Preview: Bristol Rovers

Not only did we finally score on Tuesday night, but they were two astounding finishes. Not only did we finally win on Tuesday night, but we did so in comfortable fashion.

Alas, it’s the type of result and performance that has arrived over a month too late to reverse our slide into League Two, but it at least provides a brief lift from the doom and gloom around the club at the moment. Additionally, with a Wembley final coming up next Sunday, there’s hope that we might at least make a game of it rather than the mass torture it has looked set to be in recent weeks.

The level of effort and organisation in the performance on Tuesday night demonstrated that Mark Robins has made some positive changes after nearly three weeks in charge. The defence coped ably with the physical threat of Port Vale’s lone forward, the midfield were both energetic and disciplined, the same could be said for the strikers. Importantly, the approach didn’t change when we went ahead, nor was it affected by Port Vale pulling a goal back and throwing men forward in the final 15 minutes. For the first time since the Oxford United home game in October, it was a deserved victory.

Possible Line-Up

It was a performance to build on, but it will be interesting to see how Mark Robins and the players deal with the prospect of Wembley coming up next Sunday. The first issue is whether Robins picks a side from those who will be available next week, which would mean dropping Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson from Tuesday night’s side. The other issue is whether the prospect of Wembley on the horizon either distracts the players or provides motivation to stake a claim for a starting spot.

Having found a side that worked on Tuesday, I have a feeling that Robins will be loathe to make changes to it. With Bristol Rovers in decent form and with a strong travelling contingent, this could potentially be a really embarassing and demoralising defeat. So while it would be useful to test a central defensive pairing out of those who’ll be available next Sunday, our confidence as a team is fragile at the moment and it’s more important to preserve that at the moment.

Last Time We Met

Confidence was low back on Boxing Day, despite the appointment of Russell Slade as manager a few days before. We travelled to the Memorial Stadium hoping to somehow scrape a clean-sheet with an ugly performance and use that as a platform to begin our push for survival. A dominant and clinical performance from Bristol Rovers emphatically destroyed the first hope, and as we all now know, the second hope was just as misplaced.

A hat-trick from Rovers forward Billy Bodin, representing a third of the league goals he has scored this season, came after centre-back Peter Hartley gave the home side the lead in the 18th minute. Jordan Willis briefly pulled the game back to 2-1 in the 57th minute, but Bristol Rovers were far too good for us all over the pitch to let that set them back.

How Are They Doing?

Bristol Rovers are travelling to the Ricoh Arena in huge numbers (possibly as high as 4,000) to cheer their team on as they look to push into the play-offs over the remaining seven games this season. If Darrell Clarke’s side are successful in making the play-offs, they would be in with a chance of recording a remarkable and unprecedented third successive promotion – even more remarkable given the club’s future was in genuine danger and Clarke was on the pitch in tears three years ago when they were relegated to non-league on the final day of the season.

Clarke has rebuilt Bristol Rovers into a hard-working, street-smart and tactically versatile outfit that is very much greater than the sum of its constituent parts. In their most recent win over Chesterfield last week, five of the starting line-up had played for the club in their non-league days, with much of the rest of team being players who had been unwanted at other clubs.

Despite losing top-scorer Matty Taylor to bitter rivals Bristol City in January, Darrell Clarke’s side have remained consistent. The defensive issues that held them back over the first half of the campaign appear to have been resolved to a degree via the loan signings of QPR youngster Joe Lumley in goal and Stokes’ young centre-back Ryan Sweeney, which has also helped their promising ball-playing centre-back Tom Lockyer improve his form.

Possible Line-Up

Goals have been spread out across the time since Taylor’s departure, our tormentor-in-chief Billy Bodin has chipped in with nine goals from a wide position this season, with Ollie Clarke also chipping in from midfield. The pacey forward Ellis Harrison has seven goals to his name this season, but is currently injured, in his stead, the hard-working duo of Rory Gaffney and Luke James have performed ably in attack, although James has just one League One goal to his name, having played nearly two full seasons as a striker at this level.

Chris Lines’ set-piece deliveries are a key part of Rovers’ attacking threat, and given that we still look fallible from these situations, could be where the game is won for the away side. It’s worth noting that Darrell Clarke is a tactically flexible manager who always looks to change his formation and line-up in accordance to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, which is going to provide a big test of Mark Robins’ tactical credentials.


Bristol Rovers’ strong travelling contingent should give the away side real buoyancy heading into this game, and we’re going to have to find a way to match the intensity they’re inevitably going to play at. However, Bristol Rovers have been relatively poor on the road this season, winning just four out of 19 away games thus far. Whether having a travelling hoard behind them negates those away day struggles, remains to be seen.

As a home fan, potentially being matched in numbers by away supporters is not a situation to look forward to. As I mentioned earlier in this preview, this has the possibility of being a really damaging defeat that underlines the parlous state that this club is in. Winning on Tuesday was a boost, but it was against a struggling side that has only won once all season – this is going to be a very different game.

I’m hoping that we can remain competitive throughout this game, but I can see us losing this one 2-0.

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