Automatic for the people

After a perfect March so far, hitting the heady heights of fourth, and seeing other teams slip up this weekend, it has suddenly come as a bit of a shock that we are now in touching distance of the automatic promotion slots. In fact it’s quite startling, especially as I remember how we made League Two look so difficult for eight and a half previous seasons out of nine, whilst clubs like Crawley Town, Hartlepool United (twice), Mansfield Town, Rochdale, Rushden & Diamonds (remember them?), Shrewsbury Town, Torquay United, and Wrexham made escape from the bottom look relatively simple.

Yes, the above names are true; they really were amongst the clubs gaining automatic promotion between 2001-2007 or 2011-2014. Play-off winners included two more towns; Cheltenham and Fleetwood. Meanwhile in the city of Bristol we made going up look as difficult as putting a man on the moon; our average finish was 15th.

In archetypal Gashead fashion I’ve been trying not to think about the top three, after being bitten too many times by the disappointment bug in the past. In addition, the triumvirate of Plymouth Argyle, Oxford United and Northampton Town have been continuously camped above the dotted line since 14th November, and until last weekend it looked like they could well squat there and try not to breathe until the end of the season.

Although I had noticed chinks in the usually robust hide of Oxford United (merely the 11th best home record in the League, including defeats to four of the current top seven), I am rather more surprised to see Argyle a lowly 15th in the form table for the last 10 games and surely now a team that could potentially be caught. This is no time of the season to be having a wobble with any more longevity than a mere blip (Oscar Wilde 1891, or was it Martin Bull 2016?).

As the top seven have played nearly all of their games against each other, the League will now be decided on who can cope the best against the middling and the struggling teams, and also how they deal with the injuries that tend to accumulate at this time of the season, plus any suspensions, and, perhaps most importantly, what reserves of experience, drive and mental strength they hold. It truly is a squad game now, and it’s encouraging to see irregular players like Mark McChrystal, Ollie Clarke and Cristian Montano having some of their best games of the season; indeed Monty got a raw deal when a formation change led to him being dropped after a MOTM performance at Notts County.

A sudden spate of Pirate injuries, thankfully most relatively minor, is an uncommon hurdle for Darrell Clarke to overcome as we hit the 10 match run-in to the end of the season. We had previously been remarkably blessed by a lack of damage, with only Will Puddy’s groin really upsetting the apple cart. We also hold a noteworthy record of not losing even a single player to suspension so far this season, with no bans for accumulated yellows, and both the red cards that were wafted in our direction were rescinded on appeal. In comparison it was easy to see on Saturday why Mansfield Town have the worst disciplinary record in the League.

However, we currently have two key players out (Stuart Sinclair and Rory Gaffney), and others out or at the edge of their bodily limits; nearly everybody hurts at this late stage of a long season. And the Easter weekend will see an unusual situation thump us, in that Ellis Harrison, Oliver McBurnie, and most significantly Tom Lockyer, will be away on International duty but we won’t be allowed to postpone the games. I can envisage several journo’s already warming up the cliché bus, with ‘down to the bare bones’ and ‘kids on the bench’.

Meanwhile, back on the pitch Rovers calmly dispatched Mansfield Town by the karmic score line of 1-0. Indeed for those out there touched by the train spotter stick there was a delicious symmetry to DC gaining his 50th win in his 100th match as Rovers manager. Matty Taylor also poached his 20th goal of the season (he leads League Two for goals from inside the six yard box, with eight so far), and Rovers already have more points this season than we achieved in all our other League Two campaigns except the promotion season of 2006/7 (we are only 10 points away though).

As usual though football commentators tend to focus on the limitations of the opposition rather than the patience shown by our own team, with analysis regularly focussing on the Stags lack of sharp antlers up top. Whilst it’s certainly true they came for a point and (just) left with nothing, I’d take that as a compliment rather than use it to berate Mansfield. It’s something we could have been accused of not that long ago, and is often not a tactic as such, but a simple realisation that one team isn’t as good as the other.

Rovers are gelling more as a team, and our solidity and mutual understanding is what will probably force more and more teams to come to the Mem looking for a draw, and live life on the break. It’s a perennial problem in football, and the reason we find it hard to slice through these teams like a hot knife through butter is precisely because we are a League Two team. If we had the creativity and goal scoring prowess to make wins look easy we wouldn’t be in this division.

Maybe by the end of May we won’t be? Or even by early May?

Why not dream of automatic promotion for the people. It costs nothing.

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Martin Bull became a Gashead in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar. Two of his six books have been about Bristol Rovers. ‘Away The Gas’ is packed full of over 50 years of ‘I was there’ away game moments, all written by fans, and ‘Print That Season! – One man’s weekly meanderings throughout Bristol Rovers’ promotion campaign of 2014-15’ is the antidote to obedient season reviews, with none of the hindsight that most writers rely on.  Full details of both are available at www.awaythegas.org.uk

Martin Bull became a Gashead in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar. Three of his seven books have been about Bristol Rovers. ‘Away The Gas’ is packed full of over 50 years of ‘I was there’ away game moments, all written by fans, ‘Print That Season! – One man’s weekly meanderings throughout Bristol Rovers’ promotion campaign of 2014-15’ is the antidote to obedient season reviews, with none of the hindsight that most writers rely on, and ‘Double Darrell’ is similar, but chronicles the 2015-16 promotion, and is even better.

Full details of all are available at www.awaythegas.org.uk

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