Pick of the Promotion Pops – Part 3
By Martin Bull
Greetings pop pickers and welcome to Part 3 of this special edition of Pick of the Pops, featuring the year 2015/16 and focusing on 10 golden themes in an unprecedented second promotion in two seasons for Bristol Rovers. Today we concentrate solely at the number 5 slot.
Are Gasheads still in wonderland? Not ‘arf.
At Number 5 we have – Injuries, suspensions & beast mood
To gain promotion you need the almost perfect season to transpire, where everything from finances to fitness, and teamwork to tactics, slots neatly into place.
A little dash of good fortune can help as well, and although I do believe that recruitment of younger and / or fitter players without a bad injury record can help, and a dynamic fitness and lifestyle ethos can make a difference, it would be unfair to suggest, for example, that all of the numerous injuries Rovers endured in the relegation season were avoidable, or that giving a fresh chance to Billy Bodin after a year of virtually no football following an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury, was a masterstroke that could never have possibly gone pear shaped.
The Rovers staff and players can however certainly take some considerable credit for never having an injury crisis, for boasting fitness levels never seen before at the club (even when training at an Army camp in the village of my birth) and for never relying on a plethora of loan players (only 23 different players started games for the Pirates).
Rovers went the whole season without any hugely debilitating injuries, and for a relatively small and tight knit squad whose well drilled whole was more than the sum of its parts that had a substantial positive effect. Whilst it became routine for rival managers to whinge about their injuries, and to be fair Plymouth Argyle and Oxford United truly did suffer towards the end of the season, for us only Will Puddy and Stuart Sinclair were injured for any sizeable period of time.
Although I was a fan of Will Puddy in the Conference I was never sure he was a real solution to a problem position, and would have happily witnessed one top-notch keeper replace both Puddy and Mildenhall in the summer of 2015, so his absence for half of this season was hardly an injury to be too despondent about.
As much as I love The Beard, his whole-hearted style of play puts his tiny frame under such strain it is no surprise it seems to snap under the pressure; recollect his leap at Gateshead on the final day of February 2015, and his subsequent fall back to earth from the stratosphere in a crumpled heap. This season was almost a carbon copy, starting all bar one of the opening 35 League and cup games, and only leaving the pitch early at two of those games, but then missing all of the final 15 games through injury.
Revisionist historians are already negating his positive influence to the team, suggesting we hit our best form with him out injured and that he won’t be able to handle the step up to League One. These are probably the same detractors who said he wouldn’t make an impact in League Two football, after making that breakthrough at the ripe age of 26. Although it was certainly true that it was hard to know quite how to fit him into a midfield that had so many contradictory options, with wildly differing skill sets, and which regularly faced changes in formation not just between games but also during the game, it is entirely unfair to lay these wider strategic problems on his golden teaselled locks.
In a perfect world I think the Beard would always deserve his place in a Rovers midfield, the difficult part is getting the team balance right. Every midfield can benefit from a Sinclair type terrier, and he has a quicker turn of pace and a better eye for a pass than many critics give him credit for.
Intriguingly the player who was statistically missed the most was Mark McChrystal who was injured for the opening eight games and an unused sub for the next two. Six of those games ended in defeat; in fact Macca only featured in three of the 13 League defeats, whilst in contrast he played in 16 wins and three draws.
Discipline is something that can be controlled more clearly than injuries and more often than not effective discipline comes from the top. DC and his staff therefore deserve recognition for the team finishing with the second best disciplinary record in the division, with only 57 yellow cards, and both red cards that were given out were rescinded on appeal. Only Exeter City were better, with 53 yellows and no reds of any description or inaccuracy. This record also meant that Rovers did not lose any player to any suspension for the whole season; quite an achievement, and certainly gave us a slight advantage over our competitors, in a league where ultimately just four goals in eight long months made the difference between promotion and failure.
It was no surprise that Mansfield Town were the worst disciplined with 85 yellows, three double yellows and three straight reds. Our old fair play friends Notts County were next in line; obviously not a lot changes in the east Midlands.
One of the most comical moments of the season came when AFC Wimbledon visited the Mem in early March. The phoenix club exhibited impressive pace, power and passing, especially upfront, and were without an away loss since October. But Rovers sliced through them and with 10 minutes left were 3-1 up. The impressive Lyle Taylor was substituted, with Adebayo ‘The Beast’ Akinfenwa being winched on as a last roll of the not-so fluffy dice. Within minutes he was constantly fouling and seemed to think that because he is famed as ‘the strongest idiot’ on the FIFA Football video game series he was somehow authorised to push opposing players away from him at arms length, presumably so that he could get his way (as usual, it’s always about him…) and score a goal unimpeded.
When the referee gave a free kick against him he threw his toys out of the pram to such a degree that his throbbing head and windmilling arms were temporarily the only things on earth that could be spotted from Outer Space. A red card was brandished and he huffed and puffed before finally trudging off, remonstrating with thin air as if on a powerful LSD trip. If there are two men in the world who could unquestionably start a fight in an empty room, their names are Adebayo Akinfenwa and Donald Trump. There was a third but Ronald Reagan is dead.
And the point is? Well, for all the weaknesses and faults of our players, I can’t see any of them acting like that (ok… well, I have just thought of one maybe…), and I’m sure DC wouldn’t stand for it if one of them ever did. We have no prima donnas, no crazy hatchet men, and no media whores, and long may that continue. I can take passion, and the odd heat of the moment crime, but unbridled arrogance I can live without.