By Gerry Prewett.
On Saturday Bristol Rovers take the relatively short trip up to south west London to take on an AFC Wimbledon who are already struggling for points. Last season the Dons looked doomed before Wally Downes was brought in to take over from Neil Ardley.
The turnaround in their fortunes was remarkable and showed promotion-winning form to escape the drop. They have failed to bring that form though to this season however and in their nine League games have collected just three points. Those points have come from three draws, with Accrington, Shrewsbury and Wycombe.
On Tuesday night the Dons faced Coventry at St Andrews, started brightly and were rewarded when Liam Walsh fouled Michael Folivi in the box after Coventry were caught playing out from the back.
Marcus Forss stepped up to cooly put the Dons ahead after eight minutes from the resulting penalty.
Coventry equalised after 28 minutes through Jordy Hiwula. A superb defence-splitting pass from Jordan Shipley put Hiwula one-on-one with Nathan Trott and he rounded the keeper and finished for his fourth goal of the season.
The Sky Blues had the majority of the ball in the second-half but they failed to make it count until late on when Bristol City loanee Liam Walsh finally put the home side ahead deep into injury time.
The midfielder drilled a shot past Trott in the 93rd minute after a smart one-two, with Shipley again the provider.
When interviewed after the game Downes said, “I’m devastated for the boys, they really put a shift in and executed what we asked them to do. I felt we were worthy of getting something from the game. I’m proud of the performance and work-rate. They played to the plan we set out. The way they executed it was terrific.”
Downes felt the turning point of the game was a glaring miss from former Coventry loan striker Michael Folivi, who sent a free header over the bar from close range to pass up the opportunity to extend his side’s early advantage.
“We had a chance to go 2-0 up, if we put that away the game is completely different, but we can’t cry over spilt milk. Everyone, including the fans, can see we put a shift in tonight.”
“Their heads were down for a while in there but we go again on Saturday against Bristol Rovers. As disappointed as they were today, when the win comes and we hope that is on Saturday, they will enjoy it as much as they were disappointed tonight.”
Rovers record in these ties is excellent with 8 wins, 3 draws and 3 defeats in the 14 games played. 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.
The following season an appalling first half display saw Rovers give away 3 goals in 14 minutes to lose any chance of taking anything from the game. To cap it all they finished the game with ten men after Tom Parkes picked up his second yellow card of the evening on 83 minutes.
It was no real surprise when Wimbledon took the lead on 14 minutes. A ball in from the right seemed to catch everyone by surprise and appeared to hit Gary Kenneth on the shin and roll into an unguarded net. Incessant pressure from the home side saw them rewarded with a second goal on the half hour mark. Midson was the provider, slipping the ball out to the right to Rashid Yussuff who comfortably slid the ball past Neil Etheridge from six yards.
Three minutes later goal number three arrived. Tom Parkes was penalised with a yellow card for a poor challenge out on the right, George Francomb floated the free kick into the area and Antwi was credited with the final touch, though from the stand it appeared to go in off of Kenneth
With just 18 minutes remaining Rovers recovered some semblance of dignity when David Clarkson set up Eaves for the fourth goal of his brief Rovers career. Winning possession some 25 yards from goal, he squared the ball to his strike partner who fired a superb shot into the top corner of the net.
Any hopes of a dramatic fight back were dashed seven minutes from time when Parkes made a rash challenge on Luke Moore and was booked for his efforts. It was his second booking of the evening, and he headed for the dressing room knowing he faced another suspension.
In 2016/17 season Rovers won both games, 2-0 on New Years Eve at the Mem and 1-0 at the Cherry Red Records Fans Stadium on 8th April, with a Billy Bodin goal in the first minute. The following season the events were reversed, as was the scoring with Joe Piggott getting a last minute winner for the home team.
In last season’s clash AFC created the better early chances and took the lead when that man Piggott picked up a beautifully disguised pass from Anthony Hartigan and swept the ball into the far corner of the net on 22 minutes.
Rovers could have been two behind if it had not been for a finger-tip save by Jack Bonham to keep out Steven Seddon's header and Tony Craig's goalline clearance as Anthony Wordsworth hammered his follow-up on target.
Rovers nearly equalised on the hour mark after Ollie Clarke put Gavin Reilly through on goal but Aaron Ramsdale was equal to the Scotsman's shot.
But with 10 minutes to go Rovers got their goal as Clarke showed brilliant skill to shift the ball onto his left foot and bend his 20-yard strike beyond Ramsdale.
Assistant Manager Glyn Hodges spoke ahead of this weekend’s game, “Straight after the whistle had blown (on Tuesday) I went onto the pitch and spoke to every single one of them. I just said ‘get your heads up, it’s a big game on Saturday, and you didn’t deserve that’. We are all hurting, including the fans, but I think the fans that went stayed until the end and clapped us off, so they could understand the effort that was put in on the evening. We’ve drawn three homes games and we could easily have had nine points. Again, we’ve got an opportunity to get our first win on the board.
“We will take the game to them and we want to make sure that we start positive and put Tuesday night out of our minds. There are a couple of things we have to iron out from our second-half performance, but I think it’s just a state of mind. It’s only us that can put it right, the players know that, and we will be doing out utmost on Saturday.
“We had the bit between our teeth last season and made sure that relegation didn’t happen. Looking forward now, I’m sure we’ve seen signs that there’s a team in there. We just need a bit of confidence and a spark to go on a run and get us out of where we are in the table. It’s down to us to keep working hard to put it right.
“Last season we were down and out, but we did what we did with this group of players. If people were not in the team, they were pulling in the right direction. It was probably the best experience I’ve had in all my years. I’ve been involved with teams where people have downed tools and they didn’t want to train or play. They wouldn’t put their all in for the team or the club. This group have shown that they care in abundance. That’s another thing that fills you full of confidence.