In a season of challenges, Bristol Rovers put themselves to the test when they face the side that gave them a dose of reality on the opening day of the season, Scunthorpe United.
Currently sitting in second place in the League and having been at the top of the pile for most of the season, the Iron ran out 3-1 winners against a Rovers team who looked good but failed to convert possession into goals.
After missing out on the Play-Offs on goal difference, after a poor start to last season, the Iron were determined to make a more consistent challenge for promotion this season.
United Captain Stephen Dawson said before the opening game, “Anything less than the playoffs is a failure. That has got to be the minimum target every year. Every team will be saying that but we are paid to go out and win football matches. If you just set your targets on a mid-table finish you shouldn't really be here.”
It certainly looks as though his team has delivered. On Saturday in a top of the table clash, which attracted the League’s highest attendance of the day, 27,980 at Bramall Lane, the United’s of Sheffield and Scunthorpe finished all square.
After a competitive but goal-less first half, it was the Iron who blunted the Blades as they took the lead within two minutes of the re-start. Levi Sutton and Stephen Dawson worked together to get the ball across to the back post where Paddy Madden was able to stroke the ball into an empty net.
Within two minutes the Blades struck back. As Scunny failed to clear a home side attack Chris Basham’s floated a cross to ex-Iron Billy Sharp at the back post who placed the ball in the far corner.
Indiscipline by Harry Toffolo who had already been booked in the first half saw him sent off after a poor challenge on Kieron Freeman. Despite their numerical disadvantage Scunny comfortably saw the game out to take a well-earned point.
Iron manager Graham Alexander said after the game, “We have got to realise what it takes to get from a negative to a positive performance. What you did that was good, you make sure you do again and again. Seasoned professionals learn from each experience.”
“You cannot just play a game and go away and not think about it. You have to think about what you have done from both a negative and positive side. You are not going to turn from playing as badly as we did against Southend into a champagne performance.
“You have to build on each performance, dig in, and that is what we did on Saturday and we will do it again this weekend."
Games between the two clubs have been few and far between as United didn’t gain League status until 1951 and played in the Third Division North until 1958. In their very first meeting on 30 August 1958 Rovers ran out convincing 4-0 winners with Georgie Petherbridge, Geoff Bradford, Dai Ward and Peter Hooper (penalty) on target for Rovers.
On 20 March 1965 secured their first home win in two months on a muddy Eastville pitch. Johnny Brown put Rovers ahead on 67 minutes and seven minutes later turned provider to Bobby Jones to double the home team’s lead.
The following season Rovers repeated the score on 29 March in a mid-week match, in which they missed five very scoreable chances, including a missed Dave Stone penalty.
Rovers took the lead when the Iron’s Keith Burkinshaw (later to become the Spurs Manager) headed over Geoff Sidebottom in United’s goal after just nine minutes. Two minutes later, Stone missed his penalty opportunity.
On 68 minutes Alfie Biggs was on hand to nod the ball over the line as Sidebottom failed to deal with Bobby Jones cross.
In the 2013/14 season, the last times the teams met, both games were drawn, 0-0 in Bristol and 1-1 at Glanford Park.
Boss Alexander has commented this week, “We are trying to catch Sheffield United. We are looking at the team above us and we are trying to catch them. But our focus is on ourselves and no one is going to win us promotion or win us games apart from ourselves. It doesn't matter what other teams do. Every team plays each other and if you don't win your own games it doesn't matter what goes on.”
“We have to win our own games to give ourselves the best chance and we have got enough in that squad to win those games. It is not just about the experienced old heads, it is about the youthfulness and even the naivety of just going out to playing football,"
Meanwhile, Stephen Dawson has asked fans to keep behind the team, "I understand their frustration and the players are feeling it as well but it is an important time coming up. I am the first to admit as captain that over the last couple of weeks, the players haven't performed to the level we have done. As a group of players we have to put that right.”
"We are a young team and we have players like Levi, Harry, Duane who are only starting out on their careers. If people want to have a moan and groan do it at me because I'm ugly enough to accept that.
"I know how frustrated people have been and I am the first to admit we have been nowhere near good enough by our standards. It is easy for me to sit here and say we will put it right but only we can do that and I believe we will but we need the fans to stick behind us."
"It is the first time in a long time where things are not going to plan. One of my jobs is to look after some of the younger members whether it is form or pressure, they have got to remain focused.”
"They just need to go out and express themselves because on the day we can see what they can do. The last couple of weeks haven't been good enough but as a group of players we have got to put that right. There is so much more stuff to happen and we will remain positive like we always do."