In a week where it’d be fair to say Rovers fans could do with a bit of cheering up and some renewed hope for some glory this season, the team went out and delivered both in some style against a below strength Wycombe Wanderers side at Adams Park. For now, ignore the ‘below strength’ part of that and bask in the glow of a comfortable stroll through to the last four of the southern section of the Football League Trophy with a confidence boosting half dozen goals on top. Tuesday was a good night to be a Gashead.
Adams Park was a cold and fairly empty place to be on the night, the biggest stand down one side being entirely closed and the 1,571 fans on the remaining three sides not exactly generating a buzzing atmosphere. Given that children were being admitted free it seemed a disappointing return, especially given the 4,000 or so we pulled in with a similar deal against Aldershot in the previous round. A good turn out in the away end saw a good 2-300 Gasheads in attendance and the mood was surprisingly upbeat even before the start as though the fans were just as keen as the players to put last Saturday’s events behind them and move the hell on. Which of course we did.
As predicted, Stuart Campbell and Mikkel Andersen returned to the starting line up, though it was Charlie Reece who made way for Campbell after apparently injuring himself in the warm up and giving Wayne Brown a chance to convince instead. The game started with a couple of positive openings for Rovers in the first few minutes which we could have done better with before Wycombe had a spell of pressure in which they won a couple of corners, got several crosses into the box and Kevin Betsy in particular menaced the Gas defence. Things were looking shaky but shortly afterwards, midway through the half, Rovers took the lead when Gary Sawyer’s inch perfect cross from the left found Jo Kuffour’s head and he could hardly miss from a few yards out. That was the signal for a spell of pressure which could have seen Rovers go into the half time break well clear of the home team with Wayne Brown hitting the post and having another shot saved and Jeff Hughes heading wide. Brown and John Akinde were having vastly improved games from Saturday with Akinde’s movement and crossing a particular revelation. Just as it was looking like we could be having another one of those days where we live to regret chances not taken, we went 2-0 up five minutes before half time when Campbell’s corner was headed back into the goalmouth by Chris Lines and Kuffour turned to volley the ball into the net from a few yards out. It was a great finish from a man who’d finally found some form and the half time whistle saw a standing ovation from the travelling supporters as we took a well deserved lead into the break.
The second half began brightly as well, Akinde almost being sent through by Brown as the big man continued to look a far more imposing threat than he had shown thus far in his Rovers career. However, it was Wycombe who pulled a goal back near the hour mark when a break down the left saw an inch perfect cross find the head of Scott Rendell in acres of space to finish comfortably. That could have been the signal for those familiar nerves to set in amongst the Rovers team and who knows, they may have done if it hadn’t been for us making it 3-1 within a minute of the restart. It was Akinde who made the goal, picking the ball up on the left hand touchline, pushing the ball past his man and beating him for pace before pushing the ball inside to Kuffour who completed his hat trick by racing towards goal from the left hand side of the area and finding the opposite corner of the net with a cool finish. It was a lovely goal but arguably Lines topped it a couple of minutes later with a great solo run from 35 yards or so, beating three men before finishing into the same corner as Kuffour had with the same lack of fuss. Linesy jumped into the crowd to celebrate and, to all intents and purposes, the game was pretty much won there.
We weren’t finished there though and Akinde sent Kuffour racing into the penalty area again and a goal looked likely before he was brought down by Alan Bennett. Jeff Hughes coolly finished into the bottom right hand corner after a long delay for treatment to Akinde and we were cruising. Akinde left the pitch to a standing ovation a few minutes later after a performance which had seen him do more to endear himself to Gasheads than the previous couple of months combined. He took to his enforced role as first choice striker with gusto, running at his man, developing a promising understanding with Kuffour, going close on a couple of occasions and at one point delivering a perfect sliding tackle to roars of appreciation from the away end. By the time he came off his name was being sung in a way that could signal a turning point in his relationship with the fans if he keeps this up. Well done John.
The fact that Paul Trollope felt able to throw on Eliot Richards and James Tunnicliffe with ten minutes to go signalled a feeling of security at the final result and perhaps this was taken a bit too literally by the team as Wycombe scored twice in a couple of minutes to give themselves the tiniest glimmer of hope. Rendell scored from the spot after he had been fouled by Lines, Kuffour ended another burst into the home penalty area with a shot against the crossbar before Rendell completed his own hat trick with a header from a free kick taken from way out on the right hand side. We’d got a little sloppy with the game won but ended the game on a massive high when Ben Swallow scored his first senior goal for the club and probably the best of the night as he cut in from the right hand side and smashed a shot from outside the area past Nikki Bull, the youngster making sure he celebrated in style in front of the travelling supporters.
6-3 then, a pretty remarkable scoreline from a game that saw plenty of open football from both sides. What it shows is that we are at our most comfortable when opponents want to play the game and give us plenty of space to play in rather than close us down or simply sit behind the ball and hit us on the break. We look a pretty good side when this happens and Wayne Brown, Jo Kuffour, Chris Lines and John Akinde were all able to show off their abilities tonight with Stuart Campbell anchoring the lot in his inimitable fashion which was so missed at Darlington. We don’t see enough of this side of the team and that will remain an ongoing problem I suspect but on nights like Tuesday it’s an absolute joy to see. Well done lads.