Bristol Rovers ensured they are in the hat for the FA Cup third round draw, in a week which was dominated by off-field events. Sutton United left the Mem empty handed as the Gas made a spirited second half comeback.
Whilst all eyes were on proceedings in Sheffield with the manager’s trial for an alleged assault, another change at the top of the club was announced. Tommy Widdrington left his role overseeing loan players at the club in a move that surprised very few of the club’s fanbase.
Widdrington’s time at the club will be remembered for his part in assembling the 2020/21 squad relegated from League One. A lop-sided group of players with more left-backs than you could shake a stick at, a lack of experience and a squad with too few leaders flopped way below expectations and will have played a part in his exit.
But whilst many fans have celebrated his departure, Widdrington has had some undoubted successes at Rovers too. He brought Jonson Clarke-Harris to the club, and in doing so brought goals and promise to the team.
That inadvertently brought money to the club too, with £1.25m coming in from the initial fee and a further windfall when the forward is sold on by Peterborough United in the future.
His other signings include Sam Nicholson, Cian Harries and Josh Grant, so Gasheads do have much to be happy about from Widdrington’s time at Rovers. His exit though continues Wael Al-Qadi’s restructure of the club, with much of his former responsibilities now firmly in the remit of Joey Barton.
FA Cup weekends are always ones to look forward to and Saturday’s tie was a preview of the league fixture later in December. Sutton United have been the surprise package of League Two for many this season, but Andy Mangan summed up why their league position is not a surprise in his pre-match presser.
They kept the same nucleus of the squad that was promoted last season and have also made some good additions. Rovers would bite your hand off for some of Sutton’s consistency right now.
It’s that time of year where conditions can play a pivotal role in the outcome of matches and it was no different on Saturday. The wind was a factor in a difficult first-half for Rovers against a tall and direct Sutton side. But credit to Rovers, they battled hard and kept the score level at the break.
Barton will be pleased at the manner in which Rovers won. That grit and determination helped them overturn a deficit that in seasons gone by, Rovers would have been downtrodden by and not been able to get back into the game.
We are more streetwise these days and protecting our results much better. If we can find some form, keep the same grit and determination and we could be on to something.
I’m running out ways to describe just how good Antony Evans is. His wand of a right foot has to be one of the best – if not the best – in League Two.
The weight and precision of his delivery is unreal and you just get the feeling he will make a difference in every game. He can have an off day and still produce that one wicked cross that gets you a goal.
He makes a goal contribution more often than not and if we can keep him for the rest of the season, we’ll have a great chance of a shot at promotion. Just imagine how many more assists he can notch if we sign a top forward in January.
Speaking of regular goal contributions, Nick Anderton scored again and it’s not a surprise to see him on the scoresheet so often. He used his height and strength to fend off an opposition defender to head home and that’s a strong feature of his game. He’s had a few bullet headers recently, rattling the woodwork on occasion and scoring against Exeter too.
Since his match-winning goal at Harrogate, Anderton has had a surge in form and the confidence he’s showing on the pitch is great to see. Playing slightly out of position at left wing back, he is not afraid to make runs up the pitch and take on opposition players and that approach has yielded results.
He’s clearly a popular character in the dressing and Gasheads have certainly taken to the former Carlisle skipper as well.
With that victory, Rovers ensured they’re in the third round draw and in with a chance of a glamour tie against a top club. Gasheads will be excitedly awaiting the draw tonight and hoping to see us drawn against a big Premier League club.
The prospect of a visit to Anfield, Old Trafford or similar is mouth-watering. Just imagine Irene being belted out in one of the world’s most famous stadiums as the Gas strut their stuff against some of the world’s best.
The possibility of a local derby remains too. The atmosphere against City is unrivalled; the tension is high and the stakes even higher. Standing on the terraces in 2007 when Rickie Lambert rifled home as Adriano Basso sank to his knees is one of the greatest memories I have of watching Rovers.
It was a thunderbolt of a finish and one that sent us into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final too. Never have I felt so electric when celebrating a goal and wouldn’t it be magic if we could repeat that score line in January?
November started so well for Rovers but ended in frustration. Early results were tarred by throwing away points later in the month and there was to be no run up the league table. Despite the last few results though, a tangible uplift in performance-levels has been undeniable and the optimist would point to that as evidence of Rovers turning the corner.
The challenge now to kick on and find the one missing ingredient – form. We’ve made strides in that respect having only lost once recently against Forest Green.
The performances have improved, we’re harder to beat and scoring goals without a striker. Now the Gas must win a series of games to kick on in the league and end the year in a strong position.
If we’re to ‘do a Bolton’ and go on a promotion-clinching run, the time is now. Rovers have the tools to do that and Gasheads will hope that starts with victory on Tuesday night.
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Much of the pre-match focus will be on the return of Darrell Clarke to the Mem, who brings with him a solid Port Vale side.
DC’s team find themselves fifth in the league and returned to winning ways recently, beating League One Burton Albion. But Rovers have beaten high-flying sides recently in Harrogate, Sutton and Northampton, and they will want to record another statement win against a strongly-placed team.
They will back themselves too, at home in front of their own fans and with players such as James Belshaw, Connor Taylor, Sam Finley and Evans in fine form.
Every game in December is winnable too. Without giving a figure as a target, Barton will know that we need to win a good portion of them to make strides up the league table.
Three of the five matches are at home and give us the opportunity to solidify the Mem as our fortress. The Christmas period is silly season in fixture list terms, but Rovers can ensure some early festive cheer by beating Port Vale on Tuesday night. Here’s hoping they can do just that.