By Gerry Prewett.
Five games to go and five points (at least to make up), can Bristol Rovers do it? On the basis of the last two seasons it would be a foolish person who put their house on a negative answer. Of course, the odds are stacked against Rovers, but often that is when they are at their best. That final run-in starts at AFC Wimbledon on Saturday.
Having won promotion with Rovers last season AFC have settled into a comfortable mid-table position. It took them six games before their recorded their first League victory of the season and their form has been patchy ever since.
In the match at the Mem on New Year’s Eve a Matty Taylor double saw off the Londoners. On sixty-one minutes a Lee Brown cross found Taylor who headed past James Shea from close range. Nine minutes later Taylor made the game safe for the Gas when he turned sharply in the area and struck from an acute angle into the far corner.
On Saturday, as Rovers were seeing off Shrewsbury 2-0, AFC were going down by the same score at Vale Park. In an even first half, Vale took the lead after 21 minutes when a Chris Eagles cross found Nathan Smith to head past Shea.
With 20 minutes left Eagles hit a shot in off the post from just inside the area to deny Wimbledon any points at all.
Boss, Neal Ardley was less than impressed with the performance of his team letting them know in no uncertain terms that he was very disappointed with the manner of defeat, “Tuesday was an interesting day. Sometimes as a manager you wait until then because you want to see how your emotions are, but mine were not better.”
“Normally you have calmed down a bit by then, but I was still angry with Saturday. We did a bit of video analysis and we went through a lot of stuff. The players were a bit like, ‘wow, we did not realise how bad it was’. No one means to be. It is not like no one tries and they don’t have passion.”
“They just lack enough of a focus on the basics. We showed them and then we went out and did a really tough training session, focusing on a lot of mental areas. We challenged them on that. I hope we get a reaction because as a manager you try to react to defeats and bad performances. Hopefully, we will get one on Saturday.”
Looking back at previous fixtures the results are strongly in Rovers favour with 6 wins, 2 draws and 1 defeat in the 9 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 fightback 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 Matty 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.
It appears that Rovers may be taking on a depleted Wombles team as Ardley explained, "We've had a real glut of illness as three or four players have gone down with stomach bugs and I am 90 per cent sure it will rule them out of Saturday. We also have a couple of injuries so we are definitely going to be five key first-team players short on Saturday, which is a real blow to us, particularly when we want to respond to a defeat.”
“We always look at it and think that it brings an opportunity for others. We will have a look at the personnel and look at the best way to tackle Bristol Rovers. As long as the team that we put out goes out there and gives everything and really has a proper go, showing that passion that the club deserves, no one can complain.”