A First XI of Learning Points – The season so far…

by Martin Bull

Ever since John Ward left in May 2014 there hasn’t been a dull moment following Rovers.

Whilst Ward changed formation once a season, Darrell Clarke changes once a game, and would probably snog Greg Clarke (Chairman of the FA) if basketball style substitutions were allowed into football.

So, after ten League games, and three cup games, all squeezed into a jam packed seven weeks, what can we discern from the season so far? Can we pick a first XI of learning points?

1 – The narrow wins of League Two are the draws at a higher level

Although supporters would love to think that the momentum from two promotions could easily be transferred into a third campaign, the reality is that League One does seem to be a considerable step up from League Two, with many clubs boasting higher budgets, attendances and players with more experience at the higher levels. The games we narrowly won last season are now more likely to be draws at a higher level.

Four draws in a row was still a surprise though considering we only had seven in the whole of last season. In fact we got all the way to Christmas before we saw our fourth draw in League Two, a 0-0 dull fest at AFC Wimbledon on St. Stephen‘s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for wearing a Saint-Etienne top in the wrong part of downtown Jerusalem.

A draw at Swindon Town would have equalled the club record of five consecutive draws, which was achieved, if that is the right word, in 1967 and 1975. For 75 minutes it looked like that draw wasn’t going to happen, and then within 60 seconds the prospect came, said hello, and wafted off out like Warren Beatty at a swanky party.

2 – Rovers haven’t lost one vital capability

At the end of last season I wrote a Top 10 of golden themes or moments in an unprecedented second promotion in two seasons for BRFC. At the top of the pops was ‘rescuing 20 points from losing positions’.

If 20 rescued points in 46 games was amazing then this season’s nine rescued points so far seems positively stratospheric, especially as I wrote above that the games we narrowly won last season are now more likely to be the games where we only earn a point at a higher level.

Our start may have been a bit frustrating, and the draws too frequent, but already coming from behind five times is an indication that the celebrated resilience and fight within the squad is still there in abundance.

3 – Two draws are still worth less than a win and a loss.

The late Jimmy Hill proposed the three points for a win system and it was introduced in England in 1981. It didn’t really catch on elsewhere, and certainly none of the ’big’ leagues used it until after it was adopted for the 1994 World Cup Finals.

Football teams have had 35 years to get used to it.

4 – We finally have a goal threat from central defence

Last season seemed to be the straw that broke the camels back for DC. With Lee Brown being the only defender to score all season it left him determined to find a centre back who could provide a goal threat from set pieces or when pushed up front in search of a vital goal.

When Peter Hartley was signed from Plymouth Argyle, pundits and the Green Army legions were unanimous in agreeing that he was a decent, hard working, old school centre back who will guarantee you several goals a season, and could get you out of a jam in the same way Guy Branston was the right man to turn to when the defence was all in a pickle.

Hartley has not disappointed so far, with two goals and a brace of assists.

5 – The weakness is probably at the back, not the front

Despite some criticism of negative line-ups and strange formations, Rovers must be doing something right as we scored in each of the first 12 League and cup games before finally grinding to a halt at Sheffield United.

At the other end there has only been one clean sheet though, and that was at home to Cardiff City, managed by the ever cautious, and soon to be relieved of his responsibilities, Paul Trollope.

6 – Not so mellow yellow

One conundrum that I have no real answer for is the spate of yellow cards we’ve had this season. 28 so far, including five at Bradford City, and six at Swindon Town, the latter earning an automatic FA fine and being told to stand in the naughty corner for 30 minutes. The only obvious pattern is that just 14 yellows have come in the seven home matches, whereas 19 have been collected in six away days, plus Jermaine Easter‘s red at Bramall Lane.

Last season Rovers had the second best disciplinary record in League Two, with 57 yellow cards, and no Rovers player was lost to a suspension in the whole season. This time it’s still September and Easter will get a three match ban and Stuart Sinclair has incurred a one match suspension for picking up five yellow cards, although it has to be said that inclusion of the yellow card collected at the abandoned Swindon game is still one of the weirdest rules there is in football.

It would be fair to suggest there is little evidence that Rovers are, in general, a dirty team. Last season the only two red cards received were both rescinded on appeal. In fact until Easter’s elbow no Rovers player has been legitimately sent off since Andy Monkhouse was dismissed in the last few minutes of the game at AFC Telford United on the opening day of November 2014, and even that was considered questionable at the time.

Part 2 of this 11 point analysis will be coming soon…

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