By Gerry Prewett.
With Ben Garner installed as their new Manager Bristol Rovers will be looking to impress the new Boss when they take on AFC Wimbledon at the Mem on Boxing Day. Sitting in 4th spot in the Division One table recent performances have shown what a resilient team Bristol Rovers have become over the last year.
This time last year Rovers were facing a tough battle to pull away from the bottom of the table and it is all credit to everyone involved that the results and the mood in BS7 has improved so dramatically. Having taken 4 points from promotion rivals Ipswich and Peterborough in the last two games Rovers now have to ensure that they are more ruthless in front of goal when facing teams below them in the league table.
As Rovers and Peterborough were fighting out that thrilling 0-0 score at the top of the table in Bristol last weekend, AFC Wimbledon and Tranmere were engaged in a six-pointer at the bottom. With Bury expelled, Bolton fighting against a points deduction and Southend looking hapless there is one relegation spot no one wants. With the Dons and Tranmere locked on 17 points each the Prenton Park game may prove to be pivotal to both team’s seasons.
The Merseysiders took the lead on 26 minutes with what proved to be the only goal of the game. Manny Monthe won a knockdown at the far post, allowing Connor Jennings to swivel and shoot at goal. Don’s keeper Nathan Trott kept his effort out and then pushed Rushian Hepburn-Murphy's rebound away but the linesman ruled that the ball had already crossed the line.
Trott was single-handedly keeping the visitors in the game in the second-half, denying Neil Danns and Hepburn-Murphy, with the latter also hitting the side-netting and blazing a great chance over the bar.
Jennings crashed another effort against the post but, despite their profligacy in front of goal, Wimbledon offered little at the other end, handing Tranmere a crucial victory in the battle to avoid relegation.
Don’s Boss Glynn Hodges was critical of his team for not making their possession (56%) count, “We probably should have done more in the first-half, but in the second-half we had chances. We got bodies forward and balls were rolled across the box that you expect someone to finish. I was disappointed that we did not get the goal and maybe if we had got one we would have got another, but we’ve been beaten.”
“I had said at half-time that I didn’t think we gambled anywhere. We didn’t gamble in the midfield in trying to win the knock downs and the next balls. They dominated us in the first-half and their long balls were therefore causing us problems. They were knocking balls in behind. The message at half-time was to gamble in possession more, to gamble where the ball was going to land, and to get closer to people. We did that, but it wasn’t to be and we couldn’t get the goal."
He also questioned the validity of the Tranmere goal, “Nathan is adamant that the ball didn’t go over the line. You expected it to hit the back of the net, but it didn’t and the linesman was very quick to flag. You have to take those decisions and our fans behind the goal probably had a better view than me. You hope it will not be given, but it was and you have to get on with it.”
“I put Anthony Hartigan on to try and get Callum further up towards the front two and in the end with 10 minutes left I thought we would go 3-4-3 and have a go. We put Tommy Wood on so that we could go up against their back three to see if we could cause them more problems. In the second-half I thought we caused them problems, but we didn’t get the finishing touches."
“I am happy with our progress. This was disappointing, but I was happy with the performance. I thank the supporters for coming and I hope they have a safe journey back. We appreciate their support and unfortunately, we couldn’t give them anything to shout about. There are plenty of games left and the way the boys are playing I’m sure we will get our fair share of wins.”
Rovers record in these ties is excellent with 9 wins, 3 draws and 3 defeats in the 15 games played. The first time the teams clashed in Bristol was on 17 March 2012 when an 11th minute Muzzy Carayol secured all three points for Rovers.
On 30 November 2013, David Clarkson opened the scoring for Rovers, before Tom Parkes doubled the lead on the half hour mark. Matt Harrold rounded things off from the penalty spot just before the final whistle, to complete an emphatic 3-0 home victory.
On the 8 March 2016 Rovers took the lead on 28 minutes when Jermaine Easter nodded Rovers ahead from Lee Brown's cross. Ollie Clarke doubled the lead with a low right-footed shot 10 minutes later.
Jon Meades' header on 52 minutes brought Wimbledon back into the game but Matty Taylor's 12-yard finish on 78 minutes, his 19th of the season, sealed victory. The Don’s Adebayo Akinfenwa was sent off for dissent in added time, having come on in the 80th minute as a substitute for Lyle Taylor.
In 2016/17 season Rovers won a New Years Eve at the Mem 2-0 in front of a 10,093 crowd. Matty Taylor scored both goals in the 61st and 70th minutes.
In last season’s game Rovers took the lead in the 35th minute when Dons goalkeeper Joe McDonnell failed to deal with a Sam Matthews in-swinging corner under his crossbar and the ball went in, with Ed Upson claiming the final touch inside the six-yard box.
It was 2-0 in the 53rd minute when Michael Kelly's cross from the left took a deflection and centre-back Will Nightingale's attempt to clear saw him volley an own goal past McDonnell.
The Dons have a number of players on loan; Brighton midfielder Max Sanders, West Ham goalkeeper Nathan Trott, Watford striker Michael Folivi, Brentford forward Marcus Forss and Rochdale defender Ryan Delaney.
Max Sanders spoke of his experience so far, “I’m really enjoying it at Wimbledon and I’m playing every week. I can’t give any detail [on whether Brighton will recall him]. Whatever I’ll be doing I’ll be playing in a first team. I wouldn’t want that to change, but I don’t know completely what is going on.”
“I wouldn’t go back to play U23s. I did that for two years and I think I’ve moved on from that. Now having this first-team experience I want to be in the first-team wherever I go. That’s definitely the plan.”
“Wimbledon has given me a good platform to play regularly, that’s the main thing. I don’t want that enjoyment to go. I just need to keep playing well for Wimbledon. That’s what I’ve been doing and that’s what I plan to continue to do.”
“When I came here I didn’t play for the first few games but since I came into the team I haven’t come out of it. I’ve missed one league game due to a really small strain in my quad, it was a little niggle, and then I was straight back in after that. I feel like I’m properly part of the team and we’re doing a lot better than we were.”