The monumental struggle to secure 10th place in the third flight resumed today at Bristol Rovers. Cynicism to one side for the moment, this spell of games does have one positive aspect, namely that they have been bolstering confidence in Holden’s ability to shape and fashion a team/squad capable of challenging for promotion next season – provided of course he gets the necessary backing. In that context we were looking at least to extend the unbeaten ‘run’, ideally climb a place or two if we took the three points and Peterborough and Bolton did us favours in the other games. We did get those favours but did ourselves none as we put in a subdued and very much below-par performance and were beaten by ordinary opposition.
That said, Bristol Rovers deserved their win as they had done their homework, kept to a gameplan which nullified us, and for the first hour denied us any time and space. Having frustrated us and helped make it an ugly contest, they made changes to switch to a more offensive system. It worked in that they had the better of a key period and took the lead, then saw out the game despite some moments at the death when we were throwing caution to the wind. By contrast we persisted with something that wasn’t working for far too long. On this day, Barton got it right and Holden didn’t – although the blame for the performance has to rest with the players, who were, compared to last Saturday, just off the pace and level of intensity required.
As for the team, already without Ness, Blackett-Taylor and Aneke, there was uncertainty over whether Clare would be fit and available – and if not whether Egbo or Kane might be ready to challenge Thomas and Sessegnon for the full-back slots. In the event Sessegnon would start with Egbo on the bench. Otherwise it was a case, not surprisingly after a 6-0 win, of as you were.
CATV at the break pretty much summed up the first half. “The first 15 minutes were pretty drab and it didn’t pick up after that”. The two teams were doing a good job of cancelling each other out, neither making mistakes in defence but neither managing to create a decent opening. For us a cross from the right which Leaburn flicked on and went wide was about as close as we got, although there were corners and moments when something might have been created with a perceptive run or pass. Both Rak-Sakyi and Campbell were struggling to have an impact and without a threat from the wider guys we were well contained.
At the other end Hector and Dobson generally protected our box, but right at the end of the half Bristol did come close twice. We did have a warning as a crossfield ball was taken well by Sinclair, which saw Sessegnon facing him with no cover, but having cut inside his shot went well over. From a free-kick worked back from the far post and then squared their guy was able to run onto the ball and strike a powerful shot. Maynard-Brewer was able to stick out his left arm and turn it around the post. From the resulting corner their guy met the ball at the near post but his low effort went just wide.
That really was just about it. At the break you suspect that those there in the sun would have happily taken a point each and decamped to the pub (apparently some coaches didn’t make it). You hoped for a better spectacle, but if not at least something to take from the game. In truth there was more incident in the second half, but we would have been happier with a repeat of the first (or the pub).
We did have a couple of moments before the hour mark as Campbell wriggled free down the left and his low cross to Leaburn just couldn’t get converted, then one in the air was gathered by their keeper before it could reach Leaburn. Whether or not Barton saw the game slipping away from them, or whether the changes had been planned for around this time, they then made a double-substitution, their leading goalscorer being introduced, and followed this up five minutes later by bringing on Marquis, who succeeded in making the game even uglier.
The goal came with around 20 minutes left on the clock. A one-two down their right left their guy in space. Dobson came across to try to head off the danger, but as the ball was chipped inside his arm came out and the ball hit it. I thought he got away with a similar one against Shrewsbury but there was no escape this time and the penalty was awarded. Marquis stepped up, Maynard-Brewer went to his left, the ball went in the other corner.
Now it was a real challenge to get at least a point. With around 15 minutes left Bonne and Payne were introduced, Morgan and Campbell giving way, with us switching to a 4-4-2. And just by necessity some half-chances did get forced. A cross from Thomas on the left seemed to catch Bonne by surprise and he completely fluffed his header from close range. Then after Leaburn had been caught late on the left side Fraser’s free-kick into the box found Inniss in space. But he seemed to mistime his contact and it went harmlessly over. Really should have done better. Kanu came on for Sessegnon (now a sort of 3-5-2) and he almost got the equaliser after Payne won the ball back and played him in, only for his shot to be blocked. Finally, at the end of three minutes of stoppage time Inniss found himself on an overlap down the right and sent in an excellent cross to the far post. Leaburn headed it back across but a defender got to it first before Dobson could bundle it over the line.
That makes it sound like non-stop pressure, but it really wasn’t. They were moments, on another day one goes in, but their keeper wasn’t called on to make a real save. The stats at the end of the game showed we had six attempts on goal and one on target, despite 59% possession. We hadn’t done enough to make a serious claim to have been hard done by.
So something of a reality check after the Shrewsbury game; and let’s face it we’ve had too many of them this season. Maynard-Brewer and Hector came out of the game with credit, Thomas too. None of the players responsible for making and/or taking chances did. Perhaps they will reflect on that and resolve to do better, I’m looking forward to the match exiting my memory.
One final note. I don’t know if retrospective action can be taken against a player for poor sportsmanship but this one has to be noted. Late in the game Marquis received the ball on their left. One of their players was on the ground holding his head. Marquis stopped, looked at the ref and pointed to his colleague. Then when everyone had also stopped, assuming either the ref had/would stop the game or Marquis would put the ball into touch, he skips off down the line with the ball. If they’d scored from that I hope the ref would have had the bottle to disallow it. As it was, a yellow for Marquis and free-kick for us was the appropriate response, followed by his immediate replacement by Barton.Pigs might fly I guess.