It was neither pretty nor thrilling. It was often turgid and frustrating, but Bristol Rovers got the job done against Crawley Town on Saturday to claim three points upon which momentum can be built.
For long periods in at the Mem, Rovers endured the same struggles for attacking incision which cost them victory at Barrow seven days previously, but this time Joey Barton’s side mustered the one moment of quality they needed.
It took just 90 seconds of his debut for Leon Clarke to show precisely what he is capable of in the blue and white quarters, displaying the kind of clever movement and clinical finishing which have underpinned a career now in excess of 150 senior goals.
At 36, clearly, there is life in him yet and his link-up with fellow debutant Antony Evans for the decisive goal was the standout moment of quality in an otherwise tepid showing from Barton’s blues.
The Gas will need to be better with tougher tests on the horizon, but grinding out results in this fashion could prove to be the foundations for a successful season.
What was your verdict on the game? Let us know in the comments below…
A moment of quality amid a turgid performance
Should Rovers achieve something of note over the course of this season, this victory will merit merely a passing mention in the DVD review (are they still a thing?), but that should not lessen the importance of the result.
Winning ugly is going to have to be the way for Rovers for the time being. It would be harsh to say this team looks like strangers cobbled together, but they certainly are more acquaintances in blue and white at this stage than a group fully familiar with each member’s respective strengths.
That is evident in the sheer number of miscommunications that lead to passes being played nowhere near where the intended recipient wants them.
For now, the priority must be defensive solidity and grinding out wins – “grind mode” as Barton described it in his press conference.
The brand of football on offer was certainly grinding on Gasheads, with balls often hurriedly played forward with little in the way of guile, but they will happily endure the uninspiring passages of play if their team wins games.
The Gas delivered on that on Saturday, forging the chance they needed inside two minutes after the restart to get a second League Two victory on the board and start building an unbeaten run at home.
The goal arrived thanks to a rare moment of quality with debutants Antony Evans and Clarke combining to break the deadlock, the former drifting into the box before curling a cross the like of which the veteran striker has feasted on his whole career.
Therein lies a formula for Rovers while their patterns of play and chemistry build: short bursts of quality and clinical finishing. Should Barton’s side continue to keep the ball out of their net as they have over the past week, it’s a feasible game plan in the interim.
Promotion charges, as Barton fairly pointed out in his press conference, are typically built on narrow wins while not always playing well, and this Rovers side could stumble to life through the autumn before hitting its stride fully later in the campaign.
If Connor Taylor had any pretences that life in League Two would be straightforward, and he doubtless didn’t, he would have received a rude awakening a couple of games into his loan move from Stoke City.
He was criticised by his manager for mistakes in the Carabao Cup defeat to Cheltenham Town and taken out of the team, but Taylor has forced his way back into the side and was a deserving recipient of the man of the match champagne on Saturday.
Towering above strikers, he is built to be a centre-half and his ability is beginning to show at the Mem, with his head possessing something of a gravitational field for the ball in both boxes.
The 19-year-old’s performances over the past week, playing as the middle of the three centre-backs, have made him the man in possession, and the likes of Mark Hughes and Nick Anderton have a job on their hands to displace the Potters prospect.
Belshaw laying down a marker
As a backup goalkeeper, chances are often few and far between. Simply, when an opportunity arises, it must be taken if one has serious designs on winning the number-one role.
James Belshaw is doing exactly that, profiting from Anssi Jaakkola’s problem Achilles to make a strong case to keep his place between the posts when the Finn is available for selection again.
The goalkeeper has conceded just once in his past 270 minutes of action – beaten only by a peculiar yet unstoppable finish at Barrow last weekend – and that strong defensive record is in large part thanks to the former Harrogate Town stopper’s impressive form.
His strong showings with the gloves since moving south in the summer continued against Crawley, with the 30-year-old making a series of important saves to repel the visitors’ efforts to force an equaliser. His performance concluded with a catch from a 96th-minute corner, which relieved the palpable tension on the terraces and drew a cheer not dissimilar to the one Clarke’s winning goal received.
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Barton made a salient observation in his post-match press conference, explaining that Belshaw was so eager to move to BS7 that he left behind the security of the remaining two years on his deal at Harrogate in favour of a one-year contract at Rovers.
And that encapsulates the enthusiasm with which Belshaw is approaching the challenge at the Mem, and the result is a near-perfect situation for Rovers’ goalkeeping ranks which could only realistically be bettered if Jaakkola enjoyed better fortune with injuries.
Because the Gas have international-class goalkeeper, supported by a very capable deputy in Belshaw, and 18-year-old Jed Ward is shaping up to be an excellent prospect for the future.
Fierce competition for places
When the team news dropped an hour before kick-off, it was natural to assume Hughes’ absence from Rovers’ squad was injury-related.
But a few minutes later, he joined 18-year-old Ryan Jones on the pitch to be put through his paces by a member of the backroom staff without any hint of a knock. Clearly, Hughes was fit to be involved, as Barton confirmed at full time.
Instead, the veteran centre-half was the victim of a tactical decision, with the manager rewarding the back three of Taylor, Alfie Kilgour and Cian Harries after they kept a clean sheet in the EFL Trophy earlier in midweek.
With Anderton on the bench offering cover and Josh Grant comfortable dropping into defence, Hughes – a central pillar of Barton’s summer revamp of Rovers’ squad – was deemed surplus to requirements and he watched the game from the stands.
It was a risk leaving the 34-year-old out altogether, but it paid off for Barton, who saw his defence dig in to cling on to an important three points, and it was validation of Barton’s claim that a healthy culture is being created among this squad, with fierce competition for places sure to reflect positively on the field.