The words that follow cannot be construed as new information, a ‘hot take’, or a fresh viewpoint. For we all know why our season is now over. Sure, having an extra striker on the books would’ve helped, but the reason why our final half dozen games will now have that end-of-season feel is simple: we aren’t good enough away from home.
Sure, we’ve put up heroic displays at places like Bolton, Northampton and Milton Keynes, and even been hard done by at Bury and Sheffield United. But Saturday’s disappointing reverse at relegation dead-certs Coventry sums it all up. Promotion-winning sides don’t limp to defeat to the bottom side in the league, simple as that.
Coventry are a side that struggle for goals, a side lacking in experience and that streetwise quality needed in the lower leagues, and lack any real squad depth. The old adage about the table never lying is prescient here: while Mark Robins, their latest in a string of managers recently, had them playing better than Russell Slade or Tony Mowbray, his immediate predecessors, did, I got the feeling that one Rovers goal would have done the job. Home heads would’ve dropped, as they did at the Mem on Boxing Day in the reverse fixture, and three points would have been secured.
It’s an understatement to say that it wasn’t our day in front of goal. Despite a couple of efforts by the always-excellent Ollie Clarke (one of which would have been the goal of this or any other century), Tom Lockyer having a decent chance, and Billy Bodin causing the usual trouble, up top we were quiet – through a lack of chances being created by the midfield and a back-up plan that seemed to consist of high long balls to Like James and Byron Moore, two players that may not be allowed on certain fairground rides given their diminutive statures.
Defensively, we looked alright, and soaked up much of the Sky Blues’ second half pressure with ease. Despite the absence of Ryan Sweeney due to international duty, the back line was solid. Jonny Burn, on debut, didn’t get much wrong. Joe Lumley pulled off an outstanding reaction save towards the end, too. But you only need to take one chance to score, and the home side did just that with ten minutes left.
What disappointed me was the apparent lack of reaction to the goal. We’re in a must-win game, a goal down late-on, and it didn’t look like out mentality changed. Up the long balls went to the two short lads up top, and back they came. Tiredness must be a factor but Rovers are hardly alone in that. Perhaps if Rory Gaffney weren’t hauled off at half time, he might have got his head on one of them. I would have Gaffney on, especially given that the long-ball stuff may have been the result of Coventry’s shocking pitch.
Again, this isn’t exactly a hot take, but I’m in agreement with many who are now saying that maybe the hopes of a third straight promotion fizzing out may be a blessing in disguise. A few players, especially away from home, have looked to lack that extra quality needed to perform consistently at the level we’re at, let alone at places like Sunderland, Aston Villa and Leeds (were we to perform miracles this season).
The squad would need major refurbishment. I’m not saying I’d turn down six wins out of six, a win over two legs, then Wembley joy in what would surely be the finest moment in our long history, and which would cement Darrell Clarke as our greatest ever manager: of course not. But a season of consolidation, followed by the kind of summer transfer-wise that we didn’t see this season, would be the most sustainable way of going about growing the club. First world problems, eh?
Shrewsbury Town are our visitors this weekend. Salop are having a mixed time of things this season, but they look to end up pretty much exactly where they did last term – battling to survive the drop down to League Two. They’re no pushover, especially since Paul Hurst took over in the autumn. Hurst is well-known to us as the manager of Grimsby, who I think most of us were glad to see back in the Football League this season, after the cruelty of losing out to us on penalties at Wembley two summers ago.
His sides are rarely well-beaten, and you can bet your Weetabix that they’ll not lose by more than a single goal. But I think they will lose, and Rovers will win. Clarke will have the lads geed up to make amends for sending 4000 of us home disappointed last weekend, and rest assured that a good few of the squad are playing for their futures in the quarters.
Read more: ‘Two draws that could easily have been wins’