By Gerry Prewett
Bristol Rovers management team are looking forward to a tough run of games coming up, commencing this week with a home game against fifth placed Bradford City. The Bantams have been very consistent this season, their biggest failing being not securing the three points their play has often deserved.
Having been in the Premier League as recently as 2000/01, City dropped three divisions in six seasons. Whilst their descent was rapid, City maintained a very healthy following by innovative ticketing schemes which ensured Valley Parade was never a near empty stadium. Their average home attendance this season is 18,090 and it has been in five figures for the last eight seasons.
The Bantams made the Play-Offs last season but went out to Millwall in the first two games.
On Saturday the Yorkshire team saw Gillingham became the tenth visiting side to go away with a share of the spoils. Without a win in seven and leaking goals for fun away from the Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham looked ripe for the picking.
Gillingham went ahead on 14 minutes with a long throw into the box from Ryan Jackson, Max Ehmer flicked back and Josh Wright smashed the loose ball into the roof of the net.
Just a minute later Valley Parade erupted as Mark Marshall swung in a cross and a Charlie Wyke cushioned header back inside the near post brought back parity.
Wyke a deadline-day signing from Carlisle, was wrestled to the ground on 38 minutes, 25 yards from goal. Tony McMahon and Billy Clarke stood over it before the Irishman's left foot held sway. McMahon, meanwhile, set off on a blindside run past the wall. Gills stopper Nelson did well to touch the dipping free-kick on to the base of the post but there was McMahon perfectly place to divert in the follow-up.
Three minutes into the second half, another long throw was half-cleared, both City centre halves jumped for the same ball as Jackson crossed back in. Centre half Deji Oshilaja, found himself on his own to half-volley his second goal in successive games.
Considering that Rovers and City have been in existence for so long and have spent so much time in the lower divisions there has been surprisingly few games between them, 23 in total. The very first meeting didn’t take place until 22nd November 1969 when they played out a 1-1 draw at Eastville. Rovers won the game at Valley Parade the following March 4-2.
Rovers have won 10 and drawn just two of the home games against the Yorkshire team. The overall record favours Rovers with 13 wins, 6 draws and just 4 defeats. Perhaps the most memorable game for GasHeads was one of the early meetings at Eastville on 4 September 1971. After just 20 minutes the Gas were 5-0 ahead and had hit the woodwork 3 times! Bruce Bannister, playing for his hometown team and later to become a Gas hero, pulled one goal back for the visitors, but two late strikes sealed a 7-1 victory for the boys in blue. Brian Godfrey notched three, Harold Jarman and Booby Jones each notched a brace.
In 2011/12 the game played on 10 September finished 2-2. Matt Harrold gave Rovers a first half lead with a goal on 40 minutes. Michael Flynn crashed home a penalty on 64 minutes before Elliot Richards put the Gas back in front 14 minutes later. With Rovers seeming on the way to victory a last minute penalty gave Welshman Flynn the chance to crash home his second spot kick of the game.
Prior to the game earlier this season the last time the teams clashed was on 9 April 2013 and the Bantams thrashed Rovers 4-1. Nahki Wells opened the scoring. There were only six minutes on the clock when Garry Thompson cut inside Lee Brown and crossed into the box where Wells headed home from close range. Wells put his side further in front, this time from the penalty spot after Fabian Broghammer fouled Ricky Ravenhill. The spot kick was well struck into the bottom corner and although Mildenhall dived the right way he was powerless to keep it out.
The home side further increased their lead on the fifth minute of stoppage time. Mildenhall hesitated when he came for a free kick into the box, allowing central defender Andrew Davies the chance to head home.
It took just five minutes for Rovers to pull a goal back and Hitchcock did well to latch on to a long ball out of defence and roll a shot past McLaughlin that went in off the post.
However any thoughts of a comeback were extinguished just seven minutes later when the home side capitalised on a mistake by Michael Smith. The full back’s wayward pass found Wells, who played in Thompson and he calmly beat Mildenhall to restore his side’s three-goal lead.
The last game in Bristol was on 24 November 2012 when an entertaining game ended 3-3, with City equalising on three separate occasions. Ex-City player Guy Branston scored with his first touch as a Rovers player, heading home a second-minute corner from Jim Paterson. Just before the half hour, Nahki Wells netted an equaliser from a narrow angle after being put through by Will Atkinson midway through the first half.
Tom Eaves restored Rovers' lead just five minutes later with a low drive from the edge of the box, but centre-back Carl McHugh levelled for the visitors again 10 minutes after the interval with a powerful header from a Gary Jones corner. Michael Smith volleyed Rovers back in front for the third time just after the hour mark, yet still Bradford refused to Buckle as James Hanson headed home a 68th minute equaliser.
The game erupted in injury time when an ugly touchline exchange ended with Bradford's Nathan Doyle sent off, while Rovers midfielder Wayne Brown was also dismissed for a second yellow.
City defender Nathaniel Knight-Percival is expected to come back into contention this weekend after returning to training.
Knight-Percival has missed the last three games due to an ankle injury but the centre half is now likely to make up part of the Bantams' travelling party for the trip down to Bristol Rovers.
Alex Jones is still sidelined with a hip problem, however, while Matthew Kilgallon remains on the long-term injury list after recent surgery on a damaged pectoral muscle.
Talking ahead of the upcoming game, Bantam’s Boss Stuart McCall said, "The last time we had two away games close together like this was Peterborough and MK Dons and we won both of them. We don't go anywhere with any inferiority and we'll enjoy this.”
"I remember there was a year as a player at Rangers, it might have been the sixth (title) in a row, when we did a lot of under-performing. Even though we won the league again that season, you struggled to pick five or six good games. But we just managed to always get through it. But this season we haven't had lots of under-par performances. The players have been giving everything they've got and we've been the better side in most weeks.”
"We've had a couple of under-par 45 minutes at Valley Parade and there was a full 90 minutes when we were ineffective at Shrewsbury. But even at Southend, when we lost 3-0, we hit the bar and had good chances. The score-line didn't reflect the performance. We got done by a 30-yard free-kick at Swindon and missed a penalty and some good chances at Oxford before they scored in the last minute.”
"The crucial fact is that we haven't taken our chances in a lot of games and that's come back to bite us with too many draws. We know that, but there is so much self-belief within the group. It's what we see day in, day out and we know what this squad are capable of. That's why we'll look forward to this week with relish."