It’s been a very normal couple of weeks over in BS7. I mean, Rovers aren’t a ‘normal’ club in any sense, so a fortnight that saw a mightily impressive comeback win at home to Walsall, a home defeat to a team who hadn’t won anywhere all season and who were bottom of the league, a 3-0 gubbing away from home, and a superb team performance in defeat to the bookies’ favourites to win the division above ours, tells the story of a topsy-turvy season so far.
Even in victory, the Walsall game is a microcosm of our start to the campaign. Umpteen efforts on goal, only the two goals to show for it, moments of really poor defending, conceding at a set piece (seriously, I’ve lost track of the number we’ve let in directly from set plays already), and a red card that’s fairly dubious. But mainly it’s the mix of emotions from high to low and back that sums up this season and this club very well.
Within the fanbase, there’s a wee bit of panic going around. Some of it is understandable through the fan’s eye; as soon as progress looks like slowing down, and what progress we’ve had in recent years, the natural reaction is that things are about to go wrong. An often-used phrase in the game is ‘if you’re not going forwards, you’re going backwards’, so the team not immediately showing form worthy of the play-offs has led some to worry that the glory days, the continued progression of the club we’ve seen under Darrell Clarke, is over. That’s natural.
There are two types of defeat that start a panic: home defeats and heavy defeats. With the Oldham and Wigan games, one followed another. Conceding three soft goals at home vs the Latics, and a 3-0 hammering away against the other Latics, albeit one exasperated by an early red card (and what a joke decision that was), have further exposed our frailties all across the pitch so far in 2017/18.
Defensively, we’ve gone from finally having a secure back four towards the end of last season, to a horror show. Amazingly, it’s with the same personnel. Danny Leadbitter, at right-back, is in a horrible run of form, but Joe Partington, who has impressed in that position, can’t get a run of games, presumably due to fitness. The first-choice centre-half pairing, Lockyer and Sweeney, have both made errors that have cost us goals too. That these errors need cutting out is obvious; the hard work comes on the training pitch. Tom Broadbent, who hasn’t looked out of place at all so far, will get his chance, also. As mentioned before, we can’t go a week without conceding a soft goal from a set piece and we’re going absolutely nowhere this season while this carries on.
I know this isn’t exactly a deep dive into the nuances of football tactics but we also aren’t putting enough chances away. I’m convinced that Tom Nichols is the answer to our goalscoring woes, but 4-3-3 is not going to benefit him. Nichols, for me, needs to be leading the line in a partnership of two, with either Gaffney or Harrison behind him doing the dirty work. Both have displayed the work ethic to fulfil that role but neither is an out-and-out goal poacher like Nichols.
However, that requires a leap of faith in Byron Moore on behalf of the manager, as he’s probably the only squad member who can play wide on the left in the traditional winger’s role.
Those who are panicking, should try to avoid it; one thing this side haven’t done is given up. Tuesday’s extra-time defeat to high-flying Wolves in the League Cup showed some improvement at the back as well as a willingness to fight for the shirt. Before the Oldham game ended in tears it took some mettle to come back to 2-2 as well. Also, we were worse off, points-wise, eight games into last season, so maybe the classic Darrell Clarke slow start and hectic finish is going to happen again. I guess we’ll know that for sure if a minnow side dumps us out of the FA Cup next month.
Blackpool visit the Mem on Saturday. Defend like we did at Molineux in midweek and this is anyone’s game. Defend like we have the rest of the time and another home defeat will bring howls of derision. The Seasiders are the cause of many negative headlines off the field, but on it, they’ve taken to League One like a duck to water, sitting fourth in the standings and scoring almost as many goals in the process as our leaky back line have conceded. They’re also as solid as rock (sorry) defensively, averaging only a goal a game past them. Watch out for a ghost of seasons past in their line-up: Colin Alan Daniel should need no introduction, as the man who doomed us to the Conference with his goal three years ago.
Portsmouth’s lovely rickety old ground, Fratton Park, is the venue for Rovers’ game on Tuesday. I’m personally gutted that this is a midweek game, as we’d have undoubtedly taken a big following to Pompey on a Saturday.
Kenny Jackett is a wily and respected old head in the lower leagues and hasn’t struggled to take a promotion-winning side from last season into mid-table so far. Brett Pitman, formerly of a certain club in BS3, will get some attention from the travelling Gas nation, but also needs to be watched like a hawk, as he’s clearly still got the goods to score at this level.