By Gerry Prewett.
Bristol Rovers head up to Shropshire this weekend to take on Shrewsbury Town with both teams having had a two-week break from League action and having won mid-week cup games. For Rovers it provided the chance to bring Jonson Clarke Harris back into the fold after his calf injury and his goal at Bromley showed why he is such a talisman for the Gas, ensuring he was first to the ball, despite three defenders being in close proximity.
There is no dispute that Rovers are playing nowhere near their full potential at present, but results have, by large, been favourable and the team seems to have gained the ability to ‘grind out’ results. Whilst not pleasing on the eye it does mean that if the form continues GasHeads will be looking nervously at the top of the table at season’s end rather than the bottom.
Shrewsbury sit just one point behind Rovers with 6 wins and 6 draws from their 16 games. Their most recent league game was a 1-0 victory over highly fancied Peterborough Unite at the Montgomery Waters Meadow. In the early action Marcus Maddison drove a long-range shot wide as Peterborough looked for an early breakthrough. Dave Edwards fired wide of the near post for the home team before Jason Cummings, set up by Donald Love, saw his effort well saved by Posh keeper Christy Pym.
The Shrews broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time. Omar Beckles headed Shaun Whalley's free-kick against the post and defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell reacted quickest to convert the rebound.
Posh were given the chance to draw level when they were awarded a penalty seven minutes into the second half for a challenge on Ivan Toney, but 38 year-old goalkeeper Joe Murphy came to the home side's rescue by stopping Marcus Maddison's spot-kick.
Mo Eisa and Toney were then off target for Peterborough, while - at the other end - Shrewsbury midfielder Josh Laurent hit a shot into the side netting.
Shrews boss Sam Ricketts was pleased with his team’s effort saying after the game, “I am delighted. I am delighted for the players more than anything. I thought the performance, especially in the first-half, was very good.”
“I think for the vast majority of the game, we kept them at arms-length pretty comfortably. Murphy had to make a save from a penalty, an excellent save. It was slightly dubious whether it was a penalty or wasn’t.”
“It was testament to the whole team, not just the back lads and the keeper, with how they kept a really potent team, who score three and four goals on a regular basis, at arms-length.”
“I want us to be more ruthless in the final third and to score more from set pieces. I thought it was going to go in with Omar (Beckles), thankfully Ethan put it away. With that, we played the game superbly well. They changed shape a number of times, they put all 10 men in their half and invited us to break them down. It’s testament to us for doing it.”
Historically Rovers record against the Shrews is a good one with 29 wins, 16 draws and 20 defeats. The recent record is not so good with just on win and two draws in the last seven meetings. The first meeting didn’t take place until the 1951-52 season and it was the Shropshire team who came away from Eastville with a share of the points with a 3-3 draw and a 2-1 victory at Gay Meadow. Len Pickard, Vic Lambdon and Ray Warren scored for Rovers in the home game, with Harry Roberts nothing all three of the Shrews goals. In the game at Gay Meadow, Vic Lambdon was again on the score sheet for Rovers and Martin Reagan and Arnie Jackson scored for the home team.
Perhaps the most memorable and certainly the one with the biggest attendance 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 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.
In last season’s game, Shrewsbury had the better of a goalless first half, with Ollie Norburn's 25-yard drive well saved by Jack Bonham. The Rovers goalkeeper then stopped a header from Omar Beckles after the defender was picked out by a Shaun Whalley corner.
Shrewsbury had the first opportunity of the second half when Josh Laurent's shot on the turn was gathered by Bonham. Rovers took the lead in the 53rd minute, Stefan Payne converting from the penalty spot after Luke Waterfall brought down Ollie Clarke.
Rovers were reduced to 10 men just before the hour-mark when Joe Martin was dismissed for a second bookable offence. Shrewsbury pushed for an equaliser and, after Beckles headed narrowly wide, it came in the 71st minute as Whalley's low cross from the right was diverted into his own net by Daniel Leadbitter.
Much like Rovers, Shrewsbury have a very sound defence and have conceded just four goals in their last 10 games and a record of 10 clean sheets in all 22 games this season.
Sam Ricketts noted, “They’re good players with good attributes. They’re all big, they’re all quick, mobile and happy to defend wide and crosses into the box.”
“We have a good set-up, a good base, that starts from the top as well. The least amount of defending they do the better. But when they are tasked with defending crosses or wide they do it very well.”
Looking ahead to this weekend’s game he said of Rovers, "They're a hard-working team with some good players. They've got one of the stand-out forwards since he signed with them in January. Clarke-Harris has scored a number of goals and some very impressive goals as well, and they have a mean defence as well."
"We're in that sort of stage now where a lot of teams are close to each other, and the top half of the league is tight, so every game there might not be a lot in them and then it's down to, whether it may be a little bit of quality or details that will decide these games."
"We've prepared for every game exactly the same whether it be league, FA Cup or Leasing.com, so the preparation is no different, the team selection is no different, so we want to go in strong every game. Obviously, we will have to make changes due to internationals and injuries, but we've gone out to win every game, and then that helps to keep that winning momentum going."
Talking of his midfield he said, "It's good, and it's really positive. Dave Edwards coming in and arriving and scoring a Dave Edwards goal by tucking in a cross. It's what he's made a career on so to get him scoring a couple of goals it's nice, and obviously, all the other midfielders chipping in it means goals are coming from all areas, not just one player."