By Gerry Prewett.
Having broken their winless spell last weekend, Bristol Rovers head up to Sunderland this weekend to face a team on a hot run of form. In their last eight games compared to the rest of the season, the Black Cats are the top-performing team. It is defensively that they have been so impressive having let in just two goals in their last eight games.
When Jack Ross was sacked on 8 October the Wearsiders had just lost at Lincoln a result which left them four points adrift of second-placed Wycombe and eight behind leaders Ipswich. Nine days later Phil Parkinson was appointed to replace the Scotsman and the response to his appointment was somewhat underwhelming. The initial results were equally unimpressive but defensive resilience has seen a series of 1-0 away wins that were previously ending as 1-1 draws.
Parkinson arrived promising fans that he would play positive football, but he made no apologies for his claim that the team before his arrival had been too open and vulnerable to the counter-attack. He spoke of ‘locking in’ attacks, getting bodies in the final third but being disciplined enough to ensure they would not be opened up when they lost possession. Recent results have shown they have done that in spades.
On Saturday the Black Cats secured their seventh victory in nine games as another disciplined defensive display secured a 1-0 win over Oxford at the Kassam Stadium.
It was the Black Cats' seventh clean sheet in their last eight matches and moved them within three points of League One leaders, Rotherham.
At just about the same time as Blackpool were taking the lead at the Mem, Chris Maguire's third-minute corner led to the only goal of the game as Jordan Willis flicked a header towards goal, though the last touch appeared to come off Oxford defender John Mousinho. It stunned the hosts, who were playing with three centre-backs for the first time this season.
Sunderland continued to enjoy plenty of the ball, with Maguire prodding a 12-yard shot over the crossbar. Oxford showed their intent at the start of the second half with some sustained pressure. Josh Ruffels had a 20-yard volley pushed over by visiting goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, and Dan Agyei threatened first with a shot that lacked power and then steered a diving header wide.
Interviewed after the game Parkinson said, “It’s the whole team, defending starts from the front, there were some heroic headers out the box from Charlie Wyke, Tom Flanagan, everybody played their part.”
“We showed a strong character, our mentality was strong, concentration levels were great and we dug deep and had to. Conditions were tough. Oxford are a good team and have a lot of talent. It was a real team performance and I am so pleased with the points. Set plays are important and I was pleased Jordan got on the end of it, we couldn’t have wished for a better start.”
“They have as many attacking options as any other team in the league, they are a good side and we had to be at our best in terms of organisation. The basic stuff, had to be right. The biggest cheer was when Denver [Hume] put himself on the line to stop a cross coming in.
It has to be everyone doing it and we certainly showed that.”
Parkinson also praised substitute Josh Scowen, “Josh is a very good player, he has come in and the lads in midfield have gone up a level. He has done really well and it just showed what he is all about; he is a very clever, intelligent player and did some good things.”
Rovers record against Sunderland is surprisingly good, having won 10, drawn 8 and lost 12 of the 30 games played in all competitions. Having said that the Wearsiders have won the last four matches! Rovers last victory was on 8 October 1992 (7 games ago) in a League Two (Championship) tie at Twerton Park. Carl Saunders scored both Rovers goals and John Byrne for the away team.
One of the more memorable games during the Twerton Park sojourn took place on 24 February 1988. Rovers were languishing near the bottom of the table and Sunderland looking for automatic promotion from Division Three (current Division One) were the leaders. It was obvious from the outset that the Rokerites realised the danger of playmaker Kenny Hibbitt, a ‘strong’ (and totally illegal) tackle by Gordon Armstrong ended Hibbitt’s game and indeed his career as it broke his leg.
This only acted to fire up Rovers Ian Holloway put Rovers ahead six minutes before half-time. Debutant David Mehew scored a goal that split other goals by Gary Penrice and Devon White.
The big injury news from the Stadium of light is that Bristol City loanee central defender Bailey Wright will miss the rest of the season through injury. Parkinson commented, "You do get players injured and you have to have the squad to cope with it, I believe we have that." It would appear that his replacement this week will be Alim Ozturk as Parkinson indicated,
"He has trained very well, he is a popular member of the squad with players and fans, he has been left out before but always come back in and done well. Joel Lynch is back in training too. You lose one option but others come in."