Having had their best finishing position in 17 years, Bristol Rovers start the 2017/18 season full of hope and expectation that they should be looking for at least a Play-Off spot.
An opening day visit to Charlton Athletic almost mirrors the opening day of the 2016/17 season, when Rovers headed off to Scunthorpe United. The opening day 3-1 defeat served as a reminder to many GasHeads that things were going to be substantially tougher in the higher Division.
Despite that, Darrell Clarke, in a very quiet way, established a discipline and expectation that constant review and self-criticism would bring about an improvement in performance.
So it proved to be, for much of the season as incremental change saw Rovers challenge for a Play-Off spot and a place in Football League history (no team has ever won three successive promotions at this level). They came, tantalisingly close to a holy grail.
Pre-season form is notoriously bad at predicting what lies ahead but both Rovers and Charlton have good reason to have high expectations.
Under Karl Robinson, the Addicks, who seemed to be in free-fall, stabilised and hit a good vein of form towards the tail-end of last season. Indeed the Gas were on the end of two stern defeats, 4-1 at the Valley and 5-1 at the Mem.
On Saturday Charlton’s pre-season concluded with a staggering 6-1 mauling of Championship, Ipswich Town. The London team took the lead on 11 minutes when a Holmes free-kick found the head of Bauer who gleefully accepted the gift.
16 minutes later Fosu doubled the lead as he slotted home from near the penalty spot. It was soon 3-0 Holmes cut inside from the right and crossed for Magennis, who headed into the corner. Megennis then hit the back of the net again to make it 4-0 at half-time.
On 51 minutes the Addicks had the Tractor Boys ‘done like a kipper’ as they hit their fifth goal, Holmes fed Fosu on the wing, he returned the pass and Holmes swept the ball beyond Bartosz Bialkowski from 18 yards.
Ipswich pulled one back on 73 minutes. Sears headed down a deep cross to Dozzell and he bundled the ball home from close range. Within four minutes the five goal advantage was restored as Holmes flighted a free-kick into the top corner of the net.
Addick’s Boss Robinson refused to read too much into the result, “The first-half replicated how we played at Stevenage, it’s just this time we took our chances when they came along. It’s a very good performance, but it’s meaningless. It’s a confidence-booster going into the season.”
“You can see we’re up to speed. You can see there is a hunger about us, but a real ball has not rolled yet. It’s aggressive football. Everything came together for us and it didn’t for Ipswich.
Looking back at games between Rovers and Charlton the record is very even and dates right back to Rovers' first season in Division 3 (South).
In those seasons the games were played on opposite weekends, so Rovers won the first ever game at Eastville 4-2 on 10 September 1921 and the Addicks won the London game 2-0 one week later. In the Eastville game, the scorers were, James Liddell, Jerry Morgan, Joe Walter and a David Steele penalty for Rovers and Bert Green and Alex Steele for Charlton. Bill Cox scored both goals for the home team at the Valley.
In London Rovers have won 4 games, there have been 6 draws and 17 Charlton victories. Rovers last victory at the Valley was nearly 50 years ago when they came away from South Lone with a 3-2 win on 29 March 1958, Geoff Bradford, Barrie Meyer and John McIlvenny scored for the away team and Stuart Leary and John Summers notched for the home team to keep a 20,000 crowd entertained in a Division 2 game.
In those intervening years, Rovers have made 17 visits to the Valley, they have lost 12 games and drawn 5 with a goal record of 22 scored and 47 conceded. On five occasions they have let in four goals and three of those have come in the last four visits.
Last season, Jermaine Easter opened the scoring on 12 minutes as he rounded the keeper and found an empty net. Magennis brought the scores level on 41 minutes as he nodded home from Joe Aribo’s free-kick. Within five minutes of the resumption of the second half, the same duo combined to give the home team the lead. Jorge Teixeira scored from another Aribo delivery before Magennis completed his hat-trick with a shot past Will Puddy.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s fixture, Karl Robinson commented, “If you can remember to when you were young, now is a bit like Christmas Eve. You don’t quite know what you’re going to get and you think about whether you’ve done things right over the course of the year.”
“To a football manager and football fans, this is Christmas Eve because we’ve been building up to it and we’re still not too sure what we’re going to get. It’s the first game of the season, there is always a bit of unpredictability around it and it you never know. I’m excited, I really am.”
“Hopefully. It’s got to be disciplined as well. The players have really bought into what we are trying to do and I think they will tell you that they have enjoyed it because our results have proved that. More importantly have been the performances within that.
"We have got better in every game and I think there is still more room for improvement. We are solely focused on Bristol, we have been preparing for them for the last seven days and in some ways six weeks and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
“I know my starting eleven and I will tell the players on Friday morning. I knew it after watching three games of Bristol Rovers. It’s important that we get it right, if we do have an injury within the group then we will keep that internal until the weekend. Hopefully, the players that come in will perform to the best of their abilities as well.”