MATCH REACTION: Ryan Brunt blasts Bristol Rovers up the table with Wycombe win
IF anyone needed visible evidence to explain why and how John Ward has managed to achieve a truly remarkable turnaround in Bristol Rovers' fortunes over the last two months, it was offered up in a 30-second period towards the end of this game at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Rovers were tantalisingly close to extending their recent unbeaten run to six games after a 35th-minute goal off the boot of striker Ryan Brunt had offered them the slenderest of advantages against a Wycombe Wanderers side desperate to bounce back from the surprise 3-0 defeat they had suffered in midweek at the hands of Bradford City.
Ward's side had managed to keep Gareth Ainsworth's men at bay relatively comfortably during a frantic final quarter-of-an-hour or so before the ball bounced out for a corner as the game entered stoppage time.
The flag-kick was delivered dangerously into the penalty area before gravity took hold to bring it down invitingly inside a crowded six-yard box – offering Wycombe an opportunity to grab what would have been a last-gasp equaliser.
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What followed in the next few seconds, however, was the sort of desperate last-ditch defending that pretty much encapsulated why Rovers are now within touching distance of achieving the guaranteed safety that looked a forlorn hope when they trudged off the pitch after being trounced 4-1 at York City on December 15.
Bodies were crowded around the ball, blocks were executed as several attempts were made to hack the ball away to safety to ensure what would be another very welcome three points in Rovers' continuing battle to beat the drop.
When the ball was finally booted wastefully over the crossbar, the Rovers players used the brief period of respite that followed to back slap and celebrate as if they'd just won the FA Cup.
There was no silverware although there were still certainly plenty of reasons to celebrate. The biggest of which, perhaps, was that Rovers had managed to climb out of the bottom six for the first time this season on the back of a run that sees them sit proudly at the top of the current form table after collecting more points than any other side over the last eight games.
"It provides the lads with another fantastic psychological boost," was Ward's assessment. The bookmakers, it seems, agree.
Rovers were a massive 25/1 with Bet 365 on Saturday night to be one of the two teams to drop out of the Football League. Not altogether surprising considering that of the ten teams relegated from League Two over the past five seasons none have claimed more than 47 points.
Three wins from 15 remaining games for Ward's side would take Rovers up to that landmark.
Supporters around the Memorial Stadium, however, are finally starting to sit a little more comfortably in seats. There was again no shortage of heart-in-mouth moments on Saturday as Rovers sought to defend the advantage Brunt had offered them following an expertly executed volley to provide the highlight in an otherwise drab opening period.
Former Memorial Stadium favourite Jo Kuffour appeared the most likely to pierce a rugged Rovers rear-guard action after the break, but, such was the standard of defending from a side that has shown an increased resilience in the short time since Ward took charge, Steve Mildenhall was rarely called into action.
As a result, Ward was compelled to laud praise on his defenders at the final whistle, while, at the same time, playing down the role he himself has played in transforming a previously porous back four.
"I don't think I am great at coaching defending," said Ward. "It was just an area in which we had to really improve on when I first came in and we have made progress."
They certainly have. If Ward's skills are better served to coaching the attacking side of the game, then perhaps Rovers fans should be salivating at the possible impact he might have on that area of the team when he finally gets round to it.
Wycombe boss Gareth Ainsworth, meanwhile, felt a bit hard done by not to head off down the road with a point after Kuffour was denied penalties on two separate occasions during a second-half in which his team had displayed the greater attacking intent. Had Wycombe managed to force the ball in during that manic stoppage-time goalmouth scramble it may have been hard to argue that they hadn't indeed deserved something from the game. Then again, who would argue that Rovers didn't deserve something from the game they were winning 3-1 against Wycombe at Adams Park back in August before it was controversially abandoned in the 66th minute?