The Thursday Preview: Bristol Rovers Vs Southampton
Supporters of the team from Bristol’s northern half had a good time in the mid-to-late nineties as they witnessed their side hit the third tier play-offs twice, but it hasn’t half been a lean past 10 years or so. Given the club’s pretty miserable recent history, the majority of which has been spent in the Football League’s basement, it’s no wonder that the oft-told legend of the formidable array of striking talent that passed through Rovers ranks around the end of the millennium is still churned out here and there, but is this the season that marks the beginning of an era, a time when a new set of players write themselves into Gasheads lore?
Absolutely not, if the first two games of the season are anything to go by. A heavy defeat at Peterborough and a League Cup hiding at Oxford acted as blunt reminders that the current squad’s former frailties are still very much in existence. The first two seasons since their long-awaited promotion from League 2 have seen Rovers plod on steadily enough but last term was peppered with heavy defeats. The Gas were stuffed by Norwich, Southampton, Leeds and Leyton Orient each at varying points of the season, and the morale-sapping results at London Road and the Kassam in the first week of this new season indicate that manager Paul Trollope still has a way to go if his team are to push on towards the Championship.
Cynics might suggest that the Pirates simply fall into the “solid but uninspiring” category along with teams such as Walsall, Brentford and Colchester, but a subsequent win at home to Yeovil and score draw at Exeter perhaps suggest that this is a side capable of improving on its successive 11th place finishes in this division. The summer signings haven’t been too shabby. Although much maligned at Watford, Will Hoskins has already netted since his move westwards, and left-sided defender Gary Sawyer would have strolled into the starting line-up at Plymouth, the side he decided to leave before joining Rovers. Elsewhere, the once-promising James Tunnicliffe has been given an opportunity to find his way again after joining on a season-loan from Brighton, and Wayne Brown has dropped in on a free transfer from Fulham in an attempt to fill some of the youthful promise that earned him a youth contract at his previous club Fulham.
However, despite what mouthy centre-half Danny Coles says, Rovers appear to lack a bit of punch up top. Fans have been told that ‘Trolls’ is on the hunt for a target man, with Manchester City reserve Ian Daly in on trial, but it’s doubtful that there’s much of a budget to play with. In the short-term, Daryl Duffy may come in to either supplement or separate an attack comprising Hoskins and Jo Kuffour after a promising show at Cheltenham in a midweek stiffs game. Otherwise, it’s probably as you were.
There’s no doubt that conversations amongst home supporters before Saturday’s match will go something along the lines of … “if only we had a Rickie Lambert”. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what Southampton fans were saying on the season’s opening day as they limped to a 1-0 home defeat to a mediocre Plymouth side without their leading light, who watched on from the sidelines holding an injured groin. Much to the chagrin of the onlooking Sky team, ready to record the champions-elect open their account with a comfortable and status-quo-affirming victory, the Saints lacked cohesion and strikers Lee Barnard and David Connolly struggled to get on the end of the numerous crosses that were fired over from wingers Jason Puncheon and Ryan Dickson.
One has to wonder how a team that designates Dean Hammond as their captain can be almost universally called as title favourites. Granted, this correspondent may have seen him on his bad days, but I must have been to around four games where Hammond has failed to perform against my team, and it has to be said that he’s never looked anywhere near assertive enough for a “team captain on the field”. Alongside the much-fancied Morgan Schneiderlin, the same could be said in my latest observation as Southampton’s central midfield failed to gain control of the ball with play often bypassing the centre.
Fans will be heartened by the news that Brazilian playmaker Guilherme do Prado has been brought in by Alan Pardew in order to sex things up in the middle. It’s yet to be confirmed whether “Guly”, who scored 9 times for Cesena as they finished as runners-up in Serie B last season, will receive international clearance in time to make his Saints bow at the Memorial Stadium, but it may be that Pardew will instead opt to give him his debut back in Southampton. In their first away game from the pressure bowl that is St Mary’s this season, I’d expect those players who have struggled for form against Plymouth and Orient to hold the keys to this encounter. I got my last prediction awfully wrong, but I think Southampton will pick up three points, although perhaps not as comfortably as they did at the Memorial Stadium last season.