By Gerry PrewettThis evening, the Pirates take on the Blades in what will be a cut-throat encounter.
Bristol Rovers head up to South Yorkshire to face a Sheffield United team one point and two places above them in the Division One table. United are on a good run with 13 points from their last 5 games. This will be the first league meeting in nearly 30 years.
Although meetings between two of the oldest clubs in the League have been rare, 24 in total, Sheffield United features highly in Bristol Rovers’ club history. That is because on a memorable summer day in 1972, Bristol Rovers won their only national Cup competition, when the beat United 7-6 on penalties in the Watney Cup Final at Eastville. But more of that later.
On Saturday in a battle of the metal men, the Blades took on the Iron at Glanford Park. After a tense opening United took a 34th-minute lead when defender Chris Basham popped up unmarked in the box to round off a well-worked free-kick involving a clever interchange between Mark Duffy and Jack O'Connell which totally confused the home team defence. They almost doubled their lead just before half-time when Mark Duffy set up Paul Coutts but his shot was wide.
The Iron’s Richie Smallwood brought United keeper Simon Moore into action with a shot soon after half-time with a shot from outside the area. The second-half was just ten minutes old when Josh Morris beat Moore at his near post with a blistering left-footed shot for his eighth goal of the season to level the game.
The Blades hero turned to villain on 69 minutes when Basham was sent off for his challenge on Neal Bishop. The Iron’s pressure told with just seven minutes left Duane Holmes powerful right-footed shot nestled in the far corner of the net.
The lead lasted just two minutes after ex-Iron player Billy Sharp scored from the spot after David Mirfin's foul on substitute Stefan Scougall.
United Boss Chris Wilder was unhappy with the decision to red card his defender, "I think it was two honest boys going for the ball. Fans and punters want to see competition, and players making contact with each other I think. That's the nature of football and I'm disappointed for Bash, as he didn't deserve that. If that's a red, then the challenge on Bash by their centre half is a red too."
Talking about the performance of his team, Wilder went on, "We have not played well. It was a disappointing start to the second half as they got themselves back in the game.
"However, we stood up and even after the sending off I thought we were pretty comfortable. It was a scrappy game and those are the types of games through the season you have got to get something from.”
"We have to play better, we understand that, but you can't always do that. Maybe Saturday was a day where we had to stick in there and grind out a result and we have done that."
Rovers’ record against the Yorkshire team is amazingly good, having won 10, lost 7 and drawn 7 of the 24 games played. In Bristol and Bath, Rovers have lost just once with 7 wins and 5 draws. The teams did not meet in a competitive fixture until 6 October 1956, in the old Second Division with Rovers winning 3-1 at Eastville, with goals by Geoff Bradford (2) and Alfie Biggs for Rovers and Jack Wilkinson for the Blades. The return fixture ended up in a goal-less draw at Bramwell Lane.
However it was that Watney Cup Final at Eastville on 5 August 1972 that most GasHeads hold dear. The pre-season competition was played by the top 2 scoring teams from each division who had not earned a place in Europe or promotion, so goals were guaranteed.
In the Final the full-time score was 0-0! All the first 5 penalties for each team were scored and it went to sudden death. With the score at 7-6 in Rovers favour, Dick Sheppard plunged to his left to keep out Ted Hemsley’s effort and secure the Cup for Rovers.
The last time the teams met in the League was on 14 January 1989 as Rovers held United to a 1-1 draw at Twerton Park, Ian Holloway scoring for the Gas from the spot and Tony Agana netting for the away team. United had run rampant in Sheffield earlier in the season with a 4-1 victory, Agana, Ian Bryson (2) and Alan Roberts scoring for United and Holloway again for Rovers.
As a result of his red card Basham will be missing for Tuesday night’s encounter. Blades striker Leon Clark has been ruled out for a month after a third scan on his ankle injury revealed a chipped bone.
Summer signing John Fleck the former Scotland under-21 and Rangers midfielder, has found it difficult to earn a place in United’s backline this season but Wilder is insistent he has a bright future at Bramwell Lane “John will be a big player for us going forward, just you wait and see. John’s attitude, I’ve got to say, has been superb. The lad comes in every single day, gives everything he’s got and makes sure those around him are able to work properly too. That’s exactly what you want to see because, no matter what anyone might think, how we do this season is going to depend on the group.”
“It also means that, when an opportunity arises, he’s always going to be in the best possible position to take it. He’s been an example to others in that regard. Obviously, John would rather have been starting. I’d be worried if he wasn’t. We’re always honest and open with the lads because, as a player, that’s the least you deserve. My door is always open and I’ll never turn anyone away of they want to knock on it and have a chat.”
“John, like I say, will be an important player for us going forward because we all know the qualities he’s got. It’s up to him to make sure someone else stays out of the side. He’s always supported the rest of the lads and made sure the players who were in from the off were properly prepared for the games.”