By Gerry Prewett
Tonight Bristol Rovers entertain League leaders Sheffield United in what promises to be an exciting encounter. This will be the first league meeting in the West of England in nearly 30 years.
United have been up there since the early weeks when they picked up just one point from the first four games. Since then they have lost just three League games, interestingly Walsall have beaten the Blades twice in the League and in the Checkatrade Trophy too.
On Saturday, United took advantage of a rare slip-up by Scunthorpe, who went down at home to Shrewsbury. In their game at Peterborough the teams fought out an equal first-half with few chances and the Bramall Lane team knew they must increase their work rate after the interval.
The Blades finished the game with 13 shots. The game looked destined for a stalemate until James Hanson headed down for his fellow striker Billy Sharp to pounce in the 87th minute, for his 20th goal of the campaign. The win stretched the Yorkshire team’s lead to five points over Scunthorpe
United Boss Chris Wilder was enthused by the quality of the game, “It was a really good game between two teams having a right good go, playing the game the right way. We pushed on in the second half and it’s a big performance and a big result against a side just outside the play-offs.”
“Peterborough have given us as much trouble in the two games this season as anyone else. You have to defend well against Peterborough. The midfield diamond can be hard to play against and Peterborough play that system better than most, and we did defend really well. We were bold and brave in our approach on the pitch and got our rewards.”
Looking forward he noted, “We can’t under-estimate the challenges ahead of us and we are attacking them. We have to re-set ourselves and go again but this is an outstanding result. Players rose to the occasion.”
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.
Rovers’ record against the Yorkshire team is amazingly good, having won 10, lost 8 and drawn 7 of the 25 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.
Wilder has predicted that young Manchester United loanee Joe Riley will have a critical role to play between now and the end of the season. He appeared as a late substitute at Peterborough but could make his full debut against the Gas.
Riley’s game-time has been restricted by the form of Daniel Lafferty and Kieron Freeman, Wilder said: “Joe has been brilliant in training, you can see the quality he’s got. It’s nice to know that we’ve got that here and, because of that, I’d have no qualms about putting him in.”
“Importantly, he’s already got the respect of the lads around him because they can see his attitude is right. We’ve got a really good group here, people who want to work hard for the football club and their team mates. Joe’s been looking really sharp during the week.”
Talking about Manchester United’s interest in Riley’s progress Wilder said, “We’re in constant contact with them about how Joe is getting on, the same as we are with the lads we’ve got out on loan. They didn’t put any clauses in the deal because, credit to them, they recognise that’s not how football works.
“Joe is a quality player, he’s got lots of talent and his time will come, I’ve got no doubts about that. He wanted to come here and we wanted to bring him in.”