By Gerry Prewett.
As the 2018/19 season approaches the halfway point Bristol Rovers take the long journey North East to face one of only two teams they have yet to meet, Sunderland. After the shock of successive relegations Manager Jack Ross finally seems to be bringing some joy to Wearside albeit to a vastly underperforming team.
The Black Cats had a great start to the season winning 4 and drawing 1 of their opening 5 games. It was followed by a relatively lean spell as they picked up just two points from the next 3 games. Since then they have not looked back with 25 points from a maximum of 30, including a run of 5 successive victories.
Last weekend as Rovers were being humiliated by Doncaster the Wearsiders braved the elements at Accrington. Stanley drew a record crowd of 5,257 at their neat Wham Stadium. There was severe doubt as to whether the game would get underway but after a number of pitch inspections, Referee Oliver Langford gave the go ahead. With the game goalless in the first half it took a charge down of a Connor Ripley goalkick by Chris Maguire to give the away team the lead on 62 minutes
Tenacious as ever Stanley equalised on 69 minutes when on-loan Bolton striker Connor Hall forced the ball over the line after a goalmouth scramble to level the scores. But as the goals started the heavens opened and within 6 minutes Mr Langford was forced to call the game off.
Jack Ross was sympathetic to the Referee’s decision after the game, “When the game is level it makes it an easier decision, not just for the match official but for everyone. I had my concerns about the game starting and the conditions have worsened to the extent that you can see now, and you can’t play on that.”
“There does become an element of farce about it, so I have no issues with the decision. Because of how the pitch was prior to kick-off, you knew that any sustained heavy rain was going to sit on top of it, particularly on this side.”
“I think Aiden had one in the corner where he said the pitch tackled him, because suddenly the ball was 10 yards behind him. I thought the match official did as much as he could in difficult circumstances, as it was not easy for him.”
Looking back over the history of games between the teams it is somewhat surprising that it is Rovers who just have the upper hand with 10 victories to Sunderland’s 9. Looking into those statistics a little more deeply there is a massive bonus for the home teams, Rovers winning 9 of the 14 games played in the West Country and just one win on Wearside, whilst Sunderland have 8 victories at home and 2 away.
Now that is quite a remarkable record against a team of Sunderland's calibre. Certainly in these games home advantage is everything. Most of those meetings have been in League games whilst the two teams have been on an equal standing.
Let us look at the two Cup games between the two sides. Firstly they clashed in a 2nd Round League Cup tie back on 7th September 1971. Rovers were on a high, having just disposed of Bradford City 7-1 on the previous Saturday. Sunderland were riding high in the Second Division (and eventually finished 5th). A 15,262 Eastville crowd saw Harold Jarman, Wayne Jones and Sandy Allan all score to put Rovers through 3-1.
By 1977-78 season Rovers had climbed into the Second Division themselves. They'd travelled to Roker Park on 12th November and been on the end of a 5-1 thrashing. When they drew the Rokerites (as they were then known) in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup there weren't too many people who thought Rovers were going far in the Cup that year. However they were wrong, despite Graham Day getting himself sent off, 10 man Rovers battled their way to a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Bobby Gould goal.
Looking back at League games the match played on 24th February 1988 was equally remarkable. Rovers were in poor form and high riding Sunderland arrived at Twerton Park with high hopes. A crunching tackle early in the game by Armstong on Kenny Hibbitt, broke Hibbitt's leg and it seemed to Galvanise the Rovers team. They took Sunderland apart that night and goals by Ian Holloway, Devon White, David Mehew and Gary Penrice gave the Gas a 4-0 victory.
There have been a number of substantial defeats for Rovers in the North East, on 13th January 1962 Jimmy O’Neill (2), Harry Hooper (penalty), Jim McNab, Jack Overfield and a Dave Bumpstead own goal for Sunderland was matched only by Harold Jarman’s goal for a 6-1 home win.
On 7 September 1974 there was an early season lesson for Rovers with a Billy Hughes hat-trick (including a penalty), Pop Robson and a Peter Aitkin own goal giving the home team 5 goals with just as Alan Warboys response.
Following that 12th November 1977 5-1 loss, the Rokerites were at it again on 2 December 1978 as they once again put 5 goals past Martin Thomas, this time, Bob Lee, Gary Rowell and a Wayne Entwistle hat-trick sent Rovers facing the long journey home pointless.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s game Ross said, "We’ve already seen that irrespective of league position this season, teams have come and reacted to playing in the environment of our stadium. So I expect it to be as tough as every home game this season. For us, on the back of our most disappointing performance of the season (the FA Cup defeat at home to Walsall), it’s nice to be at home with a crowd that will back us with that different atmosphere.”
"We’ve not really had to bounce back much this season because of how it’s been going, but when we have had to we have done it well. I would expect the same again. The respect and trust in them hasn’t waned because of what happened during the week."
"Certainly this season I don’t think any of my preparation has been done or taking into account the opposition league position at the time. It’s more about focusing on what they do, what they’re good at and we feel they will come and do at our stadium at the time.”
"I sometimes maybe forget what it means to players to come and play here because most will have never done it and it is a fantastic arena. You become accustomed to it when you’re in it on a fortnightly basis, but opposition players have all embraced it and raised their games for it so I think that has made every game challenging.”
"I would expect the same on Saturday, but I would also expect us to enjoy playing at the stadium again. Our record, by and large in the league, has been good at home so I expect that to continue at the weekend."
"Duncan Watmore will be in the squad for Saturday. How I use him, we will have to see but he will be available in the squad this weekend." "Hopefully the ones who were absent during the week will be. So Lynden (Gooch) and Aiden (McGeady) will hopefully be ok. Lynden certainly will be, and Aiden hopefully too. Very hopefully today we’ll test both of them but they should be ok for the weekend."