Bristol Rovers 2
Anyinsah 19, Lund 25
by RICK COWDERY
THE first day of the new year did not to bring any resolution to some familiar old failings, nor a halt to the Pilgrims’ late 2012 slide.
Defeat against a side that have increasingly become relegation rivals this season meant that, in a little more than two months, Argyle have now slipped from the relative npower League 2 comfort zone of 15th to within two points of the relegation zone.
The sorry spell has seen just one win in 15 matches, including an FA Cup exit at the hands of non-league Dorchester; there have been eight other defeats in the league as only seven points have been claimed from the last 39 available.
The Pilgrims were two goals down after just 25 minutes to a side that had managed four league wins in the first half of 2012-13, both goals coming from corners as the set-piece problems that have affected Argyle for too long again resurfaced.
Joe Anyinsah and Matt Lund were the Pirates who plundered the spoils of some ineffective defending that maybe Rovers’ new manager John Ward picked up on when he prepped for the Director of Football role at Argyle. Who knows?
The Pilgrims picked things up considerably after the break, demonstrating estimable characteristics of integrity and endeavour that n on-one would ever argue they do not possess, and pulled themselves back into the game through captain Conor Hourihane.
At times thereafter, the Pirates were unable to cope with the complete sea-change in the direction of the game and in Argyle’s renewed commitment.
Hopes of a 3-2 come-from-behind three-peat of the last two times the teams had meat at the Memorial Ground burned brightly for a while before flickering and dying with the winter sun.
Argyle manager Carl Fletcher had made two changes – both forced by injury – to the Pilgrims’ starting line-up.
Neither veteran defender Darren Purse nor teenage striker Tyler Harvey passed muster following the previous Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat by Wycombe, victims, respectively, of hamstring and calf problems.
Durrell Berry was recalled to the back four, with Curtis Nelson moving inside from right-back to partner Maxime Blanchard, while Warren Feeney was also promoted from the bench to supplement Nick Chadwick in attack.
However, the most significant squad selection was that of Paul Wotton, whose name was on a team-sheet for the first time since he was taken out of contention by a back injury in September.
Rovers lined up for the first time under Ward at the Memorial Stadium with only five of the players that had started his previous game, a 2-2 draw at Aldershot before Christmas Day.
Among those excluded by injury, suspension or managerial capriciousness was ex-Pilgrim Jim Paterson, who was suffering from a hamstring tweak.
The Pirates’ 11 did include one former Green in Tom Hitchcock, who spent a particularly unmemorable 10-game loan spell at Home Park at the start of last season.
Hitchcock has since moved from Blackburn to join his goalkeeping coach father Kevin at QPR but has yet to play a first-team game for anyone outside League 2.
Other Rovers’ debutants included midfielder John-Joe O’Toole, borrowed from ward’s previous club, Colchester United, and former Yeovil goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall.
Neither Mildenhall, nor his opposite number, Rene Gilmartin, experienced much to biotherthem in the opening exchanges, although both had occasion to thank defenders for important interfentions.
Rovers’ Cian Bolger rose to head a delightful right-wing cross from Paris Cowan-Hall away from danger, while Berry mopped up ahead of Anyinsah after some hesitancy by Blanchard.
Rovers went ahead midway through a hitherto insipid first half after Gilmartin failed to deal with an inswinging right-wing corner.
The big Irishman elected to punch out Fabian Broghammer’s delivery and the ball fell sweetly for Anyinsah to smash it home.
Argyle responded with passion, winning three corners of their own in quick succession, the final one of which saw Onismor Bhasera head wide.
The uneven set-piece exchange continued with Rovers scoring again to take their traditional 2-0 lead in the fixture when Lund powered home another corner by the former German youth international Broghammer, this time from Rovers’ left.
“We’re going to win 3-2,” chanted the Green Army, a little limply, but the Pirates had the wind in behind and nearly sailed further off towards the horizon when O’Toole took advantage of oceans of space to fire a shot just wide.
The Pilgrims picked up for the final ten minutes of the half, their admirably unstinting efforts putting Rovers on the back foot without really causing any real alarms.
They continued positivity after the break and nearly unlocked the Rovers’ defence when Chadwick headed Luke young’s cross powerfully towards goal, but a little too close to Mildenhall.
The improvement continued as Cowan-Hall then had a shot blocked at the last by Lee Brown, so it was no real surprise that Conor Hourihane reduced the deficit just after the hour.
The young skipper cut a sweet first-time finish across Mildenhall, showing great technique to leave the debutant goalkeeper absolutely flatfooted.
The now rampant Pilgrims then hit the post with Hourihane unlucky not to claim his second goal of the game after being teed up by nelson.
This time, his curled shot hit the post, although Mildenhall would probably claim he had things covered.
Rovers went close to relieving the pressure when substitute Seanan Clucas fired a free-kick just wide with Gilmartin scrambling across his goal.
Joe Lennox, Rhys Griffiths and Mark Molesley were sent on to try to find an equaliser – or better – and the forward thinking nearly paid dividends when Rovers scrambled the ball clear after some prolonged goalmouth pinball.
Eventually, the ball rolled out. Game over.
Bristol Rovers (4-5-1): 13 Steve Mildenhall; 2 Michael Smith, 6 Tom Parkes (capt), 14 Lee Brown, 29 Cian Bolger; 16 Joe Anyinsah (18 Mitch Harding 90), 15 Oliver Norburn (25 Seanan Clucas 73), 32 John-Joe O’Toole, 26 Matt Lund, 11 Fabian Broghammer (10 Eliot Richards 77); 27 Tom Hitchcock. Substitutes (not used): 17 Ellis Harrison, 20 Conor Gough (gk), 30 Tom Lockyer, 33 Alefe Santos.
Argyle (4-4-2): 20 Rene Gilmartin; 2 Durrell Berry, 17 Curtis Nelson, 4 Maxime Blanchard, 3 Robbie Williams (19 Joe Lennox 75); 7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 8 Luke Young (30 Mark Molesley 85), 14 Onismor Bhasera; 11 Warren Feeney (10 Rhys Griffiths 78), 9 Nick Chadwick. Substitutes (not used): 1 Jake Cole, 15 Paul Wotton, 16 Jamie Lowry, 21 Matt Lecointe.
Booked: Berry 73, Hourihane 83.
Referee: Mark Heywood.
Attendance: 7,332 (864 away).