Bristol Rovers must deal with different sort of pressure against Dale, says John Ward
Bristol Rovers boss John Ward is preparing his team for a different kind of pressure when they take on Rochdale at the Memorial Stadium today.
Rovers have risen from the bottom to 15th in League Two on the back of some impressive results against teams in and around the top seven since Ward took over.
Today, though, they face a side two points and two places below them in the table and will be expected to win against Keith Hill’s side.
Former Barnsley manager Hill may well stoke up the air of expectancy at the Memorial Stadium after admitting how impressed he has been by most of their results since the turn of the year and tipping them for a strong promotion challenge next season.
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Hill said: “It’s no surprise that John Ward has gone in there and turned their fortunes around when you look at the squad of players that has been recruited.
“They’re in great form now and they’ll be promotion favourites next season. They’ve got a League One budget playing in League Two.”
At this point, Ward will just be happy to manage expectations for today’s game and build on Tuesday’s 2-0 win against third-placed Port Vale. The victory saw Rovers collect their 30th point since Ward succeeded Mark McGhee 16 games ago.
Ward said: “We have got to be mentally correct for this game, nothing less than what we have been doing will be accepted.
“There are the same things at stake, there are three points if we can win, and we can move up the table. That is what we have got to try and do.
“We will expect a good football match, but a tough one for us – and we want to make it a tough one for them too.
“Keith Hill has been there before, and he fits there. He has a way that he likes to play, he likes to pass and play, and he has done very well there.”
And as part of the preparation for the game, the players were given two days off after victory against Port Vale on Tuesday night.
“They have worked exceptionally hard and I gave them a breather, but make no mistake the reason they are having a breather is to make sure they are ready to play on Saturday and give it their best shot.
“I am not going soft on them, and they will find that out today when we start getting our preparation right.
“We have still got games to play, a lot of things to fight for and a lot of good supporters to represent.”
Rovers will be without Oliver Norburn, who suffered an ankle injury during the Vale game, but Ward will be boosted by the return of Mark McChrystal.
The manager added: “Ollie Norburn will not be right and, at this stage, we will be pushing it to have him ready for Bradford next week, so that is quite unpleasant.
“We seem to be paying a price of a player a game at the moment, which is something that depletes the squad, but maybe at the same time it strengthens the resolve of the rest of the guys.
“We had two young guys making early representations at first-team level coming on, so everyone who is available is pulling in the same direction.
“Joe Anyinsah and Fabian Broghammer are slowly coming on, but will not be ready. Mark McChrystal should be available though.
“Obviously, Clayton McDonald is available, we had a gentleman’s agreement with Port Vale that we wouldn’t use him on the night.”
Ward was pleased that his team’s two goals came from set pieces on Tuesday. He said: “It was a massive amount of hard work against a good team.
“They took us a little bit by surprise the way they played, so we had to adjust to that, but the pleasing thing was that we got two goals of set plays.
“In a tight game it can make such a difference if you can get your free-kicks and corners right – and we finished off the goals and won the game by doing that.
“It seems that the Memorial Stadium is becoming a bit of a fortress. Top teams have come here and the mood has been good both on and off the pitch.”
Jim Paterson made his first start since Boxing Day during Tuesday night’s victory over Port Vale.
He said: “Since John Ward has come in there has been an increasing feeling around the changing room that we can win every game we play in. With that, confidence has started to come back.”
Paterson, meanwhile, has been somewhat a victim of Rovers’ recent improvement after returning to fitness only to find his way back into the side blocked due to the improving form of others.
The likes of Mark McChrystal, Steve Mildenhall, John-Joe O’Toole and Ryan Brunt have arrived to strengthen the spine of a team that had been decimated by long-term injuries to experienced professionals.
“The boys have been playing well so I’ve had to wait patiently for a chance,” said Paterson. “A lot of new players have joined since I started my last game and they’ve all made a big contribution.
“It was important for the manager to find experienced people to come in and make us strong down the spine of the side because we had suffered a lot of injuries in that area.
“Someone like Steve Mildenhall has been a great signing for us because earlier in the season we were conceding a lot of goals from set-pieces.
“It makes a massive difference when you are confident that your goalkeeper will come for and normally collect high balls into the penalty area because it takes a lot of pressure off.”
Rovers, meanwhile, could equal their best run of home form for over three-and-a-half years if they could win for a fourth successive game at the Memorial Stadium when they host Rochdale today.
Another victory would also push Ward’s side over the 50-point mark that would virtually guarantee that the three-month long battle for survival is concluded successfully.
“The manager said when he first came in that the target was to avoid relegation,” said Paterson.
“If we did it by a point on the final day, he said he’d be happy, but he didn’t really want us to do it like that.
“We have a few games left until the end of the season and we are playing well, so who knows how high we could finish?”
Rovers are likely to be without midfielder Ollie Norburn (ankle), but central defender Mark McChrystal is expected to return after missing Tuesday night’s 2-0 victory over Port Vale.
Defender Clayton McDonald is also available again, but both Joe Anyinsah and Fabian Broghammer are struggling with hamstring complaints.
Ward, meanwhile, has invited highly-rated Yate Town striker Scott Wilson to train with the club next week as he sets about the task of making plans for next season.
A number of players are also out of contract in the summer and Ward said: “We have to plan ahead and we have to plan positively.
“I sat down with the chairman (Nick Higgs) and (finance director) Toni Watola last week and there are conversations going on all the time.
He added: “We are going to have a little look at Scott. He’s on our doorstep and we have the opportunity to do it. We’ve had good reports on him so we’ll take the chance to see how he does in comparison to the boys we have here at the moment.”