No time for a mid-season snooze: Grimsby Town v Bristol Rovers match report

Craig Disley heads the ball in the season's opener at Bristol Rovers“Come on, it’s two promotion rivals going head to head at a pivotal point of the season, it’ll be full of passion, effort – and maybe, just maybe, goals too. If you really love me you’ll come to watch Grimsby Town v Bristol Rovers on Valentine’s Day.”

It was a hard sell. I felt like Grimsby owed me a performance after I’d convinced my wife that Blundell Park was the place to be on February 14th – and not some romantic, candle-lit restaurant in a trendy part of Leeds.

Grimsby gave me nothing.

When we went 1-0 down, heads dropped. Shoulders slumped. Only one man was urging the players to keep their heads up and chest out, and it wasn’t captain Disley. It was Carl Magnay.

You’d have thought that we had just gone 3-0 down. None of the players looked to believe that there was a way back into the match. At 1-0 down. With 23 minutes (plus injury time) to go. It was bizarre.

It was a horrible, turgid performance. Former Mariners keeper Steve Mildenhall had literally nothing to do for the entire second half, except get angry at Ross Hannah when the striker kicked the ball out of his grasp.

The Rovers keeper spent all his time patching up the tufts of turf that had been displaced by his goal kicks.

Ideas? There were none. Whatever the game plan was; whatever the intentions were – they had disappeared long before Rovers actually took the lead. Our two wingers and two strikers looked as though they’d only just met each other five minutes before kick-off.

Rovers’ tactics were simple: be pesky, keep on running – oh, and fall over when 30 yards from the Grimsby goal. It didn’t matter if they weren’t fouled. This referee was going to give everything.

McKeown ran into Blissett. Was it in the area? Was it out the area? Was it even a foul? The referee doesn’t know. He looks over to his linesman, who stands at the corner flag, unmoved.

So naturally it’s a penalty.

Taylor does the decent thing and smacks his spot kick against the base of McKeown’s right post, and the ball is cleared to safety.

The crowd had awoken. It was just a pity that it was through a sequence of controversial incidents, and not through good play by those in black and white stripes.

The rest of the game was doggy do.

Substitutes arrived too late – and when they did come onto the pitch, they had accidentally left Plan B on the bench. There was no change in style, in thought or in effort. Not until Hamish Watson came on for five glorious minutes.

He caused the Rovers defence – the best defence in the Conference, it must be noticed – more problems than Jolley and John-Lewis had in the previous 85. Hannah scored, but was offside. And then he lifted the best – and only – genuine chance of the game over the bar in injury time.

It’s a complete mystery how that team put in that performance just 10 days after a pretty faultless one at Eastleigh.

Hurst has signed decent players. Once again he’s signed players with good pedigree; players who know how to get out of this division. Once again he’s given himself options up front and out wide. And once again he looks like he doesn’t know how to get the best out of them.

Jolley is either unfit or badly out of form. He could be this season’s Connor Jennings.

Hannah’s only asset is his deadly finishing. And right now he can’t finish.

Whisper it quietly, but John-Lewis hasn’t scored in a while.

The title is out of the question. I don’t think it was ever a realistic possibility. It looks like we’re going to limp into the play-offs, again, with no form to speak of, and lose in insipid fashion.

Of course I don’t want that to happen. We don’t want that to happen.

Bristol Rovers were no great shakes. They were mean in possession and miserly in defence. They knew when to fall, and how. My wife said they’d get a penalty from ‘that ref’, and they did.

We weren’t inventive enough. When we had to change our approach, we lofted the ball onto the heads of the Rovers’ centre backs.

The goals began to dry up long before Christmas, and right now I’m struggling to see where they’re going to come from. We may grind out results – much in the way Rovers did – to earn our place in the play-offs, but in doing so we’re hardly going to put the fear of god into anyone.

Hurst needs to get these attacking players working extra hard on the training pitch, because right now I can see Jolley struggling until the end of the season. You can see the confidence dripping out of John-Lewis. Hannah knows his time is up at Grimsby Town. He’s hardly motivated. It’s all there in the body language.

Palmer may yet deliver for us. Pittman might – but he’s injured. Arnold blows hot and cold. Mackreth is desperately one dimensional but his work rate is admirable.

Neilson – one of our most creative players when fit and on form – has gone. Can Hurst manage flair players? Does he recognise that creative types are always more volatile and fragile? Will he adjust his management style?

Still. Rovers are a good side. It was hardly a trouncing. There are 33 more points to play for – and the fans can’t blame the FA Trophy for this year’s wobble.


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