted to change our shape because we felt our wide players weren’t getting involved in the game. Barchy (Andy Barcham) was quiet, so we wanted to go three in midfield, put three up top and cause them a different problem.”
“Their two centre-halves were really aggressive coming through and winning everything and I just at the time thought ‘B’ (Akinfenwa) can back in and pin a defender and I thought he did really that well when he came on. Nothing came back off him and with two pacey guys like Lyle and Riggy up with him we thought it would cause problems.”
Azeez could be picked for tonight’s fame, but Francomb may not be so lucky. The former Norwich midfielder took a heavy hit shortly after half-time against Stanley and though he tried to carry on after treatment he hobbled off soon afterwards.
“George has a dead leg,” added Ardley. “Their guy has come through won the header and smashed George at the same time. They can be quite painful, so we’ll see where he is on that.”
“As far as I’m aware, everyone else is available for selection. They’ve all trained today, which is important to get their legs back, and their recovery strategies have been put in place with ice baths and protein shakes. By the time of the game tomorrow they will be raring to go. The idea is that Bristol Rovers will have to perform to their best to get anything from the game.”
Reflecting on the Boxing Day draw he commented, “Everybody got behind the team on that day and it was one of those games when you don’t know if the sending off cost us. It’s hard to say if we would have gone on and won the game with 11 men. Hopefully, there will be 11 versus 11 tomorrow and we can come away with the points. It’s a tough place to go and their home form has been outstanding recently.
“They are a good team and their manager (Darrell Clarke) has done brilliantly. When he took over towards the end of the season they got relegated he could not steady a sinking ship and they didn't start the following season well. People did not really want him there then, but he has shown a real strength of character and that’s a credit to him. He has turned them around.”
“Neal added that it’s tough to get the balance right between retaining stability in his side and giving other players opportunities during a packed schedule of matches. It is really hard. You look at one or two players and wonder if they are close to cumulative fatigue. You have to decide if that’s going to play a part and to trust players in the squad, but you have to look at what games you bring them in for. If you keep playing the same team one or two could pick-up injuries further down the line through muscle strains and I would really regret that.”
“We have 12 games left and they are all going to be difficult in their own way. I had a points total in my own head before the Barnet game that I wanted us to get by the time we got to Morecambe. It was a target I thought we would need to keep us right in there. I will not say what that is, but we’ve got two more games to accumulate it.”
“You need to get to 72 points to have a chance of being in the play-offs, but we do need to take each game on merit. Away to Bristol Rovers is going to be totally different to Morecambe away and York at home. We just need to find a way in each of these games to give ourselves the best chance.”