After ‘failing to turn up’ last weekend at Coventry, Bristol Rovers have left themselves with a mountain to climb if they have any possibility of making the Play-Offs. Rovers have had problems overcoming seemingly easy opposition, besides Coventry, they have also lost to Chesterfield and Shrewsbury (who were bottom at the time) when a 3-point haul seemed inevitable.
On Saturday, as Rovers were going down 1-0 in the Midlands, the Shrews entertained high-flying Bolton Wanderers. After a tight first half the Trotters took the lead on 51 minutes when Shrews keeper Josh Leutwiler got caught in no man’s land from Filipe Morais’ long throw and Mark Beevers’ flick coasted into an empty net.
Ben Alnwick, saved from Freddie Ladapo and Roberts either side of Bolton's breakthrough, before the visitors doubled their lead in the 66th minute. Morais broke down the right, beat Matt Sadler and picked out Adam Le Fondre, who controlled the ball and smashed into the roof of the net from close range.
Shaun Whalley fired a late effort over the bar for Shrewsbury, leaving them just a point outside the relegation zone.
Shrews Boss Paul Hurst was disappointed with keeper Jayson Leutwiler decision making for the opening goal, "I don't think he did have to come. I said to him if he does then he has to come and get it. That's the life of a goalkeeper. The mistakes you make are often costly and it happened today because I don't think realistically there was any need to come.”
"It wasn't right in there, he's come a long way and doesn't get there. Beevers celebrated I don't know if it hit his head or not, I thought it might've gone in off one of ours but either way it'd probably have gone into Jayson's hands had he stayed where he should have.”
"It's disappointing because I thought if anything we were slightly better and looked quite dangerous. We played to a game plan, the lads stuck to it well and caused them some problems."
Hurst still saw positives, "I thought they were a committed team out there. I thought we had the better of it in the first half in particular. We made the keeper make a couple of saves. I don't think Jayson's had a much to do all day, but Bolton are the type of side with the experience and physicality that we always thought the first goal would be a big goal.”
"And that's where my frustration lies because it was a very soft goal. We picked a team that could give us a better chance to stand up to that physical side, we had a little bit of a bonus with Madine going off from an aerial point of view.”
"But I thought we defended most set plays and long throws pretty well. But we made a wrong decision back there and found ourselves behind. That's where we've got to be a little bit stronger mentally but Bolton did make it difficult, they've won a lot of games 1-0 and kept a lot of clean sheets. You look at the back three, they've all played higher and expect them to play higher. We didn't concede four, that's been the common theme, but disappointed in the goal that put us on the back foot."
Looking back at previous meetings between the teams, perhaps the most memorable was the very first Wembley Play-Off Final at the end of an exhilarating 2006/07 season. It took an exciting sequence of ten unbeaten League games, including the late run of five successive victories, to get Rovers to their date at the new Wembley. It placed Rovers alongside Chelsea as teams who played Finals at both the Millennium and Wembley Stadiums in the same season.
Games between the clubs that season had been very tight. Before the Final, Rovers had won two of the three games and yet only two goals were scored in total. The Final of course turned out to be something of a goal feast with Richard Walker (2) and Sammy Igoe giving Rovers their 3-1 victory as Gasheads almost literally sucked the last goal over the line in stoppage time.
Rovers certainly have the upper hand in meetings, having won 28, drawn 15 and lost 14 of the 57 games between the clubs. Rovers equal best league victory was the 7-0 thrashing of the Shrews in the 1963-64 season. Bobby Jones (2), Harold Jarman (2), Alfie Biggs (penalty) Dave Stone and Johnny Brown were Rovers scorers. Rovers were 4-0 up after just 16 minutes. It was some kind of ‘payback’ for a 7-2 dumping the previous season, Frank Clarke (3), Jim McLaughlin (3) and Arthur Rowley scored for the Shrews and Keith Williams and Harold Jarman for Rovers.
Shrews midfielder Louis Dodds spoke earlier this week about the prospects of his team for the rest of the season,“One million per cent I’d sacrifice scoring any more goals to stay up. I wouldn’t play any more minutes if I knew it would keep us up and hopefully we’ll do enough. We’ve just got to go onto the next game and get a bit of momentum.”
“I don’t think the spirit’s taken a dip,” he added, “Obviously you don’t come in laughing and joking as you would (when you’re winning), but I don’t think anyone’s any less focused or thinks we’re going to get relegated any more. We knew when we went six unbeaten that we weren’t safe and we weren’t relegated.”
“I think it’s the same. I think the older pros like myself, Adam (El-Abd) and Sads (Sadler) have to speak to the younger ones, get everyone going and tell them that it’s not a great result and you don’t come in laughing and joking. But you can’t be down in the dumps either, there’s got to be a happy medium and keep going for a massive game next week.”
Paul Hurst spoke about the attitude he required from his players, “Today we’ll get back to work and there’ll be no sulking, no feeling sorry for ourselves, it’s onto the next one. If, for any reason, people come in and they’re really down and don’t want to get on with the job then we won’t have a chance, but I won’t let that happen. We’ll get back to work and try our best at Bristol Rovers.”
“I’ve said to the players what I want from them now is an absolute unselfish approach. If you’re not in the team or if you’re not going to kick a ball between now and the end of the season, but it means we stay up, that’s what it’s got to be.”
“It’s not a time for personal goals to be achieved, it’s about what’s best for this football club. I accept they’ll be happier if they’re in the team but if they’re not then I want them almost to be like cheerleaders on the side, willing the lads to do the job that’s being asked to get the points needed.”
“Then at the start of the summer everything can be reassessed. We’re at a point certainly now where it’s not about just being selfish. It’s about staying together as a group and willing whoever gets that starting shirt to do extremely well and get the points that are needed.”