By Gerry Prewett.
After Saturday’s 0-0 home draw with Oxford, Bristol Rovers face AFC Wimbledon on Tuesday evening at the Mem. These are two crucial features in Rovers season with teams in the same area of the table and also battling for points.
Saturday’s draw lifted Rovers out of the relegation zone and the second-half performance would have given Darrell Clarke encouragement. Wimbledon are struggling this season and have lost their last 4 games.
The latest of those was at Blackpool who extended their unbeaten League One run to 10 games. The hosts had the better of the opening exchanges and needed just seven minutes to take the lead with defender Curtis Tilt tapping home from Jay Spearing's corner.
Kwesi Appiah had Wimbledon's best chance of the first half, five minutes before the interval, following a long ball from goalkeeper Joe McDonnell, but his snapshot was turned over the bar by Mark Howard.
Neal Ardley's side flew out of the blocks at the start of the second period, with Scott Wagstaff forcing Howard into a save after 47 minutes, before turning provider for Appiah a minute later, but again the keeper was equal to the effort.
The Dons controlled the second period, with Howard called into action to make saves from Appiah and James Hanson in the closing 15 minutes.
But former Gas loanee Marc Bola had the final say, firing home from the edge of the box after 84 minutes to seal the points.
AFC boss Neal Ardley was frustrated with his side's performance in both penalty areas in Saturday’s game. Speaking to the press afterwards, he said, “I thought for most of the game the boys gave everything I asked of them. They were energetic; they worked ever so hard and got into some good positions.”
“But, as I always say and at the risk of repeating myself, the game is about the boxes. We’ve conceded from a set piece for the third game running and that’s put us behind.
“We did video analysis on that exact set piece before the game and several others, yet eight minutes into the game away from home you concede and you’re chasing the game.”
“For the next 80 odd minutes they gave everything they could. We created some good moments but we didn’t have the composure and their goalkeeper has made some good saves. The performance levels were, by and large, okay, we were decent. But we don’t do well enough in both boxes. We can’t keep saying the same things.”
“I don’t doubt the players are giving everything, they’re devastated in the changing room. They do care; they’re just not doing the boxes well enough. We’re doing silly things on set pieces that are costing us and when confidence is low it makes things 10 times harder.”
Rovers’ record in these ties is excellent with 7 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeat in the 12 games played, albeit that AFC did the double over the Gas last season. The first game was actually AFC’s very first League game at the start of the 2011/12 season.
The live televised match provided great entertainment. Goals by McGleish and Harrold had Rovers cruising within 20 minutes. AFC then fought back and Stuart was on the scoresheet 7 minutes before half-time. On 67 minutes Kingsmeadow erupted as Ademeno pulled AFC level. It was left for Adam Virgo to spoil the party with an 84th minute penalty to take all 3 points back down the M4 to Bristol.
Rovers should have had the game out of Wimbledon's reach by half time, but allowed their hosts to get back on level terms before they settled things with that late penalty. The team contained ten players making their Rovers league debut.
In Rovers first home game against the Dons, Tom Hitchcock scored his first ever league goal in the 83rd minute. Tounkara put the ball into the path of the young striker who shot home from 12 yards out. Hitchcock could have made it 2-0 after getting on the end of a Broghammer cross, but he headed wide of the right hand post.
The following season Rovers won 3-0 with goals by David Clarkson on 19 minutes, Tom Parkes just after the half-hour and Matt Harrold with a last minute penalty.
In 2016/17 Rovers won both games, 2-0 on New Years Eve at the Mem and 1-0 at the Cherry Red Records Stadium on 8th April.
Last season Wimbledon secured their first victory in Bristol. The visitors were ahead inside two minutes as Andy Barcham was allowed to dribble his way into the box on the left and beat Adam Smith with a deft chip from an acute angle.
Numerous chances then went begging for Wimbledon before they doubled their advantage seconds before the break, Harry Forrester being given the freedom of the Mem to advance into the penalty area and beat Smith with a sweet right-footed shot.
A poor Rovers performance was punished again in the 61st minute when sloppy defending allowed Cody McDonald to fire past Smith from 12 yards.
Lee Brown pulled one back for the hosts from the corner of the box on the 88th minute, but the superb strike could not disguise his side's deficiencies.
There have been rumours of unrest at the Cheery Red Stadium amongst the players but this has been refuted by club Captain Deji Oshilaja, “The mood in the camp is totally fine. It is easy for people on the outside to say it isn’t, but it is always mentioned when results are not going your way.”
“We have played well in some games and not got results, that isn’t down to the mood. There is a good atmosphere and the players are 100 per cent behind the manager and each other. We know what we are capable of, we need to go out and do it as a collective.”
“The season has been disappointing and the table doesn’t lie. We have to find a way to get some of our mojo back and grind out a few results. But we also know it is a long season. We’ve got over 30 league games still to go, there is plenty of time to turn it around. Of course we don’t want to leave it too late.”
Talking about being played in different positions he emphasised, “You have to be selfless. It is what the manager wants; he believed I could bring something there for the team. Of course I’m happy to stay there if he thinks it is going to benefit the team. I’ll wait and see what he decides. I’m sure he will pull me and talk about it if needed.”
Oshilaja is out of contract in the summer and had been the subject of approaches from Ipswich and Bolton in August, “At the end of the day I am an employee of the club and the manager and the club decided it wasn’t meant to be.”
“I came back into training – and trained hard. I showed the manager I was committed to the cause. I’m a Wimbledon player until told otherwise. I haven’t let it affect my performance. I’ve not let certain things determine the way I feel and think. If it is meant to be then I’m sure it will happen at some point.”