By Gerry PrewettBristol Rovers take their shortest away trip of the season this weekend as they head over the Severn Bridge to take on Newport County. Just like the Mansfield game there will be an element of revenge on Rovers agenda, albeit it will be a dish not so cold.
When Rovers entertained the Exiles at the end of October, County were right near the basement and Rovers were in a rich vein of form with four wins and a draw in the previous five games. What no one saw coming was the 4-1 pasting that County handed out to Rovers that day.
The game sparked into life just before the half hour mark as a seemingly harmless cross from the Newport left hand side was headed into the back of the Rovers net by Tom Parkes in what seemed a bizarre own goal. Moments later Billy Bodin fired Rovers level as he found a pocket of space on the edge of the County penalty area before lashing a 25-yard strike past an outstretched Joe Day.
Early in the second half Newport took the lead again through a bad piece of goalkeeping from Lee Nicholls. A Lenell John-Lewis shot was deflected off of Tom Lockyer into the arms of Nicholls who then spilled the ball allowing Zak Ansah to slot home into an open net.
Things went from bad to worse for the home side as Tom Parkes hesitated on a clearance allowing Zak Ansah a shot on goal and the County striker made no mistake firing the ball past Lee Nicholls. County put the final nail in the Rovers coffin with just under 15 minutes to play as Tommy O'Sullivan fired another long range strike past Lee Nicholls to put John Sherridan's men in firm control of the game.
On Tuesday night, County edged further away from the League Two drop-zone with a goalless draw in their clash with Hartlepool United at Rodney Parade. They are now in 17th place in the table, 14 points clear of the relegation zone with just 10 games remaining.
Andrew Hughes and Medy Elito went close for the Exiles who were unable to break down a stubborn Hartlepool side. County had keeper Joe Day to thank as he did well to block a close-range shot from Lewis Hawkins after the United midfielder charged towards goal from the left byline to ensure the scores remained level at the break.
County Manager Warren Feeney replaced Tommy O’Sullivan with Gas loanee Jake Gosling at half-time. Gosling came close to making an early impact as he swung two inviting free-kicks into the penalty area as County looked to test the Hartlepool defence. Gosling saw his curling free-kick tipped over by Carson late on as County were forced to settle for a share of the points.
Feeney said after the game, “I thought we looked a bit leggy but it’s a point closer to where we want to be. Saturday took a lot out of us and we knew it was going to be a good scrap. Hartlepool are on a good run themselves, so it was important that we didn’t get beat.”
“There’s been a lot of games this month and the boys have done very well,” he added, “You could see how hard it was for both teams with the pitch. It will be heavy on their legs and it makes it difficult for both sides.”
“I’m pleased with a point,” he said. “People have talked about our night games but I don’t believe in hoodoos. I said to the players it would be a challenge tonight, we always want to win games but it’s a point. I still don’t think we are safe, there are 10 games to go and a lot of points to play for so I’m trying to keep their feet on the ground.”
Looking back at County’s history it reached a zenith when Len Ashurst was appointed manager in 1978 and he led the club to a promotion and Welsh Cup double two years later. It was followed by a memorable run to the Quarter-Final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup where they suffered an unlucky 3-2 aggregate defeat to East Germany's Carl Zeiss Jena.
Under Ashurst's successor Colin Addison, in his second spell in charge, County came close to promotion in 1982-83. However, a multi-talented team boasting the striking skills of John Aldridge and Tommy Tynan along with homegrown Welsh internationals Nigel Vaughan and Steve Lowndes soon broke up. In 1987 County were relegated back to the Fourth Division and the following year they were the second victim of automatic relegation to the Conference.
American Jerry Sherman took over but failed to live up to his promises of funding and, when they were locked out of Somerton Park for failing to meet payments to the council, County were expelled by the Conference in February 1989 and their sorry playing record was expunged.
Rovers and County have a long history dating back to the inception of Division 3 in 1920. Rovers won the first game 3-2 at Eastville on 1 September 1920 with goals by Joe Norton, Steve Sims and Ellis Compton for Rovers and an Andrew Walker penalty and Arthur Wolstenholme for County. Eight days later goals by George Chance and Sid Leigh gave the away team a 2-0 victory.
The following season County gained revenge with a 4-3 win at Eastville on 21 January 1922. Harry Dobson (2), Charlie Brittain and John Lythgoe scored for the Welsh team with James Liddell, David Steele and Joe Walter netting for Rovers.
The highest aggregate score came on 16 March 1936 as George McNestry, Stan Prout and a Bert Taylor hat-trick for Rovers overcame goals by Billy Burgess, Fred Calarke and Henry Perks to give a 5-3 home win.
Back in 1986-87, they tied 2-2 at Twerton Park on 14 December 1986 with Wayne Noble and Gary Smart scoring for the Gas and a Roger Gibbins double for County. Probably the most important result was Rovers’ 1-0 victory at Somerton Park on 9 May 1987 in the return fixture, where a Phil Purnell strike secured all three points and Third Division survival for Rovers.
Prior to the October game the sides had last met in January 2014 when Rovers beat Justin Edinburgh’s men 3-1 at the Memorial Ground, gaining revenge for a 1-0 loss at Rodney Parade the previous August.
The history is remarkably even with 63 games played, 24 victories to County, 22 to Rovers and 17 drawn. In Wales in the 32 games played there are 4 Rovers victories, 10 draws and 17 County wins.
Reflecting on the turmoil of the season so far midfielder Alex Rodman said, “I think if the season had started a bit later we’d be up there in and around the play-offs. I think if we’d picked up a win or two in the last couple of games we would only be 10 points off and there are a lot of games where we could have nicked a draw or a win.“
“But every team can say that and the main thing is to get safe and go from there. Until it’s mathematically certain we won’t take our foot off the gas. We’ll keep pushing and keep working hard on the training field but I’m quietly confident. I think Warren has done a fantastic job and I think that’s showing on the pitch with some of the results and performances he’s been getting. It’s a fantastic team spirit and I think it bodes really well for next season.”
“It was tough off the pitch with everything that happened with the club and the board but the main thing now is that we’re going to be staying in League Two, hopefully. I think we’ve got a good core of players here and I don’t think Warren would want to make too many changes, just add bits here and there. He’ll always be looking to add quality, anything that can strengthen us and it will be an exciting season next year.”
Meanwhile the sacking of Neil Lennon from Bolton Wanderers means that County are uncertain if they’ll be able to keep loan star Conor Wilkinson beyond this weekend. He is due to return to his parent club after Saturday’s game.
To make matters even more complicated even if Feeney is able to extend Wilkinson’s stay before next Thursday’s emergency loan deadline, he would miss the Easter weekend matches while on international duty for the Irish under-21 side.
“We don’t know about Wilkinson,” said Feeney. “His loan is up and Bolton only wanted to do it month by month but I don’t know what the situation is now with Neil leaving there. I know Conor is away for two games with the Republic of Ireland and we have been on the phone to Bolton but that will all change now with whoever is in charge there and it’s one we’ll have to look at in the next couple of days.”
Gosling will be an absentee from the County line-up as his loan precludes him appearing aginst the Gas.