Over Hill and Dale

by Martin Bull

With a new division, new players (most of whom have never played League One football before), and, rather surprisingly even for DC, new formations, these are slightly anxious times for Gasheads. One twitterer sought to calm the waters after Walsall by remarking, “A third straight draw… This time last year there had been three straight losses. No need to panic”, but 140 characters isn’t enough to add that a trio of wins had proceeded that run. The cold fact is that winning three and losing three is better than a mix of loses, draws and a win, and that there are still lies, damned lies and statistics out there.

At present, after the re-arranged match with fellow strugglers Walsall, the table has a marginally more accurate feel to it, with all bar four teams now having played seven games. A half dozen points from a half dozen matches is no disaster for Rovers but it’s not going to keep the wolf from the door in the long run.

The draw against Keith Hill’s Rochdale took us out of the relegation zone though, so looked at in pure survivalist terms maybe that point should not be sniffed at?

Err, yes, but supporters always look at tables, and always expect more when playing ‘unfashionable’ teams housed at the bottom of any League, especially when at home. I used to live near Rochdale and can vouch that despite its fascinating bond with a movement close to my heart, the co-operative movement, it undeniably puts the ‘un’ into unfashionable.

As you drive into town a bridge proudly proclaims, ‘Rochdale – Birthplace of Co-operation’, but if you stop to ask for directions to the football ground you have more chance of getting sent to the Etihad, Old Trafford or even Turf Moor, than to the local delights of quaint old Spotland, tightly buried in a residential area like all stadiums used to be. Whereas ‘one member, one vote’ used to create a powerful egalitarian union between locals, easy mobility has created a fractured society and a fast tram to the gates of both Manchester behemoths.

If Rochdale could be suffering that ‘difficult third season [after promotion]’ feeling, the Saddlers could well be afflicted by a classic case of ‘smaller club struggles after ’nearly’ season‘. An unexpected third place finish last time around ended with a demoralising 6-1 loss in the play-offs to a club who finished 10 points behind them and had scrabbled into the final play-off slot on goal difference. Next came the traditional exodus of players who were no longer under the radar, and represented a cheap purloin for ‘bigger’ clubs.

Rovers suffered the same in 2000/2001 after Ian Holloway’s team imploded in the final few months of the 1999/2000 season; our most successful for almost two decades. The deflating feeling of not even getting into the play-offs ran like the word ‘failure’ through a stick of sugary seaside rock as Rovers lost many players and also lost the plot. In May 2001 Rovers were relegated to the fourth tier of the Football League for the first time in our history.

2009 to 2011 recalled an astonishing feeling of déjà vu, although the high this time was never as high or as sustained as ‘Ollie achieved. Rovers started the 2009/2010 season like a runaway train, peeking at third, and for most weeks until Christmas loitered in the play-off slots. Although it was a nice ride whilst it lasted, it accidentally gave credence to the idea that with results ticking along nicely, and Darryl Duffy and Jo Kuffour still at the club (24 goals between them the previous season), we weren’t really missing (or replacing) the talismanic Rickie Lambert. As the season faded away and ended in a whimper, Rovers dropped to 11th, and the cracks became evident. The following season was a relegation omni-shambles, characterised by a multitude of managers and a plethora of players, and it took a good four years to recover from.

Whilst the retention of 95% of the senior players from last season was presumably designed to keep the stability and celebrated togetherness of the team chugging along, a recent influx of loan signings, and regular changes in formations and players, has negated that somewhat. From being a team capable of weathering the first months of a new challenge by utilising the strength of a stable squad who knew how to play with each other, Rovers seem to have become the same as most other clubs in modern football, wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving, chopping and changing.

I wrote the following paragraph BEFORE the Walsall game, and was therefore content to see it come to pass; “Back to basics could be worth a try, especially early in a season? A simple 4-4-2 formation with a simple formula, which appeals to simple players, and those who do not yet know each others’ game well.”

It must be very difficult, even for experienced football personnel, to know exactly how to approach early games in this situation, so I feel they deserve to be cut some slack. One thing though is certain. It has rightly been acknowledged that it will be hard to keep the current bulky squad happy, but I expect the players will be fully utilised and fully justified by the time the clocks change.

After a short break Rovers are back to two games a week, with 12 games in 43 days, and it will only need a few injuries or suspensions (Ollie Clarke is already just a booking away from a one match sanction) to make the large squad not feel bloated. I’m sure that on a rapidly darkening night in Milton Keynes the clubs forward planning will be heralded, not mocked.

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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