The draw-fest is over. Finally, a Rovers game ends in something other than a stalemate. If we were going to come away with anything other than a single point, my radar would have pointed at a narrow defeat at Oxford’s strange three-sided Kassam Stadium last Saturday.
Clearly the boys had other plans, taking the away form monkey firmly off their backs and leaving the U’s faithful running for their cars in the car park where their fourth stand should be, in full view of the delighted travelling Gas faithful – all 1800 of them.
Our midfield had been threatening to open the scoring, or at least serve a chance up on a plate for Luke James, ploughing a lone furrow up front. Ollie Clarke’s superb season continued with a 25-yard effort, parried wide by Simon Eastwood, into the Oxford goal, followed up by him beating one defender to a Stuart Sinclair flick-on and sending another into a different postcode before beating a helpless Eastwood with a precise side-foot effort on his left that buried itself in the side of the net. More about Clarke later.
United had their chances to get back in the game, ably thwarted by our new-look tight defence, Joe Lumley, and the woodwork (Darrell, if you’re reading this, buy Lumley in the summer please).
Their failure to convert cost them dearly when Stuart Sinclair doubled Rovers’ lead with nine minutes left in the first half. Lumley made a couple of decent stops after that but Oxford really had no way to break us down. Though, apparently, Rovers weren’t much better than the opposition according to U’s manager, who also claimed that Rovers’ two goals were like something seen in pub football. As many have already tweeted, it’d have to be one of the top pub teams of all time with goals like Clarke scored on Saturday.
The general mood around the Kassam after losing to us was, as the kids might say, “salty”. One or two of their squad were quoted as saying we are a Route One, long ball team, and that we “don’t string a pass together”. One never knows whether players and managers say exactly how they feel to the press, but that is a gross misrepresentation of this side. Sure, there’s some direct play (we are a third-tier side after all) and not every playing surface we play on is conducive to a short passing game. But Wimbledon 1988 we are not.
Players like Ollie Clarke, Sinclair, and Chris Lines, probably the top three contenders for the Player of the Year trophy, simply do not thrive in long-ball teams. Appleton and his charges can’t admit they were outplayed by a side that worked harder, pressed tightly, and took chances. How sad.
Those three players, Lines, Clarke and Sinclair, have all signed new deals this week, securing their future for Rovers. I can’t figure out which signing makes me happiest; Clarke, the local boy, needed a manager to believe in him and give him more than the odd appearance here and there. Many, your correspondent included, would admit that he wasn’t expected to adapt to League One life quite as well as he has done.
Lines, the even-more-local boy, geographically speaking, is enjoying something of a renaissance in his second spell here. I’m not sure that anyone involved in the last Rovers side to be relegated from this division was thought of too positively at the time, and he, like the others, came in for some criticism. But he’s definitely the best ball player in the side, and has been since he returned on loan during the run-in two years ago. A mate of mine referred to him as a “Pound Shop Steven Gerrard”; if that sounds derogatory, please believe me, it’s not – the Pound Shop reference is about the difference in wages between Premier League giants and lower leagues. Lines’ range of passing deserves those comparisons, though.
Sinclair’s rise was certainly not in any script. Playing in the Southern League as recently as eight years ago, working for a living, his rise is linked to that of the manager. Darrell Clarke brought him to Salisbury, they got promoted, he brought Sinclair to the Mem, promoted again. All good managers have that one player who seems to be their personification on the field; Sinclair is that player in this team.
His style is Darrell Clarke all over – the work rate he’s got is out of this world. Many thought that while he was perfect for our stint outside League football, that he’d drift out of the side once we were back in League Two. Sheer determination has proved the doubters wrong. Plus, have you ever seen anyone enjoy playing the game as much as he does?
I’ve not left much time to discuss two crunch games in the run-in this week – Southend at home and Bury away. So here are a couple of one-sentence previews: Southend (Home): Mixed form, capable of beating anyone on their day but Rovers too strong at the Mem – home win. Bury (away): New manager has given them a boost but still the worst defence in the league – sitting on the fence here but we definitely won’t lose.
Read more: ‘Two draws that could easily have been wins’