Bristol Rovers: McGhee's men unhappy at only taking a point
THAT Mark McGhee declared himself "frustrated" that his side came away from Burton with only a point is probably a fair indicator of just how much Bristol Rovers have improved in recent weeks.
Six weeks ago, a point away from home would have almost been reason enough to arrange an open-top bus tour around Horfield such was the lethargy by which Rovers had started a campaign that had promised so much based on the impressive way that they had finished the last one.
If the second-half capitulation against Morecambe at the start of last month had not provided evidence enough that Rovers were destined for little more than a battle for Football League survival, those who braved the trip to Gillingham would have returned with little encouragement that things would change.
That 4-0 defeat at Priestfield, however, appears to have been a watershed moment for McGhee – a day on which he decided that those players he put his faith in over the opening few weeks of the campaign had been offered chance enough.
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Since then the arrivals of goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, strikers Tom Eaves and Derek Riordan, the return of central defender Garry Kenneth and the regular inclusions of Fabian Broghammer and Oliver Norburn have served to spark an upturn in fortunes that has heralded the first two victories of the campaign and a run of form that has seen Rovers lose just once in their last six outings.
"We're slowly improving," was McGhee's assessment after Saturday's draw at the Pirelli Stadium. "We're certainly a lot harder to beat now than we were at Gillingham, so, yes, we've made progress, but there's still a long way to go."
The signs, at least, are encouraging.
Here again, on Saturday, Rovers were set up to be solid at the back and hard to breakdown, of which limiting Burton to a mere three attempts on targets offers proof that they were.
McGhee, however, did admit that the fact his side conceded another goal from a set-piece situation for a second successive week was an area of concern – particularly as the scorer of Burton's 49th-minute equaliser, Billy Kee, was probably the smallest person in a crowded penalty area when Damian McCrory delivered a penetrating free-kick into the danger zone.
"It was a good delivery by the boy, but with the players we have in there you would expect them to be able to deal with that," McGhee admitted.
A tendency to overplay in their own final third a few times in the first-half, which offered McGhee and all those that had made the trip from Bristol a couple of hair-raising moments, was the only other criticism that could be levelled at an otherwise solid back four on an afternoon on which the positives far outweighed the negatives.
Only few would have had cause for argument had Rovers recorded their second successive away success and they probably would have too, had Burton goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson not made a fine double save to deny firstly Norburn and then Broghammer a goal that would have given Rovers a two-goal advantage four minutes before Kee registered Albion's equaliser.
Clarkson's strike to open the scoring, meanwhile, was taken with aplomb from the edge of the penalty area and capped another fine display from the former Bristol City man, who was again deployed in an unfamiliar central midfield role.
McGhee, however, is still on the look-out to bring an experienced campaigner in to replace Matt Gill, who will have exploratory surgery to determine the extent of the knee complaint that has kept him out for the last two games and is expected to sideline him for a further six weeks or so.
Whether that new midfielder arrives before Torquay visit the Memorial Stadium appears to be dependent on whether or not McGhee can off-load 'one or two' on loan elsewhere.
But, whoever fills the vacant spot in the centre of the park next Saturday, however, is almost certain to be lining up alongside Norburn, whose energetic performance on Saturday and form in general of late makes him currently the first midfield name on the team sheet.
Eliot Richards also reminded the manager that he can put a shift in up front when called upon.
That could prove important in the absence of Derek Riordan, who missed the trip to Burton with a hamstring complaint and is considered "touch and go" for next weekend.
What Rovers' recent progress in performance has not been matched by, however, is progress up the league table.
Still only two places above the relegation zone, it would be over-optimistic to suggest the corner has been fully turned.
Talk of a promotion challenge is for another day, then, but should Rovers manage to maintain their current form at the very least, McGhee's hopes of a place in the top ten by Christmas should certainly not be beyond them.