Rotherham vs Bristol Rovers: Another fine win shows this is a different Rovers
NO Rotherham fan can say manager Steve Evans didn't warn them.
"This isn't the Bristol Rovers that was getting beaten week-in, week-out earlier in the season," said Evans beforehand. "This is John Ward's Bristol Rovers."
He was so right. Those who thought the 3-0 victory at promotion-chasing Fleetwood Town was little more than a fluke – a relegation-threatened team catching one of League Two's high-flyers on an off day – were offered emphatic evidence to the contrary here.
Early days they may be in Ward's time at the helm, but Rovers are a different proposition altogether from the one that arrived at away grounds only to roll over and have their bellies tickled during the final months of Mark McGhee's stewardship.
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Perhaps Rovers' league position – bottom of League Two – had played a part in persuading some 200 Rotherham fans to arrive at the New York Stadium early on Saturday armed with shovels determined to remove two inches of snow from the pitch to get the game on.
Who could blame them? What better way than to bounce back from a home defeat at the hands of another relegation team, Barnet, last time out than to put the Football League's worst team to the sword?
Rotherham chairman Tony Stewart strode on to the pitch before kick-off to congratulate the supporters, which included a hardy few from Bristol, for their efforts to clear the pitch.
After the final whistle, he may have been thinking that he should have submitted to the elements and fought this battle another day.
This Rovers display may not have been as eye-catching as the one at Fleetwood, but it was arguably more impressive. Rotherham were less accommodating than the Fleetwood side that had offered Rovers a two-goal advantage inside half-an-hour.
The first 20 minutes was weathered by a back four expertly marshalled by the dogged central defensive pairing of Tom Parkes and Mark McChrystal.
Reward followed – even if it did take 43 minutes – when debutant lone front-man Ryan Brunt was bundled over in the penalty area by defender Claude Davis. Lee Brown maintained his composure to send Andy Warrington the wrong way from 12 yards.
Davis' afternoon went from bad to worse minutes later when he saw a second yellow card brandished in his direction. However, Rovers were lucky that Eliot Richards did not join Davis in making an early walk soon after when the striker executed a risky challenge that may have brought a second yellow card.
Ward acted quickly by withdrawing Richards from proceedings in favour of promising youngster Ellis Harrison when he could have preferred the more experienced David Clarkson or Fabian Broghammer. And the 18-year-old was on the pitch for less than 180 seconds before picking up the ball 40 yards from goal and advancing into the penalty area to score a fine individual goal – the first of his senior career.
As their confidence grew, so did Rovers' domination of the ball. When Joe Anyinsah played a neat one-two with Michael Smith to create the opportunity to sprint into the penalty area and crash in the third goal, it came as little surprise.
David Noble's consolation strike in the 73rd minute was the only blot on an otherwise unblemished Rovers copybook – a minor irritant in the context of events that saw Rovers lift themselves off the foot of League Two by securing back-to-back victories for the first time since McGhee enjoyed three wins on the bounce at the start of his reign this time last year.
The task now is to replicate this type of scintillating performance at the Memorial Stadium – starting with the crunch relegation battle against Barnet on Friday night. You wouldn't bet against them achieving it, though, such is the verve with which a squad bolstered by the arrival of six new faces are playing.
Ward does not expect to make any more additions to the squad before Thursday night's transfer deadline – although keeping on-loan Colchester midfielder John-Joe O'Toole remains a priority.
Perhaps the signing chairman Nick Higgs should be considering is the one that will ensure Rovers retain Ward's services beyond the end of this season.