MATCH REPORT: Bristol Rovers two-goal burst from Eliot Richards and Lee Brown secure away win over Oxford United
THERE are many ways to analyse the change in fortunes that manager John Ward has instigated at Bristol Rovers since succeeding Mark McGhee a little under two months ago.
There have been five wins in eight games; an unbeaten away record; one defeat in eight games and a five-match unbeaten run. We've also witnessed the biggest crowd for a league game at the Memorial Stadium for the best part of three years. How about a vastly-improved goals for and goals against column? Or the best run of form over an eight-game period for a number of seasons. Who could have predicted on December 15 that Rovers would be second only to leaders Port Vale in the form table over the following eight games?
The most telling statistic – the best one to highlight the impact Ward has made – is, however, this: Ward has, in eight games as manager, collected just one fewer point than the 18 the team managed to amass in the 22 league games under the guidance of McGhee between the start of the season and his departure.
It is a hot streak of form that has seen Ward transform a rag-tag band of footballers that were on the road towards losing their Football League status to one that now has their fate firmly in their own hands.
A 2-0 win at Oxford United on Saturday courtesy of goals from Lee Brown and Eliot Richards, no shortage of hard work and a slice of luck along the way saw Rovers carve out a five-point cushion between themselves and the relegation zone. That this has all been achieved in less than two months can be described as nothing short of truly remarkable.
So what has changed? The arrival of six new players to toughen up the spine of a side that had been found wanting earlier in the campaign is the obvious answer. Other than that, however, Ward just seems to adhere to the rule that football is essentially a simple game, so why not keep things simple? Minimal change in decisions over team selection – decisions that even the layman can understand – have served to inject a continuity on which a solid foundation seems to have been built.
Gone is the tinkering, the playing players out of position, the altering of formations and tactics focused solely on stopping the opposition, which seemed to serve as such a source of confusion in the early part of the campaign. The manager also appears to appreciate the limitations of the League Two player and asks no more of anybody than to do the jobs they are capable of and to run, chase and work as hard as any supporter would if they were offered the opportunity to wear the blue and white quartered shirt on a Saturday afternoon.
"We haven't really worked on forward play at all in training yet," Ward said last week. "We've only really focused on getting a good shape and improving the discipline in our defensive play."
The success at the Kassam Stadium was again mostly attributable to an increasing desire to defend the goal first and foremost.
Yes, Brown will earn plaudits for the ice-cool way in which he slotted away a retaken penalty in the 55th minute to give Rovers the lead after the first effort was ruled out for encroachment. Richards, too, will get the credit he deserves for coming off the bench to clinically despatch the second goal when going through one-on-one with Oxford goalkeeper Luke McCormick.
"These boys don't stop until the final whistle," Ward said after watching a goal scored with virtually the last kick of the game for a third successive match.
That late strike sent the 1,900 Rovers supporters off with slightly wider smiles – even if the increasing incidence of late goals is doing little to increase Ward's popularity within the confines of the press box!
The two goals Rovers did score, however, may well have been immaterial had Mildenhall not pulled off a 37th minute save to athletically repel a close-range effort from Oxford striker James Constable before Tom Parkes launched into a goal-denying block to prevent Alfie Potter the opportunity to open the scoring just before half-time.
Luck was also in Rovers corner at times; how Constable missed a second-half sitter to score what would have been an equaliser from all of six yards is anybody's guess, while Harry Worley's header in the 89th minute that went inches wide of the post left Oxford manager Chris Wilder curled over in disbelief on the edge of his technical area. Others played their part, too – even if there is not enough space here to highlight the achievements of every individual within the context of another impressive collective display.
Only the hardest task-master would begrudge the players the break Ward is set to offer them this week to recover from the physical demands of the last ten days or so.
Mentally, however, the players must remain focused.
Progress has been made down the road towards survival. The job, however, is not quite done yet.