Three: The magic number for Rovers
The first month of the season is all but done with and, as we sit back and reflect on our first half dozen games of 2016/17, it’s comforting to know that we currently occupy an automatic promotion place even at this early stage.
Yes, the Rovers are up to third after a thumping 4-1 win over perennial shadow Yeovil Town, and within a week or two sitting at the very top of the pile is a distinct possibility.
Three wins on the spin
The fact we can even talk about being top of the table is testament to the change in atmosphere at the club. For the past three years being anywhere near the top has been a mere fantasy, and whilst it may be down to our recent failings that we can now tilt at the top, it is still refreshing for us fans. Whether you play in the Premier League of the Northern Counties East League, every supporter starts the season hoping his or her team can finish in that coveted first spot.
Rovers have won three games in a row for the first in Darren Ferguson’s tenure, building momentum through a trio of differing performances. Cambridge United, who now sit rock bottom of the EFL after a poor start, were the first to taste defeat at the hands of Fergie’s men a fortnight ago, thoroughly outplayed and left chasing shadows for much of a tense encounter. Whilst that showing didn’t reflect in the scoreline, we did do just enough to secure a 1-0 win and it was a performance uncharacteristic of recent Rovers sides. We controlled the game and held firm at the back when needed, and it was this mindset that took us forward to another win the following weekend, again by a single goal, away to Cheltenham.
The Robins won the National League last season to return to League Two at the first attempt, and their unbeaten record at Whaddon Road stretched back to last September. By the same token, we had not registered a single away victory since beating Southend 3-0 on January 2nd, right before the wheels came off our season in horrendous fashion. John Marquis popped up to net the winner as he had four days earlier, and by the time Yeovil came to town on Bank Holiday weekend the new strike partnership of Marquis and Andy Williams was in full flow. More on that shortly.
The stats only get better from there. We have managed to score in every game, including in a tough EFL Cup defeat to Championship big guns Nottingham Forest, managed to keep back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since last November in 1-0 wins over Cambridge and Cheltenham, and after putting the Glovers to the sword this past Saturday are now the – yes, you guessed it – third highest scorers in League Two. The club and fans expect nothing less than a promotion challenge this season, but it is still very encouraging that we have managed to make such a strong start as we are not traditionally strong starters and it should not be underestimated how difficult it is to turn around a side with a losing mentality.
Williams at the treble
Three wins in a row sealed by three excellent goals, a first career hat trick for talisman Andy Williams against his former club undersigning our biggest win of the campaign so far. Yeovil Town competed gamely with us for 80 minutes or so but in the end footballing finesse won out over brute force and the Glovers were sent packing with nothing to show for their physical tactics. Williams was the centrepiece of it all, netting three goals in the 4-1 win that sent us into the automatic promotion slots. The first a crisp strike from a knockdown after only 34 seconds, then with the game in the balance at 2-1, superb work down the right flank by James Coppinger teed Williams up for his second. Now playing with freedom against ten men, Rovers crafted another good move down the opposite flank and this time Tommy Rowe lofted a ball in for Williams to head home and seal the match ball.
In truth it has been a tough start to the season for our #11. Signed with a big reputation for scoring goals last summer, Williams took his time to get up and running and we have seen him fall victim to confidence issues during his time in South Yorkshire. Just two minutes into this campaign his head was down again after seeing a penalty saved at Accrington, and since then he has huffed and puffed up front with little to show for it bar a fortuitous goal later in that opening game owing to a colossal goalkeeping error from Aaron Chapman in the Stanley goal.
By contract to that showing and his performances in games since then, Williams hit the front against Yeovil and never looked back. His early goal gave him renewed vigour and he ran tirelessly at the Somerset side’s back line all afternoon, his late flurry just reward for his endeavour throughout. One of the pre-season favourites for the Golden Boot with bookmakers, Williams’ hat trick here has put him joint top of the scoring charts with Notts County’s veteran Jon Stead and Grimsby forward Omar Bogle, who himself netted a treble in a comprehensive home win on Saturday. The question remains whether Williams can not harness this form into the coming weeks and months, but he is well capable as we all saw in this game and if he can then surely few will be able to challenge him for that top scorer accolade.
Three areas of concern
I have unfortunately been laid up injured the past couple of weeks and you can be forgiven for thinking it might be sympathy pain for the Rovers squad, as Darren Ferguson contends with an alarming injury crisis. At time of writing eleven (ELEVEN) players are suffering from injuries of varying degrees, and this was not helped by Yeovil’s “kick them off the park” tactics and a spineless referee facilitating them. Mitchell Lund and Matty Blair both ended the day in hospital and the first concern has to be the lack of fit defenders.
Teenagers Reece Fielding and Danny Amos have had to sit on the bench in the last few games due to this, and with both Lund and Joe Wright suffering blows on Saturday they may be called upon to start in the meaningless “Checkatrade.com Trophy” fixture at Mansfield tomorrow night. The manager has stressed he is assessing his options ahead of the closure of the transfer window in two days time, and if Lund is set to be out for any length of time he must surely act and bring in another body or two. Aaron Taylor-Sinclair remains out with a knee injury until 2017, Craig Alcock is not yet near returning to training and Niall Mason, Mathieu Baudry and Tyler Garratt are all still several weeks away from being available too, meaning we are dangerously short at the back.
Another potential problem, perhaps not right now but down the line, is lack of depth up front and, whilst Dany N’Guessan remains on the books he is actively looking to be moved on leaving us with only Williams and Marquis as senior recognised forwards. Fergie knows this isn’t enough and has repeatedly stated his intention to bring in a Keshi Anderson-esque pacy forward to add to our options, but will he now be able to do this with the injury problems mounting in other areas of the squad? My hope is that he still brings in a forward along with a defender despite our growing squad size, as you can never be too careful and our injury problems don’t seem to be going away. If one of the first choice forwards picks up an injury we are left having to throw Joe Pugh in at the deep end, or asking Liam Mandeville to move back up front after impressing in an attacking midfield role this season.
Finally, Fergie has mooted the possible need to bring in an experienced goalkeeper to bolster the gloved core. Whilst this may not be seen as a concern to many fans, going on into the season without knowing who our firm #1 is is not something we should be allowing to happen. Ross Etheridge was brought in to claim that role but mistakes littered his first few appearances and as a result he has already lost the shirt to Marko Marosi, a man who was on his way out of the club in the summer until the last minute of negotiations. Marosi has been solid in the last three games, keeping two clean sheets and really deserving of a third against Yeovil, scuppered only by the brainless backpass of Matty Blair that put Ryan Hedges in for the visitors goal, but whether he is capable of keeping the shirt for the rest of the season remains a mystery at this point.