Bristol Rovers’ awful disciplinary record haunted them again on Tuesday night as Joey Barton’s nine men fell to a 2-1 defeat to Port Vale.
Ben Garrity’s brace before the break put the Gas on the brink, but they responded with spirit and an Aaron Collins goal after the interval, only for Cian Harries’ dismissal 13 minutes from time to derail hopes of a comeback.
The Gas already owned the worst disciplinary record in the top four divisions before kick-off and they solidified their grip on that unwanted title with two more players sent off.
Sitting 16th in League Two, Rovers are finding life challenging enough this season. They can’t afford to make things even harder for themselves.
When will they learn?
When Barton spoke boldly about being top of the league, I very much doubt he was talking about the red card table.
While Rovers are languishing in the bottom half of the fourth tier, they are pulling clear of the 92 when it comes to dismissals.
Finley became the sixth Gas player to be shown a red card in League Two this season and the third to get one for an off-the-ball clash. Harries followed with Rovers’ seventh late on, dithering over a bouncing ball and fouling Garrity to deny a clear scoring opportunity..
The midfielder may consider himself unfortunate to be drawn into the situation by Tom Conlon, but Barton said it was “stupid” for Finley to get involved. Harries has himself to blame for an indecisive moment of defending.
Rovers are three clear of any club in the EFL when it comes to dismissals and only one of those – Alfie Kilgour’s handball vs Swindon Town – can be deemed unavoidable.
The discipline of Barton’s side is a huge problem. Red cards have had a hand in points lost against Mansfield Town, Swindon Town, Colchester United and now Port Vale.
Of course, red cards are part of the game. Accruing a handful is inevitable over the course of a season in such a combative, aggressive league.
Being miles adrift at the bottom of the fair play league, however, is unacceptable. Teams undoubtedly have identified Rovers as a group of players they can exploit in that regard.
But Rovers have a big problem in the discipline department and Barton must sort it out.
Gas up for the fight
From the moment Garrity’s second goal hit the back of the net until half time, there was a chaotic feeling about Rovers. Port Vale had the bit between their teeth and a complete capitulation felt very possible.
But Rovers survived at 2-0 until half time, reorganised and the 10 men were very competitive in the second half.
There was a stroke of luck about Aaron Collins’ goal with Aidan Stone deceived by a deflection, but that moment enabled the Gas to build a head of steam.
The crowd was in the game and Vale were made to feel uncomfortable despite a man advantage. Rovers created moments of danger and had a decent penalty claim turned down.
Harries’ red card to reduce Rovers to nine all but extinguished their homes of a leveller, but the Gas kept plugging away and never collapsed to the ugly scoreline Vale occasionally threatened to tack up.
Barton’s side are not lacking in fighting spirit. They just need to get out of their own way.
All class from Clarke
This was a special night for Darrell Clarke as the Gas legend returned to the Mem in front of a crowd for the first time, and he was moved by the reception he received.
The iconic double-promotion-winning gaffer will always be welcome in BS7 for his stint in charge of the club.
And the Vale boss showed his class at full time, needing no invitation to admit his side had the rub of the green on Tuesday night.
“I haven’t seen the incidents and I’ll have to have a look at them, but it did feel like we got one or two tonight,” he said.
“But with refs this season, we’ve had one or two that have gone the other way and it’s about managing the situation and we didn’t do it very well if I’m honest.
“It was a very poor second half, but that’s credit to Bristol Rovers. I thought they dug in well, got the goal and made it difficult for us.”
Some returning managers may have been partial to a spot of gloating in the circumstances, but there was none of that from DC. He was all class on Tuesday night.
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A chance for Luke Thomas?
Finley’s upcoming three-game absence leaves a huge hole in Rovers’ team. He is one of, if not the most, influential players in this side.
His sixth sense for a smart flick around the corner transforms the Gas from turgid passages of play to enthralling attacks.
Finley did just that four minutes before the red card, leading to a menacing attack which the Gas failed to capitalise on.
There is a huge hole in this side without the scouser. He is often the leader of the attack and the defence and Barton will have to think deeply about how he covers for 29-year-old.
One option could see Antony Evans drop into midfield, potentially giving the maligned Luke Thomas his seat at the bar in the last-chance saloon.
The on-loan Barnsley winger has been named and shamed by the manager in recent weeks, prompting a divided reaction from supporters, but clearly, with Barton in charge, Thomas is running out of chances at the Mem.
Should be Rovers’ attempts to appeal Finley’s suspension be unsuccessful, Thomas could have a route back into the side and earn the trust of the manager.