Fan’s View 2020/21 – No.30 – Bristol Rovers away

Article by Paul Beasley Thursday, February 11th, 2021  


This was back to playing a team in the mid to lower reaches of the table and we know full well from our winning run that we can beat such sides. Although nothing can be taken for granted it was normal service resumed here result wise but the performance was far below the standard of what we can produce. With the three points brought back to Oxfordshire on a bitterly cold night that doesn’t really matter although not getting the second until added time against a poor Rovers side was a bit concerning until it actually happened.

The form of the Gas is dreadful. Since beating Blackpool on Jan 2 they have lost five and drawn two league games. At Exeter Paul Tisdale was known for attacking football but perhaps the constant grind and pressure of the football world has worn this dapper man down. He lasted less than two seasons at MK Dons and now seems to have his work cut out at the Memorial Stadium. Seeing how Rovers set up, pragmatism appeared to be the order of the day.

They clearly feared us and with the blue and quartered shirts initially showing no attacking ambition whatsoever, the onus was on those in orange to break them down, but were not able to do so.

I’d been mightily impressed with Olamide Shodipo’s substitute performance against Doncaster once he got going. Here he never got into the game. He inflicts most damage when playing out wide but for some reason he rarely hugged the touch line and was trying to operate somewhere between the wing and the centre of the field. Why?

It wasn’t just him though because none of our attackers were that involved in an attacking sense and we were having the vast majority of the possession.

I now started to wonder whether Brizzle were playing a really canny game. Our midfield wasn’t creating chances nor providing totally reliable cover for the back line where we didn’t look rock solid meaning that it wasn’t surprising that the home side ended up having 15 shots, four of which were on target. We’re now normally much better than that at restricting those we’re up against in their efforts on goal.

Rovers hinted that they might have success playing high cross field balls down the right wing and in the 28th minute James Daly lashed one just over our bar.

A minute later a goal arrived – for us. Nothing had been pretty on the eye and it was in keeping with the game that the move started with a headed clearance, the ball having been in the air quite a lot. Elliott Moore is probably at his most comfortable dealing with such situations. From here to the ball ending up in the net we played the best bit of football of the night so far. After a bounce in the centre circle Cameron Brannagan jumped and twisted to help it on its way with another header. Another bounce, another header, this time Matty Taylor gently placing it into James Henry’s path. His first time side foot volleyed pass had Elliot Lee coming in from the right and breaking through the defensive line. The first touch was on the edge of the box and the second touch after setting himself just right was to give keeper Joe Day no chance.

This did not lead to a period of dominance. Rovers had got more into the game before our goal and continued in the same vein afterwards. They had the better chances. Jack Stevens had to be at his best to send a George Williams stinger over the bar and from the corner that followed Luke Leahy sent the ball into the side netting.  I suspect I wasn’t the only person to think it had gone in.

We weren’t playing well and in no area of the pitch were we functioning efficiently. At this point I was wondering if we had the nous to get through this with the lead intact. Did we have enough old heads? Would we be able to “manage” the game?

Sam Long, who has been tremendous for us this season, going off injured didn’t raise my spirits. I’ll take it as good news that he tried to soldier on for a couple of minutes after first going down even though it is “a hamstring issue”.

With the half almost over Henry, from his own half, tried to beat Day who was way off his line. Shame it didn’t go in because if it had the second half tension would have been dismissed in an instant.

Josh Ruffels came up with a really good header to get the ball out for a corner and deny Williams what would have been a very good goal-scoring chance.

We were going about our business in a manner to suggest we’d soon have the game put to bed.

Further injury bad news came just before the hour with Henry unable to continue after a knock. It looked like a dead-leg and that has now been confirmed.

As the number of times a team can make substitutions, other than at half time, is three, Karl Robinson brought Shodipo off at the same time, Brandon Barker and Sam Winnall entering the fray.

Before they’d had time to settle into the game we nearly shot ourselves in the foot when Stevens was much too slow in clearing a back pass.

Having made our changes Tisdale played some of the cards in his hand in an attempt to take a stranglehold on the midfield and then in the 71st minute brought on Brandon Hanlan, their leading scorer.

We still had not got a proper grasp of the game, looked a bit shambolic and were not winning the second balls.

KR needed to make further changes which he did with Lee and Taylor going off and Liam Kelly and Mark Sykes coming on. This was a significant move. Finally I genuinely felt excitement as we went forward and had belief that something might happen. We’d loaded the middle ourselves. A tactical game of you make your move and I’ll counter it. Interesting.

Sykes had dropped down the pecking order to such an extent that he wasn’t even making the bench but Robbo had hinted at a return when he commented on how well the lad was training. Suddenly we had an energy not previously witnessed with the man from Northern Ireland moving around quicker and with more obvious enthusiasm than his colleagues. It wasn’t only his carrying of the ball forward but his getting back to cover in the right areas of the pitch.

This rubs off and others really came to life too, especially the earlier arrivals, Barker and Winnall who to be fair had already made some difference.

Looking much more threatening we constructed a passing and dribbling move involving Ruffels, Kelly, Atkinson and Barker which ended with Brannagan putting the ball just wide.

Sykes picked up a loose ball and burst through only to be denied by an excellent last ditch tackle.

From a corner that we didn’t deliver immediately into the area Winnall hit the post instead of scoring thanks to the slightest of touches from Day.

That second goal just would not come. Well not within the 90 minutes. With about one left Rovers spurned a good opportunity to turn our evening into a miserable one.

When the board went up showing five added minutes I don’t think we could argue with that. I actually feared more after Saturday thinking that referees might have received a directive.

This extra time turned out to be our friend and not theirs. In the second minute we were busy at the back heading the ball clear. First Atkinson then Moore. This second header was nodded on by Winnall to Sykes.  He didn’t go forward with the ball or send the ball forward but set about keeping it as is sensible at this very late stage. Trouble was the pass he played back to Anthony Forde, our replacement RB, was risky. Forde did well to retain possession but then passed straight to Leahy.  Tired of mind and body the Rovers man let the ball hit him and fell over. Picking it up again Forde ran crossfield before laying it off to Barker. He finished the game at long last with simple efficiency by running in to the box and hitting it beyond Day.

Before then Barker on the ball had shown a skill level way beyond anything else on show. I’ll reserve judgement on the impression that he pulled out of a couple of tackles. We want players who will get stuck in but we also want players that don’t get unnecessarily injured. There are occasions when talented players try and nick the ball around or away from an opponent instead of trying to take man and ball and that’s not because they have not got bottle.

At the end of most games I ask myself this obvious question – did we deserve to win? The answer here is yes, despite the conclusion that a lot of this performance wasn’t great. There’s a follow up question of course – would we have won playing like that if we’d been against one of the better L1 sides? I suspect not.

We have many games coming up against these better teams. We’re away at Ipswich on 20 Feb, home to Pompey on 23 Feb, and then after we go to MK Dons are at the Kassam against Peterborough and then Charlton.

But first we’ve got to face another team right near the basement in Wigan Athletic. They’ve only had two league wins since mid-December and they were against fellow strugglers Burton (24th) and Northampton (23rd) at the same time as we were winning at the Memorial Ground.

As we saw here nothing can be taken for granted and there are no easy points to be had whatever the calibre of the opposition.  If it was easy it would be boring wouldn’t it?

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 11th, 2021 at 6:30 pm and appears under News Items. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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