Days after Joey Barton said he was at the toughest moment of his coaching career, things got tougher for the Bristol Rovers boss.
His side were familiarly impotent en route to a third successive defeat to start a new campaign which had started with such optimism.
This time it was Stevenage, and Rovers legend Chris Lines on his return to the Mem, doing the damage, with the midfielder breaking the deadlock in the closing minutes before Luke Norris wrapped up the points and a 2-0 win in stoppage time on Saturday afternoon.
The parallels to Tuesday’s League Cup defeat to Cheltenham in BS7 were clear, with Rovers inefficient and uninspiring in attack again. The only goal they have scored in 270 minutes of football was a scarcely-believable Cian Harries volley, and the Gas have barely gone close otherwise as their turgid displays test the patience of supporters who have waited so long in expectation of much better from their side.
Following the defeat, Rovers’ eighth in succession in all competitions, Barton confirmed the departure of his assistant manager Clint Hill due to “personal reasons”, dealing a blow to a manager who has made no secret he is at the lowest ebb of his coaching career after the Cheltenham defeat.
Matters have worsened since and his trademark resilience and thick skin have perhaps never been more important, with fair questions being asked whether he is the right man for Rovers based on the past six months’ evidence.
Barton wants patience but the pain is becoming intolerable
The Mem is a fair crowd. Gasheads will reward commitment with loyal support, but they are only human and their patience is being tested by a miserable run almost two years in length.
Supporters’ pain was not confined just to their relegation season, but for the final three months of the previous campaign as a promising start turned to rubble in about the same time it takes to cook a microwave meal…
And the pain shows no sign of ending. Gasheads want to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, but at best there is a dim flicker at the moment.
Things will inevitably get better, such is the low bar set so far and the gelling process is a natural and time-consuming one supporters are completely understanding of, but Barton’s failure to save Rovers last season and the dismal way the side collapsed in a heap in the final weeks of that tortured campaign has left the manager with very little credit in the bank with fans.
Patience for this rebuild will only be granted if there is something material for fans to hold onto for encouragement, not just words.
That last credit with some may have been spent over the past eight days, with the final-whistle boos launched in Barton’s direction as he applauded the terraces showing many people are fed up of the losing culture which has engulfed their club.
A side that was fourth in League One less than two years ago is kept off the bottom of the bottom division by goal difference. Albeit at a ridiculously early stage, but the optics are not good.
Let’s be clear, while Barton faces genuine pressure from the terraces and inevitable tough questions from the boardroom, the indicators are his job is safe with Wael Al-Qadi braced for the growing pains which are inherent for a totally revamped squad. It is vital that decision-makers try to tune out the noise and think clearly at times like this.
But one dreads to think of the reaction from the stands should Rovers fail to get off the mark against Oldham Athletic, who like Rovers have lost both of their league games thus far, at the Mem on Tuesday.
Gasheads have had enough of the pain of losing week in, week out and it has to stop.
The class of Chris
The match-winner and, arguably, the best player on the park on Saturday was Bristol-born and a modern Rovers legend, but he was not wearing a blue and white shirt.
Lines instead ran the show at the heart of Stevenage’s midfield, his array of sprayed cross-field passes reminiscent of the majesty which he boasted in Rovers’ colours in years gone by.
He has scored many more special goals at the Mem, but this was the first as an opposition player and it was the decisive moment late in a rather cagey game.
Not that his celebration, or total lack thereof, showed it with the 35-year-old immediately holding his hands aloft apologetically before being swamped by his Stevenage teammates.
Reward for classy performance was not just the goal and the three points, but a brilliant ovation from the terraces as he completed a lap of the stadium – fitting for a Rovers hero who made clear he has plenty left in the tank.
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Hill’s departure leaves a void
For a side with frailties in defence, to lose Hill and all his high-level experience is a bitter blow to Barton and his squad.
A popular member of the setup who had significant influence on the grass at The Quarters, the former Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers defender’s departure for personal reasons will be felt acutely.
Without his right-hand man beside him, Barton’s challenge of turning around a side, nay a club enduring a historically bad run grows more difficult.
With Hill departed, Rovers’ backroom staff is lacking a defensively-minded brain, and Barton must move quickly to address that void, particularly amid a maddening inability to defend set plays effectively which has cross-contaminated across two squads at the Mem.
But with the pressure from the terraces growing after a nightmare start to the season, Barton is sure to miss his trusted assistant.
Fans are back
After 17 months without a usual Mem crowd, this was an atmosphere which deserved a much better game of football.
The pre-match rendition of Sweet Caroline was music for the soul and the persistent encouragement throughout a dreary game until the end, when Stevenage snatched the points, was admirable for a support base which has had it worse than most of late.
There was the emotion of a heartfelt tribute to supporters lost to the pandemic before the full repertoire of chants which showed while the team may be struggling, the support remains top class.
Time to change it up
They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and after three uninspiring performances in this setup it is time for Barton to move things around for Tuesday’s visit of Oldham Athletic.
No-one is blind to the mitigating factors at play. Injuries to Brett Pitman and Trevor Clarke have left him unwilling to use his Plan A, a three-man defence with an old-school number nine to lay the platform in the final third.
With both players likely to miss more games, Barton’s selection choices are not getting easier, but his side is in need of a reshuffle.
With Clarke and his understudy Sam Heal unavailable, he may still be uncomfortable without one of his designated left wing-backs, but there are players in the squad capable of playing in that role.
Ryan Jones earned his move to Rovers from Weston-super-Mare off the back of outstanding displays in every position on the left flank, and while Harry Anderson is right-footed he has shown the good work he can do from the left in recent games. It may not be a perfect solution but it has to be worth a punt in the circumstances.
Shifting to a back three could give Barton the chance to play a 3-5-2, for example, getting an extra body up front which, in theory, could give the Gas a better chance of holding the ball in attacking areas.
Brandon Hanlan could be fit to play on Tuesday, Barton said, but last season showed he could be effective in a strike pairing with Sam Nicholson.
That could be the way to go against Oldham, but whatever Barton decides he surely cannot persevere with the setup which has looked decidedly uncomfortable and yielded very little in the way of scoring chances?