Not many EFL clubs will admit the Papa John’s Trophy is high on their list of priorities for the season, but for Joey Barton and Bristol Rovers it could be the perfect way to ignite their thus far disappointing season.
A strong Gas side took to the field on Tuesday night against a youthful Cheltenham Town and put in a calm and clinical performance to push them top of Group M in the Papa John’s Trophy.
Sam Nicholson followed up his goal against Barrow with a cushioned header that opened the deadlock and Harvey Saunders, in an unfamiliar wing-back role, smashed home the second ten minutes later.
And while the Gas are unlikely to make too big a deal of the win, it could give the squad some needed momentum ahead of the League Two clash with Crawley this Saturday.
Here’s a few moments you may have missed from Tuesday’s Papa John’s triumph.
Early bird spots the signings
Rovers endured a busy transfer window to say the least with the Gas welcoming 13 new arrivals and moving 21 players out of the club, leaving either at the end of their contract, on free transfers or being sold, before deadline day.
Many Gasheads were expecting more signings and departures to be announced ahead of the game against Cheltenham, but were left surprised when the club began building up to the game as if it was a regular Tuesday.
That was until Jake Withey arrived at the Memorial Stadium 45 minutes before kick-off and posted a video on Twitter that clearly showed a new signing in the West Stand holding a Rovers scarf above their head having their pre-announcement photo being taken.
It was difficult to tell at the time exactly who the subject of the photos is, but once Rovers announced their three deadline day arrivals after the game, it was clearly former Crewe midfielder Antony Evans.
Rovers weren’t anticipating having to do their promo shots so close to the game, given the potential pitfalls of being spotted doing so, but Bristol Live understands that Evans arrived at BS7 a little later than fellow signings Leon Clarke and Junior Brown for his photo session.
A surprising but effective use of Saunders
With Barton still missing Trevor Clarke, the left-wing back position is the only area of the pitch where Rovers don’t quite have someone who can slot in there naturally.
Harry Anderson, despite being right-footed, has excelled there in recent weeks but with Alex Rodman being rested, Anderson switched over to the other flank, and thus a surprising name was deployed on the left.
Harvey Saunders, who has featured in all of Rovers’ games so far this season as a frontman, took on the responsibilities of being a left-wing back, and although it was a shock, it actually made a lot sense.
The former Fleetwood man is a very willing runner, his pace and energy are unlikely to be matched by any defender and this allowed Saunders to keep Cheltenham’s right wing-back Joe Hunt pinned in his own half.
Cian Harries, Alfie Kilgour and Connor Taylor enjoyed a lot of possession and on several occasions the direction of their passes were aimed at Saunders. Some balls over the top ran long, but more often than not Saunders would claim possession in the Robins final third and cause havoc from there.
Just to highlight the game plan further, Joey Barton would communicate regularly to Harries, who was on the left of the back three, telling him to pull wider so that Saunders could remain higher up the pitch and subsequently wouldn’t have to worry about his defensive duties as much.
And his goal came from him remaining in the Cheltenham half, as he took advantage of some hesitant defending before blasting a shot into the bottom corner.
Gasheads keep themselves entertained
The 889 Rovers faithful who had bundled into the Mem for Tuesday night’s tie weren’t exactly treated to the most enthralling game of football.
Despite Rovers being on top for the majority of the first-half, it was a pretty lacklustre affair, with minimal half chances and when that continued into the second half, the Gasheads took it upon themselves to bring the mood up.
With Cheltenham goalkeeper Owen Evans deployed in front of the Thatchers Terrace, the fans stood watching on berated every goal-kick taken with jeers, off-putting chants and the customary scream of three words once the ball left his boot.
However, as opposed to stopping with the ball in mid-flight, Gasheads went down the route of trying to get the last clap in school assembly, but replacing applause with bellowing screams which went on for at least another 30 seconds, long after the ball had hit the deck.
Luckily just a few minutes later Sam Nicholson opened the scoring with a well-timed header, and the annoying shouts that reverberated round the Mem were replaced by deafening celebrations.
Jed Ward’s streetwise goalkeeping
Due to Anssi Jaakkola’s Achilles injury, Jed Ward has been the back-up keeper for Rovers since the victory over Oldham, and with James Belshaw rotated out of the starting XI, the teenager got his chance in between the sticks.
After being handed his senior Rovers debut on the final day of last season in the 1-0 defeat to Blackpool, the 18-year-old got the opportunity to try and impress his manager.
Ward dominated his box throughout the 90 minutes, claimed teasing crosses while under pressure and made important saves to keep his clean sheet intact, but it was one moment that went slightly under the radar that showed his glowing maturity.
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Once Cheltenham had brought on a few more experienced heads to try and salvage the game, more and more pressure was being applied to Ward’s goal but he dealt with it very cleverly.
Following a misguided long ball which bounced straight to the feet of Ward he went to bring it into his clutches, but instead enticed Kyle Vassell in to try nick the ball away from him and doing so just killed a few extra seconds and took some sting out of the game, that allowed Rovers to re-group into their shape.
Although this a common feature in football when trying to kill some time, for a teenager to have the confidence and where-with-all to execute it so perfectly, just shows how Ward is years above his age.
Kilgour & Taylor impress in front of loved ones
While Ward deservedly received many plaudits from his peers and Gasheads alike, his job was made far easier by Cian Harries, Alfie Kilgour and Connor Taylor’s composure in defence.
The latter pair were dominant against the veteran Andy Williams, and Harries was on point with many of his long-range passes, but even before the game Kilgour and Taylor were clearly well-loved by a selection of people inside the Mem.
When the teams were being read out over the PA system, the cheers for Taylor and Kilgour were much louder than for anyone else, and that was because at the very top of the East Stand watching on, were their respective families.
While the louder cheers were clearly from partners or mums, one figure who stood out clearly from the rest was the very recognisable face of former Forest Green, Gloucester and Weston-super-Mare defender, Mike Kilgour – Alfie’s dad.
And there’s no doubt, along with the Gasheads at the Mem on Tuesday, he would have been very impressed by his son, who barely put a foot wrong all evening.