On Tuesday night, under-pressure manager Ben Garner dispelled rumours that he had lost the Rovers dressing room with a comprehensive 2-0 win against promotion-chasing Sunderland. Given the recent sub-par performances against Shrewsbury Town and Southend United, many Gasheads could be forgiven for expecting the Black Cats to turn up to BS7 and deliver a lesson in football. In reality, Rovers reacted by pulling off one of the shock results of the season in an under-the-lights performance for the ages.
The victory, only Garner’s second win since taking charge on Boxing Day, will be one of relief rather than elation, as Rovers finally seemed to “click” and looked a comprehensive footballing unit for the first time since the win at Ipswich back in December. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Rovers, with apathy mounting and frustrations online growing.
The 3-1 defeat at Southend United was appalling for many reasons. The Shrimpers had failed to pay their players in February, and were in a run of six consecutive defeats. Having lost key players in January, academy prospects were having to fill in key positions. Off the back of an abysmal performance against Shrewsbury in which the Gas lost 0-1, the game at Roots Hall was seen as a must-win by many fans, who’s goodwill with manager Ben Garner was quickly diminishing.
The performance was bad, with Rovers outplayed by arguably the worst side in the league. The aftermath online was not pretty, and I myself felt an overwhelming sense of despair with the direction the football club was heading in. No progress with the Fruit Market stadium site, no news on where our squad would be training next season, and the club posting mounting annual losses. Under Graham Coughlan this was easier to overlook, given the team were over-performing on the pitch, but Garner’s 1 win in 18 was doing little to mask the club’s shortcomings. This was echoed by other fans, who felt the club was left with no option but to sack Garner, who had tried to implement a possession brand of football in a 4-3-3 formation that the squad was simply not suited to play.
Judging by interviews prior and following the win against Sunderland, it seems that maybe some harsh truths were realised in the dressing room at Roots Hall, and that a lot of players needed to take individual responsibility. The most important takeaway was Tony Craig saying that the players wanted to put things right, and that the Sunderland result showed that everyone in that dressing room is invested in turning things around.
A midfield rejuvenated
With both Ed Upson and Abu Ogogo suspended, Rovers opted to deploy a midfield three of Ollie Clarke, Liam Sercombe, and youngster Cam Hargreaves. The three complimented each other very well, with Clarke sitting deeper in a ball-winning defensive role rather than operating further upfield as previous. Sercombe was deployed as a roaming playmaker, whilst Hargreaves’ high-energy game saw him act as an effective box-to-box midfielder. I feel that with both Upson and Ogogo starting, Rovers can seem lethargic in their play, with both players limited on-the-ball.
I’ve accused Clarke of being largely anonymous this season, but he put in a true captain’s performance against Sunderland, constantly pressing, rushing the opposition and winning the second ball wherever possible, before distributing quickly to Sercombe and Hargreaves. The latter was a welcome surprise, his pace and energy troubled Sunderland on a number of occasions – late on in the first half Hargreaves was clattered by Black Cats keeper Jon McLaughlin inside the box, and was controversially booked for diving in what looked as stone wall a penalty as they come.
I’m keen to see this trio line up again next time out against Ipswich, as the high-energy play in the middle of the park was a key factor to our win, and for once our forwards were not starved of space and supply.
A Return to Coughlanball
Ben Garner himself seemed to listen to the criticisms of his preferred way of playing. Yes, in an ideal world we would play nicey-nice one-touch pass-and-move football, but without the players suited to that system it was fruitless labour. Without a midfield capable of either controlling possession, carrying the ball effectively, or transitioning play quickly, we were left with a flat midfield five – with Jonson Clarke-Harris cutting an isolated and frustrated figure up front.
Rovers lined up in a 5-3-2 formation, the very same that had seen Graham Coughlan pull off some impressive results, albeit unattractive in style. The focus was on sitting back and absorbing pressure from Sunderland’s front-three of Semenyo, Lafferty, and Maguire, before attacking on the counter – Clarke-Harris the focal point, with Mitchell-Lawson and Hargreaves making attacking runs either side of him. It worked, as despite only having 39% possession, Rovers had more shots, both on and off target than their northern counterparts.
After a scrappy opening fifteen minutes, Rovers were able to find some joy on the counter, Rodman returning to the side with an impressive performance from right-wing-back. The former Shrewsbury and Newport man made a number of direct runs on the right hand side, dragging midfielders wide to cover, and buying space for Hargreaves and skipper Ollie Clarke to exploit in the middle.
What impressed me most was our physicality. Rovers battered and bullied Sunderland, got in their faces and wound up they key players. Sunderland in many ways were naive in reacting to our antics, resulting in a number of red shirts picking up bookings. We showed them no respect, and didn’t let them play their game.
The opening goal itself was a classic of Coughlan’s reign, with Rovers exploding on the counter and Ollie Clarke drilling a low pass to the feet of Clarke-Harris, who arrogantly shrugged off O’Nein and blasted the ball into the roof of the net.
The defence, much like they had for most of 2019, put their bodies on the line. Tony Craig putting in a dominant display on his 600th career appearance, winning everything and commanding his back line effectively. Kilgour seemed back to his best, and home debutante Cian Harries looked solid. It was a collective effort that saw on-loan keeper Jamal Blackman without a notable shot to save for 90 minutes.
Returning to what worked previously may have been an obvious decision to make, and many fans, myself included will ask why this wasn’t done sooner. Perhaps injuries played a part throughout January, or maybe Garner was keen to put his stamp on this squad before it was ready. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the way forward is to play to this side’s strengths, and not try to evolve into a style we are incapable of playing. One can only hope that Rovers build on this now, and finish the season strong after what has been a torrid couple of months. Then in the summer, we can reassess and evolve to Garner’s preferred style of play.
One swallow does not make a summer, and Ben Garner still has a lot to prove as manager of Bristol Rovers, but he and the squad last night showed unity, strength, and above all else, quality when many thought all hope was lost.