By Gerry PrewettThis weekend Bristol Rovers take a trip to South London to face a Millwall team currently sitting in mid-table.
Last season’s Play-Off Finalists have had a mixed campaign to date. A home record of 3 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats does not make the New Den the fearsome place it once was.
Having said that those two home defeats came against Bolton and Rochdale, both of whom have caused Rovers trouble at the Mem.
Neil Harris’s team had a reasonable start to the season with the exception of a 5-1 mauling at Peterborough. However they really came up short in September and early October when they drew 2 games and then contrived to lose the next 4.
Since losing that home game to Bolton on 18 October the Lions have won 4 on the bounce; albeit the last two victories were in Cup competitions, 1-0 at home to Southend in the FA Cup on Saturday and a 3-1 victory at Luton on Tuesday night.
In Tuesday night’s game all the goals came in the second half with the Lions going 1-0 down when Shaun Hutchinson turned Craig Mackail-Smith’s low cross into his own net in the 57th minute.
Substitute Fred Onyedinma replaced Aiden O’Brien and brought the scores level when he finished off Gregg Wylde’s cross.
Calum Butcher fired in a shot from the edge of the box on the 81st minute, Luton shot stopper Craig King failed to hold it and Harry Smith pounced to score his first senior goal.
The third goal came in the 88th minute. David Worrall’s free-kick was made to measure for Smith and he headed beyond King to make sure of a third straight win in Group H.
Harris praised his young striker after the game, “Harry Smith scored two goals, but his overall performance was outstanding. Harry showed the ability to defend from the front and to link-up play. I expected him to win his headers against two smaller centre-halves, it won’t be as easy as that in league football. And he’ll learn that.”
“We have to realise he has come from lower down, the fans need to be patient with him. He won’t score two goals every time he’s on a football pitch. He linked really well with Aiden [O’Brien] in the first half and really well with Fred [Onyedinma] in the second half.
“I knew Luton would be young. I knew that Nathan [Jones] would put a young side out with just a bit of experience to help out, four or five seniors. I told the boys I expected us to win the game. Take nothing away from the second half performance and coming from behind, but I did expect us to win it tonight. We had enough experience in the side to win.”
Harris also lavished praise on debutant Paul Rooney, 19, who was signed from Irish side Bohemians in July, “I said to Roons, he’s come from Irish football and had to adjust to the pace of full-time training,”
“Him and Harry are exactly the same, they’ve played part-time football. Roons has got great ability on the ball. He reads the game really well. Tonight he was playing against Craig Mackail-Smith, a £3million striker, he has to make good decisions. It sets him up really well. He’s had a good debut.”
Looking at the history of games between the clubs the overall record favours Rovers who have won 34 of the 79 games, with the Lions winning 26. In London, Rovers have won 10 and the Lions 19. The last time the teams met the Bermondsey team won 2-0 at the New Den. Steve Morison on 62 minutes and a last minute own goal by Pat Baldwin sealed Rovers’ fate in front of a 10,000 crowd
The very first time the team’s crossed paths was on 14 December 1901 in an FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round tie where the teams fought out a 1-1 draw before 3,000, the replay at Eastville saw Rovers win 1-0 with a goal from John Jones. The following season the teams met again and after a 2-2 and 0-0 draw Rovers lost 2-0 at the Den. The attendance at the 0-0 draw is listed as ‘fair’.
The first League meetings took place in Rovers first League season 1920-21 and the Lions won both games, played a week apart on 28 August (at the Den) and 4 September (at Eastville). Bill Voisey and Jim Broad scored the home team’s goals in Rovers very first League game and Jim Dempsey scored a double for the away team in Bristol with George Chance replying for Rovers.
There have been some great games between the clubs over the years. Maybe one of the best was on 25th October 1965 at the Den. Millwall were defending a fantastic undefeated home record and Rovers away form wasn't the best. Within three minutes Joe Davis had turned a Barry Rowan ball into his own net. Rovers' hero Alfie Biggs hit a quick reply steering the ball wide of Alex Stepney.
After 20 minutes another Rovers stalwart Doug Hillard had Rovers in front when he hit one of his free kick specials through the Millwall defence. The match swung back in the Lions’ favour when Len Julians chipped in a short-range shot after 36 minutes.
The score stayed at 2-2 until 15 minutes from the end, when Mickey Brown robbed Hillard of the ball and beat an advancing Bernard Hall. However Harold Jarman restored the balance between the two sides four minutes later with a close range shot from a corner. The 16,151 crowd certainly saw an entertaining game that evening.
Another memorable game was at Eastville on 8th May 1984. Goals by Brian Williams, Paul Randall and Mickey Barrett with a header secured a dramatic last minute 3-2 win. It was to be Barrett's last ever appearance for Rovers before he died so tragically that summer.
33 year old Steve Morison is a doubt for Millwall this weekend after he damaged his knee and was stretchered off against Southend last Friday.
Harris isn’t completely ruling out the striker, but is not sure how soon his talisman will take to regain his place for the Lions, "We’re hopeful for Saturday but if he’s not going to make Saturday it’s going to be a period of time. We have our fingers crossed at the moment.”
Although skipper Shaun Hutchinson was taken off late in the Luton game on Tuesday, Harris confirmed that was a precautionary measure. “He was just cramping up a little bit, it was his second game in four days. Hutch needs minutes and I thought he led the team as my captain really well. He showed his leadership qualities and I was pleased for him.”
Speaking after the Luton game two goal hero Smith commented, “A debut like that is something I dreamt of as a kid and it's a night I will always remember.”
“There have been times I have thought about quitting and giving up because I didn't think I would get to this point in time. That's why tonight is so special for me. I have grown so much since joining the Club. Learning from the likes of Steve Morison and Tony Craig has been phenomenal for my development as a player.”
“This is just the start for me. As players on the fringes, we need to keep our heads down and keep chipping away and be prepared when the next opportunity comes around.”