By Gerry Prewett.
After the hard-fought draw at Fleetwood on Sunday Bristol Rovers take to the road again on New Year’s Day to face MK Dons in Milton Keynes. After manager Paul Tisdale had led the Dons to a 3rd place finish and automatic promotion in his first season in charge at Stadium MK, things had not been as smooth this season with the Dons gaining only one point from a possible 27, the worst run of results in the club's short history. Tisdale's contract with the club was mutually terminated on 2 November 2019 following a 1–3 home defeat to Tranmere.
The following day Russell Martin, former Wycombe Wanderers, Peterborough United, Norwich City and Rangers midfielder/defender, who was already at the club, was appointed. Under Martin, the Dons have picked up 8 points from their 7 games.
The latest of those games was on Sunday as they halted a Portsmouth team, coming off successive victories, with a 3-1 win. Kenny Jackett's side, backed by more than 4,000 travelling supporters, started the better of the two sides. They went close on 24 minutes when Andy Cannon's left-footed volley fizzed inches wide of goal.
But Dons took the lead in the 35th minute when Dean Lewington's hopeful long ball from within his own half slotted Rhys Healey through on goal and he poked home his second in as many games.
The hosts doubled their lead just before the break when Conor McGrandles' sweet left-footed strike from the edge of the Pompey box found the top corner. Alex Gilbey made it 3-0 five minutes from time with a delicate chip over Pompey keeper Craig MacGillivray, before Ronan Curtis found the net for the visitors at the death.
That Don’s victory edged them closer to climbing out of the bottom three and Martin was pleased with his team’s performance, “We deserved the win,” the Dons boss said in his post-match press conference. “It's probably the most complete performance they've given.”
“We've played a really good Portsmouth side who will be at the top end of the table at the end of the season, and we were outstanding. They edged it in the first 30 minutes. They're a good side, and any side will have a moment in a game, but although they were dominant, they didn't create much. We had numbers behind the ball and we looked dangerous on the counter.”
“We played out a few nervy ones, but we’re asking them to be brave. We're in the bottom three and the easy thing to do would be to smash it long and keep our fingers crossed, but we’re trying to build something that keeps us up and is something we can sustain. The courage with the way we're playing, fair play to them for playing like that.”
“David Kasumu was superb, Rhys Healey was brilliant and Alex Gilbey, in a different role too, was excellent, I could name them all, though. If we're talking about standards, I'm disappointed to concede late. We deserved a clean sheet and I'm disappointed by that, but if I'm talking about being disappointed after beating Portsmouth 3-1, then we're going in the right direction.”
“We now need to back it up with another performance, We've lost one in five now which, from where we were to where we are, is huge. If we go and win and put in another performance against Bristol Rovers, then it turns this win and the Southend point into really good results.”
All the games between Rovers and MK Dons have been played since 2006 and the Dons certainly have the advantage with 6 victories to Rovers 4, with 3 games drawn. Rovers are undefeated in the last 5 meetings, having won the last 3.
One notable feature of games between the clubs is how close they are. There has only been one 0-0 draw and the biggest winning margin has been 2-0. The only time that one team scored 3 goals in this fixture, they both did, in a remarkable 3-3 draw at Stadium MK on 18 October 2016 when Matty Taylor completed a very late hat-trick to stun the home team.
Rovers last visit to Stadium MK saw a 1-0 victory on 3 March 2018. The hosts started brightly and went close to taking the lead when Robbie Muirhead cut inside on 15 minutes, before firing a left-footed strike just over the Rovers goal. Liam Sercombe threatened for Rovers 10 minutes later when his half-volley inside the Dons box was superbly saved by Lee Nicholls.
The Gas then took a deserved lead five minutes after the break as Ellis Harrison broke down the flank before cutting inside and delicately dinking a fine finish over the head of MK keeper Nicholls. Despite Muirhead forcing Sam Slocombe into a testing save late on, Dan Micciche's men couldn't find an equaliser.
Rhys Healey has only recently returned from a long-term injury and ran out of steam on the hour mark in the Portsmouth match and was replaced by Sam Nombe, also back after a long spell out, Healey believes he will only get better.
“When you come back after a while out, you have to listen to your body and bed yourself in,” he said. “As a player, you always want to play! Today was good for me to get out there, get minutes and I’ll only get fitter from here. I’ve been out for about 13, 14 weeks. It was hard watching on with the results we’d been having over the last few months. So I’m glad to be contributing with what I could.”
Talking about his coolly taken goal after sustained Pompey pressure, Healey commented “As a striker, you’ve got to expect that against your opponents, you might only get one chance and you’ve got to be on your toes to put it away. Luckily I was there to put it in the back of the net. Credit to the other two goals as well, we were clinical when we had to be.”
“Today was a good day all round, disappointing to concede late on but the main thing is getting three points against a good team out there. Considering how we’ve been playing in the last few weeks, we shouldn’t be where we are. Obviously, some things go certain ways, but we’ll continue to play our way because we will surprise a few teams in this league. Not many teams will cope with the way we play.”