MATCH ANALYSIS: Bristol Rovers brought back down to earth by Chesterfield with goals from Jay O'Shea and Amand Gnanduillet
IT WAS clear to see disappointment etched on the face of John Ward at the end of a game for the first time since he succeeded Mark McGhee as manager of Bristol Rovers.
It was equally plain to see that the manager was loathe to be too critical of his players as he arrived for his post-match press briefing soon after watching second-half goals from Chesterfield pair Jay O'Shea and Amand Gnanduillet consign his side to defeat at the Proact Stadium on Saturday.
"A little dull" and "a bit lethargic" in their play at times were the reasons Ward offered up when pressed as to why his side had lost this particular encounter – a relentless run of games and the physical effects of a hard-fought victory over Exeter City three days previously were perhaps others.
Not that Ward was scratching around trying to find excuses: "I don't want to clutch at straws," Ward said. "I've no complaints. The better side won on the day."
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The manager's post-match criticisms, meanwhile, were accompanied by caveats designed to remind those journalists present of the admirable achievements his players have managed over a three-month period during which they have raised themselves to climb off the foot of the table to within touching distance of guaranteed safety.
"The players have been great for me, this football club and themselves," Ward said before finally conceding that he was disappointed with his players for the first time on what was his 82nd day in charge.
It was impossible to disagree with that particular declaration. As a result, it would have been churlish for those within earshot of Ward's musings to go for the jugular on an afternoon where the overriding feeling those interested in the progress of Bristol Rovers were left with was was one of: "Ah, well. You can't win them all."
After all, to expect a team that hardly won a game in the first-half of the season to 'win them all' is probably as, at worst, unrealistic or, at best, overly-optimistic as the thoughts of one particular journalist who mentioned the word 'play-offs' following Wednesday night's 2-0 win over Exeter City.
This defeat served to curtail that sort of talk for the time being. The focus once again returned to the other end of the table. It's amazing how perceptions can change in less than three days.
One questioner asked: "Are you safe?" Ward responded with the tone of a man tired of being asked a question he's unlikely to definitively answer until the maths says otherwise. "We're still trying to get to a point where it is impossible for other teams to catch us," he said. "We have nine games left and anything can happen. It's a funny old thing, is sport."
The first of those nine games comes quickly with the visit of an out-of-sorts Port Vale to the Memorial Stadium on Tuesday night.
It represents a chance for the players, the younger ones in particular, Ward says, to show they have what it takes to bounce back after what was only a fourth defeat in the 15 games since the manager oversaw his first on Boxing Day.
Recent history suggests Ward may well get the sort of positive response he desires. Defeat against Gillingham on January 5 was followed up with a stunning victory at Fleetwood seven days later; a reverse against Rotherham was addressed with a hard-fought draw at in-form Morecambe.
An agonising last-gasp defeat against Northampton, meanwhile, was quickly forgotten after back-to-back victories against promotion-chasing sides in the following two games. More of the same on Tuesday night then, please.
Of course, the line of questioning at the post-match press conference may well have had a totally different feel to it had the ball hit the back of the net instead of Chesterfield goalkeeper Tommy Lee's hand and the post in quick succession when Eliot Richards let fly from all of 25 yards in the eighth minute.
The early scare Chesterfield suffered off the boot of Richards, however, only served to wake them up.
Persistence to work the channels and load high balls into the penalty area eventually saw Paul Cook's side carve out a foothold in the game and only good saves from goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall to deny midfield pair Sam Hird and Sam Togwell ensured that the sides were to head down the tunnel on level terms at the break.
There was little Mildenhall could do, however, to prevent O'Shea from opening the scoring with a vicious drive from just inside the penalty area after capitalising on a poor clearance by Brunt following a corner in the 53rd minute. Once Gnanduillet skipped in off the left-hand side past Tom Parkes to slip a neat finish past Mildenhall in the 73rd minute the game was up.
That Rovers could only muster one notable attempt – a deflected Richards' shot that had to be scooped around the post by Lee – throughout the second-half was perhaps the most telling reflection that tired legs after a hectic six-week period had finally caught up with some of the players.
Defeat saw Rovers drop two places back down to 17th in League Two – a position which was being celebrated as a remarkable achievement when Ward's men sat there on the back of a 3-0 victory over Burton Albion on the previous Saturday. Like the manager says, it's a funny old thing, is sport.