League One Gameweek 23: Tough Times For The Gas7 min read
Bristol Rovers have won their last two home meetings with Fleetwood Town – but there is reason to think they could be in for a trickier afternoon this time around at a turbulent time for the club.
This will be their first home game since March 2014 without Darrell Clarke in the dug-out, after the manager was dismissed earlier this month.
Clarke did an excellent job at the Mem, guiding the Gasheads to back-to-back promotions, but he also takes some responsibility for the recent decline.
Five of the six most-used players last season were part of the 2014-15 National League promotion-winning side, which highlights how he liked to pick players he knew he could trust.
The old guard continued to break up in the summer however, with the likes of Lee Brown and Ellis Harrison departing and Clarke struggled to re-build.
Since 2016, 27 players have joined the club on permanent deals; one could argue that of those, only right-back Joe Partington, centre-back Tom Broadbent, energetic midfielder Liam Sercombe and enigmatic wide forward Kyle Bennett have had a meaningful impact.
With Broadbent sidelined and Partington and Bennett experiencing slight dips in form, it is arguably only Sercombe who is currently performing well of those signings.
Because Clarke plus Tommy Widdrington and the recruitment team have not quite been able to successfully evolve the squad, Bristol Rovers now look a rudderless ship.
In last week’s 2-1 loss at Sunderland, it was alarming how much space the Gas allowed their opponents in the final third.
It might not be until the new permanent manager comes in that they gain some direction and leadership, but it looks like Graham Coughlan will retain interim charge for the visit of Fleetwood Town.
Fleetwood’s team spirit
By contrast, Fleetwood look a happier ship.
Joey Barton is, as one would expect, a very passionate head coach who demands high standards from his players, but he is also a reasonable man.
— Fleetwood Town FC (@ftfc) December 20, 2018
In the 2-0 loss at Luton in their previous away game, he appeared to be critical of Kyle Dempsey for taking too long to prepare himself to come off the bench when James Husband went off injured; the fact that opponents scored their opener while Fleetwood were a man down added to his frustrations.
The midfielder though responded emphatically the following week by playing a crucial role as a substitute in the 1-0 win over Burton; Barton then admitted he might have been unfair to Dempsey previously.
Sometimes, when a manager shows honesty and integrity himself, it encourages the players to follow suit and helps the morale in the dressing room.
That victory over Burton, in treacherous conditions, was a sign that this Cod Army side possesses battling qualities; Ross Wallace, a winger by trade, deputized at left-back last time out and could do so again, with James Husband a doubt.
Dean Marney, who was a popular figure at Burnley despite rarely being fit, is an excellent leader in midfield, as is Ashley Eastham at the back; Rangers loanee Jason Holt and academy graduate Nathan Sherron have learnt a lot from Marney and Holt respectively.
Not only is there steel in this Fleetwood side, they also have quality.
Ashley Hunter, who limped off with cramp last time out, can be an excellent creative outlet, with 10 league assists to his name, more than any player in the top four divisions of English football.
📈 Most league assists in 2018/19 (top 4 tiers):
7🅰: Fraser, Sané (PL), Hernandez (Ch), Curtis (L1), Nepomuceno (L2)
— playmakerstats (@playmaker_EN) December 19, 2018
Ched Evans and Paddy Madden, meanwhile, have netted 15 between them in the league, too.
Shut-out for the Cods?
Bristol Rovers are likely to play Alex Jakubiak up top and while he has good close control, he might not have the physical qualities to relish the wet conditions, especially without a strike-partner.
The Gasheads have failed to score in five of their 11 home games while Fleetwood have kept a clean sheet in four in 11 away; those stats combined would imply a 41