Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Wondering as they wander

First published in The Grecian, 17 March 2010, Exeter City -v- Bristol Rovers

Rovers. There’s a name to entice the football emotions of men (or women) “of a certain age”. Roy of the Rovers, the cartoon soccer hero some of us remember from our youth, has undergone a bit of an unexpected resurgence over the past year or so – with a 64-page “collectors edition” on the newsstands last April, a Guardian facsimile appearing more recently, and two ‘Best of’ books, featuring successive runs of strips from the 1980s and 1970s, being published in June 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Roy Race and his Melchester Rovers side have appeared in various British publications since 1954. An attempt by a group of dedicated fans to revive the publishing tradition that still leaves football commentators referring to “a Roy of the Rovers moment” (when something spectacular happens) didn’t quite come off in 2009. But aficionados still live in hope of a comeback.

Meanwhile, the legendary (if imaginary) striker has survived takeovers, buyouts and a host of traumas including a helicopter crash where he lost his foot in 1993. Right now Exeter City fans are feeling sore over the decidedly real-world loss of new signing Troy Archibald-Henville, ruled out for the remainder of the season after sustaining a cartilage injury. Very bad news. But at least it isn’t anything as drastic as the wandering Rovers hero’s mid-air collision!

The Rovers that the Grecians face today are also far from fictional, and bear little resemblance to the Melchester crew, hailing instead from the fair city of Bristol. “Well, it’s fair from this distance, anyway!” an Exeter supporter said to me the other day. With cracks like that, and, er, a ‘fair few’ flying back the other way, you know you’re in for a solid bit of local rivalry tonight – bolstered by a sell-out all-ticket crowd at St James’ Park.

Following the visit of lowly Stockport County to Devon on Saturday, for a game which the Grecians very much wanted to signal the start of a revival in our own League One fortunes, the arrival of the Gasmen this evening signals another challenge on the path to securing our foothold in this division. As the Rovers wander, City wonder: how many points do we need to feel safe, and when will we secure them? As soon as possible has to be the answer, starting now.

As it happens, I caught a glimpse of Bristol Rovers in action on the television just over a week ago, while visiting my local hostelry in search of some football entertainment after a very hard day’s work.

The match in question was the Gas against Charlton Athletic, who I coincidentally saw live when losing out to Leyton Orient in a great game at the Valley on 25 January – before their trio of 1-1 draws and then the 2-1 defeat at the Memorial Stadium. Bristol looked tight and determined against the Addicks. But City already know what they are up against, following the lessons absorbed by Paul Tisdale and the boys after a 1-0 away defeat in Horfield on 1 December.

That evening the BBC described the Grecians as “unlucky Exeter”, with City losing out to an opportunist Darryl Duffy goal in the first half, following a half clearance from Jo Kuffour's initial low shot. Richard Logan, Alex Russell and Ryan Harley also came incredibly close to getting on the score sheet for the Grecians, with the latter’s noble 25-yard effort at the end just being denied by the woodwork.

Since that encounter Bristol Rovers, previously known as the Pirates (for acts of robbery like that?), have had mixed fortunes. At the beginning of December 2009 they were in the play-off zone. Now, twelve games on, they are ten points behind the pack chasing the automatic promotion places. But that will only increase their determination to take something from this game.

I was not able to get to the Memorial Stadium for the Grecians’ away game there last year, but I have seen Rovers once before this season, in circumstances that ought to give City a bit of encouragement. On 2 February, Bristol visited Leyton Orient, where I go with my friend Kevin Scully when I’m working in London. Leading 1-0 at half time, the Os scored an incredible 5-0 win over the Gas. What a match it was!

Our visitors are exceedingly unlikely to be as generous again in Exeter this evening, but the evidence of those two games in London is that you need to compete with Bristol Rovers for good, flowing football and then hit them hard when the opportunity arises. That is what the Grecians will be aiming to do tonight.

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