Bristol Rovers defy the odds to bring hope to the fans
AT the end of a week during which things were starting to look particularly grim for Bristol Rovers, who could have predicted what actually happened at Highbury on Saturday? Be honest. Who saw that one coming?
Even before the loss of Garry Kenneth on Monday, the continued absence of David Clarkson and the late drop outs of both Joe Anyinsah and Fabian Broghammer, the chances of Bristol Rovers – a team with one solitary success on their travels so far this season – winning at a promotion-chasing Fleetwood Town side were, at best, unlikely.
Fleetwood had the luxury of handing a debut to a striker they signed from Kidderminster Harriers for a rumoured £200,000 on Friday, Rovers boss John Ward was forced to give a debut to a young Welsh lad who'd never started a senior league game in his short career to date.
The last striker Fleetwood signed for big-money, Steven Gillespie, meanwhile, wandered around the dugout area before the game with a mobile phone clamped to his ear after presumably being told that his services were not required in the squad for this particular assignment.
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At the same time, Ward was handing in a team sheet that showed a squad so thin on numbers that he was unable to fill the bench. "Only five players on the bench," one local was heard to exclaim. "We should win this one at a canter." Football: It's a funny old game.
Maybe the over-confidence of said local had translated from stand to Fleetwood Town changing room. You could hardly blame some of the players if circumstance had given rise to underestimation. If those players were guilty of such crimes, however, Rovers punished them in the severest way possible.
Hope that all wasn't lost began as early as the second minute when Seanan Clucas was only denied an opening goal from distance by the outstretched paw of Fleetwood goalkeeper Scott Davies. Perhaps, Rovers, for a change, actually fancied this.
That thought was reinforced in emphatic fashion two minutes later when Danny Woodards clinically despatched a left-foot volley after connecting sweetly with debutant Ellis Harrison's expertly delivered cross from the left-hand side.
The early opener served to visibly raise belief amongst the players and it was only a matter of time before a spell of continued dominance eventually led to a second goal.
That came in the 27th minute, when Eliot Richards was the beneficiary of some intelligent back-to-goal play by on-loan QPR striker Tom Hitchcock, which carved out the opportunity for the young Welsh marksman to fire low past Davies from inside the penalty area.
The scoring was complete when John-Joe O'Toole flashed a blistering drive in off the post in the 49th minute to secure what was a comprehensive and fully-deserved victory, which could and probably should have been won by a wider margin.
Aside from Clucas' effort in the opening exchanges, Hitchcock directed a delicate header against the crossbar and clipped over the when through one-on-one, while Richards was also denied the chance to add to his tally by the hands of Davies.
A Fleetwood player was amazingly given the man-of-the-match award. If that player was offered a bottle of champagne for those efforts, he should have felt compelled to leave it at the door of the Rovers changing room.
It would have been difficult, however, to determine who deserved it most on a day when the hard work of the collective was probably more important than the flashes of quality shown by those who scored the goals that ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.
"A win against all odds," was how Ward described events afterwards. It was hard to disagree. It was certainly a victory that defied all logic.
Here, however, comes the reality check. This result was a real freak; a real coupon-buster. The bookmakers must have been laughing all the way to the bank.
"I would say to people not to expect the same every week," Ward warned afterwards. "What the boys will always give me is effort, but to reproduce that sort of quality week-in-and-week-out is not easy." These, unfortunately, are the complexities of the young player. Ward, then, is unlikely to let this performance deter him from a continuing bid to add a bit of experience and know-how to his squad – even if it will be difficult to tell any of those who excelled on Saturday that their reward for such efforts will be a place on the bench when Exeter City provide the opposition at the Memorial Stadium next weekend.
Rovers' position at the bottom of League Two, however, is not making Ward's life in the transfer market an easy one – that his side remain on the foot of the table after similarly freakish results elsewhere was probably the only disappointing thing to emerge from what was an otherwise uplifting Saturday afternoon.
This result and the fact that the side has taken seven points from a possible 12 following Ward's appointment, however, certainly makes Rovers a more attractive proposition to prospective employees than they were this time last week.
Things are looking up then. Perhaps, Rovers aren't the lost cause that some people – this reporter included – thought they were after all.