Don’t Look Back in Anger
By Martin Bull
After a disappointing opening game to the season (where have we heard that before, with only one win in the last 12 seasons) Rovers have kept their remarkable home record intact and DC has yet again wriggled out of a potentially difficult position as some Gasheads get twitchy about our lack of transfer activity.
‘Squad rotation’ is a genuine approach for Rovers, rather than something we are forced into, and the strength of having many players who are much of a muchness is how easily they are able to slip in and out of the side, and how strong our bench looks each week. A lot of the credit must be given to the squad stability we’ve had over the last few years, with, as predicted, six players in the starting XI at Scunthorpe United being survivors of the Conference opener two years ago AND the League Two opener last season.
The other genuine methodology of the present is DC’s policy of taking each match as a separate and distinct project rather than automatically retaining the same team from one result to another, even if they are winning.
Having said that a pattern in this organised turbulence does often emerge. Although DC is not as rigid as Martin Allen’s famous two team setup when winning the Conference title (one team for home matches, and another for away matches), certain players are clearly preferred for particular formations, such as James Clarke, or previously Tom Lockyer, at right back in a 4-4-2, rather than Daniel Leadbitter, and we tend to be setup more expansive at home than away. Bookies could also lay very low odds on several positive substitutions occurring between the hour mark and 75 minutes, and that all three subs will be used every game.
The difference between a 3-5-2 Rovers team (or more accurately a 3-2-3-2 formation) and a 4-4-2 is now becoming quite stable and predictable, even though changes of personnel are still commonplace, especially for the front two in either formation.
The EFL Cup win over Cardiff City may not have been a great spectacle but it was a professional, disciplined performance and an important result, not only because it has led to our first trip to Stamford Bridge in 36 years, but also because the farcical Second Round draw had resulted in Gasheads going into the game knowing that if we lost we would be handing the plum tie in the capital to Bristol City rather than the Bluebirds.
As much as I respect the material achievements of Paul Trollope’s Bristol Rovers team when he was our head coach (and later manager), the set-up of his Cardiff team, and zero goals in his first three games, suggests that not a lot has changed with his guarded mentality in the intervening six years, and that is one of the main reasons why Ian Holloway’s less than five years at the helm of Rovers are still talked about more than Trolls’ five years and three months, even though Ollie won nothing, didn’t get to an FA Cup Quarter Final, and never played at the Millennium Stadium nor Wembley.
Is it any real surprise though that a defensive midfielder carries that sideways and backwards mentality through to his coaching, just as a more attacking midfielder (Darrell Clarke) may be more prepared to loosen the chains during a game, or between different ‘projects’? Quite what went wrong with John Ward’s toothless final year at Rovers though we may never totally understand. Ward, the scorer of over a century of goals in less than 300 games in his own playing days, almost blew my theory out of the water before it even set sail.
In his post-match interview the match winner Chris Lines gave an eloquent and telling analysis of the game and how a Paul Trollope side might be beaten, “I think probably it was going to take something like that [a long range shot] from either team. Both keepers didn’t really have too much to do. There was a lot of backwards passing, especially from them…“. Meow.
Getting League points on the board versus Oxford United was vital and the five changes didn‘t apparently affect the fluency of the performance. Although pundits have rightly pointed out that to progress further Rovers will need to discover ruthless finishing abilities, that is surely the holy grail of pretty much every club, at every level, and those players who display the attribute usually swiftly move on up the ladder.
Whilst Rovers were on the wrong end of an erroneous sending off in the corresponding game last season, our sweet bedfellow karma had not forgotten us on Sunday, and this season we directly benefited from Sam Long’s dismissal on 67 minutes, something his manager thought was very harsh; but then again this is the same man who mischievously declared a few weeks ago that he had shook hands on a deal to sign Matty Taylor.
Midfielder Liam Sercombe, who scored a hard to comprehend 17 goals last season, shuffled off to right back, which not only negated his threat to us, but instigated a complete meltdown of his internal compass. Three minutes later, and more used to facing towards a goal than away from it, his misguided header back across his own goal led to Taylor‘s winner. Cue witty ‘hand shaking’ celebration routine.
It’s very early days but no-one wants to be on zero points like Southend United or AFC Wimbledon, and to have lost their EFL Cup game as well. Even though the Don’s Lyle Taylor is still scoring goals, they are letting them in far too easily. We should though be content that our next opponents, Bolton Wanderers, got their own monkey off their back at Kingsmeadow on Saturday, when they ended their seemingly impenetrable 495 day epoch without an away win.
Hopefully they will trot off back to Lancashire on Wednesday night with their curly little tails between their legs, as Rovers set a new club record of 11 consecutive home wins.