By Gerry Prewett
Bristol Rovers topsy-turvy season continues as they head up the M5 to face a Walsall team on a high after delivering a spanking to Division leaders Sheffield United last weekend. Whilst Rovers self destructed at Fleetwood, the Saddlers ran out 4-1 winners against the Blades.
The Blades boasted the best away record in League One and had a four-point gap at the top. By the end of the day the West Midland team completed their third victory over the steel city team, having previously won at Bramall Lane in both the league and Checkatrade Trophy.
United almost took the lead within the first four minutes, Billy Sharp rattling the bar from just 12 yards. The leaders were made to rue their misfortune when a minute later, Amadou Bakayoko's shot into the bottom corner from Joe Edwards' through ball gave the Saddlers the lead.
Six minutes later parity was restored when Jack O'Connell’s close range header found the back of the net. The teams went into the half-time break level but within a quarter of an hour of the second half Jason McCarthy played a ball off Bakayoko to stroke a shot past Simon Moore at his near post.
Edwards doubled the lead on 67 minutes, fooling Moore with another near-post finish. The United custodian compounded his error-strewn day 10 minutes later when he brought down George Dobson for a penalty which Erhun Oztumer coolly converted.
In total Rovers and Walsall have met 97 times, with the Gas having won 39 games, the Saddlers 37 and just 21 draws. So, lots of games and a very close record, with Rovers just shading it. During that time there have been some remarkable sequences of games.
Going right back to the first game, which Rovers won 5-2 on 27 August 1927 in Division Three (South), there was an all winning sequence for the Pirates of 6 games. That sequence was broken by a 0-0 draw on 30 April 1930 at Fellows Park. The Saddlers won 3 of the next 4 games.
Between 27th March 1965 and 29th October 1973, Rovers paid 14 visits to Fellows Park and won just once! Stuart Taylor and Ray Graydon (who went on to manage both teams) secured a 2-1 win on 24th April 1971.
During that same spell Rovers suffered an amazing reverse when they were leading 3-1 with 15 minutes to go, on 19th March 1973. A bomb scare caused the game to be halted. Then in the remaining 15 minutes Walsall scored 3 times to win the game 4-3!
Rovers’ longest unbeaten streak was at Eastville between 4th September 1948 and 2nd November 1963, a total of 7 games with 4 Rovers wins and 3 draws. The game that broke that sequence was on 16th March 1965. Walsall won 1-0 and the newspaper report of the goal revealed that "Harassed by lanky Alan Clarke, Rovers keeper Bernard Hall lost possession after being lured yards from his goal. The ball rolled to Jimmy McMorran who chipped it back into an empty net from 25 yards".
Rovers gained their revenge just over 6 months later. Manager Bert Tann had complained that the team weren't taking their chances, but in this game they made 4 and scored 3. Walsall winger Colin Taylor had Doug Hillard on the rack for most of the game but stand-in Centre Forward Trevor Meath was wasteful with the three chances that came his way. Bobby Jones in the 35th and 77th minutes and Harold Jarman with an 85th minute header were Rovers' scorers on the day to give the Gas a 3-0 victory.
The last times the teams met in the Midlands Rovers were sent packing having suffered a 6-1 defeat on 29 January 2011; it was a victory that took them off the bottom of the League One table. Andy Butler headed in to put the hosts ahead on 17 minutes and Matthew Gill smashed in a low shot to double the advantage on 34 minutes.
Julian Gray volleyed in to put the Saddlers 3-0 up at half-time, before Jeff Hughes pulled one back just after the break with a low strike. Matt Richards struck from 25 yards to restore Walsall's lead almost immediately. The rout was completed with a 69-minute Alex Nicholls volley and a second Butler header just four minutes later.
Scunthorpe loanee Scott Laird believes the Walsall squad is the most talented he has played with. The 28-year-old, has won back-to-back promotions with Stevenage before then helping Preston into the Championship in 2015.
Before having to take a brief sabbatical at his home club the defender revealed, “I told the lads when I left ‘you are the most talented group of players I have played with’. That is over my 12-year career. What they now need to do is believe that. When they do, you can see that we are a very good side. But you can also see when they are a bit down or not quite on it.”
“We need to strike that balance, we need to find that consistency because if we do we can challenge in this league. We all know how crazy League One is. Win a couple, like we did in October, and you a right up there, lose a couple and you start to go in the wrong direction.”
“We have got a great side here. I know the gaffer is trying to make a few more signings. And I think we can really kick on in the second half of the season.”
Laird’s view was echoed by Amadou Bakayoko the young striker said, “We are a group that really tries to encourage one another. It’s great to be a part of because the atmosphere in the camp is really good. That’s important because the more everyone is together, the easier it is to click on the pitch.”
“We know it’s been an up-and-down season. But we have felt for while the team is really close to clicking. We have worked on a lot of different things. Now we have to keep going because we have found our feet. We are determined to get better and entertain the fans more because they deserve it.”
“Things have been going well for me but I have to keep going. God willing, the goals will continue to come. But it’s about hard work first and foremost. I can see a big difference in myself now to where I was at the start of the season. I have learnt a lot. I felt people hadn’t seen enough of me but now I’m starting to show what I can do.”