Aldershot Town travel to Bristol Rovers on Friday evening, with The Pirates looking to steal a march over Barnet and return to the top of the Vanarama Conference, if only for a few hours. The Shots, meanwhile, will be looking to bounce back from disappointing defeat against Southport last weekend and claw themselves ever-closer to safety.
After a four-month, 20 game unbeaten run between November and February, Bristol Rovers have currently taken just one point from the last six available, following home defeat against Eastleigh and a 2-2 draw at The Shay. However, that point against FC Halifax Town was rescued with two goals in the final seven minutes having been 2-0 down at half-time.
Clarke attributed the loss to Eastleigh to having “a lot of players off their game”, as Matt Taylor’s late goal proved just a consolation. Prior to that, they had won 12 and drawn eight in a superb run which, when taken back to the end of August, shows a record of just two defeats in 34 games. The one point taken from the first three matches of the season is now but a distant memory.
The second best home record in the division has largely been earned by the Conference’s tightest defence, with just 31 goals conceded and 18 clean sheets from their 39 games. Appropriately, the most common scoreline in their season is a 1-0 victory but, despite their dominance at The Mem, Rovers have only scored more than two goals in a home game three times.
Aldershot Town will hope to replicate the performance which earned a draw at Macclesfield Town earlier this month as they look to embark upon another unbeaten run of their own. Chris Barker has lost just two of his eight matches in charge and will know that his team can play with a degree of freedom against a Rovers side who will start the game as heavy favourites.
Rovers’ run is based on solidity and continuity. Nine of Clarke’s starting XI have played in all of the last six games – including goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall and his defence – but it is the return of former youth team graduate, Chris Lines, on loan from Port Vale for the rest of the season, which could add a creative spark to their promotion push.
The stylish midfielder, who has made 31 appearances for League One Vale this season, played his first game for the Gas in over three-and-a-half years last weekend. Tom Lockyer – who Clarke reckons would “kick his own grandma” to win a match – had been operating alongside Lee Mansell at the heart of midfield, but dropped back into a five-man defence at The Shay, to accommodate Lines.
There, he partnered former Leicester City defender Tom Parkes and experienced ex Northern Ireland Under 21 captain Mark McChrystal at centre-back, with Daniel Leadbitter and Lee Brown providing the width as athletic wing-backs.
12-goal Matty Taylor, signed from Forest Green Rovers in the summer, is Bristol Rovers’ top scorer, yet it was substitute Ellis Harrison – called into the Wales Under 21 squad on Wednesday – who snatched a point from The Shaymen with another dramatic impact from the bench to smash his seventh of the season. Harrison has three goals in his last four appearances but failed to score in the only match he started in that period, against Eastleigh.
Clarke has described him as “unplayable when he is on top of his game” but also acknowledges that the 21 year-old struggles to make the same impact over 90 minutes, so may again wait to unleash him on a tiring defence.
Andy Monkhouse – scorer in the 2-2 draw at the ESS – has been used as both striker and winger of late, as Clarke continues to tinker with his attacking options. The loss, through injury, of Stuart Sinclair has partly necessitated those changes – which has also seen winger Adam Dawson arrive on loan from Leicester City – but so has the wayward form of Nathan Blissett since joining from Kidderminster Harriers in November. By his own admission, Blissett’s five goals have not been enough to guarantee him a starting place.
Yet, with Harrison pushing for a start and midfielder Ollie Clarke just back from injury, the manager will still have a few selection headaches before kick-off as he picks a team to attempt to beat Phil Smith, who has now made the most saves of any Conference goalkeeper this season.
Chris Barker will also have a few problems in choosing his team, but unfortunately not for the right reasons. Injuries continue to beset Barker’s squad – with Jaydon Gibbs, Tristan Plummer and Matt Saunders all ruled out of the squad, and several others rated as doubtful – but The Shots hope to have Joe Oastler back in contention after over a month out.
Head to Head
Each of the last three encounters have ended in 2-2 draws, including September 2012, when Fabian Broghammer’s last-minute equaliser snatched a point for the hosts at The Mem. In 2011-12, The Shots did the double with two 1-0 wins thanks to goals from Alex Rodman and Peter Vincenti, preceded by two narrow Rovers’ cup victories, a Carling Cup tie in August 2009 and October 2010’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy clash.
Aldershot Town’s first encounter with The Pirates was an FA Cup first round tie in 2001, which saw Rovers sneak through 1-0 in a home replay after a goalless draw in Hampshire memorable for Mark Watson’s open-goal miss in front of the East Bank.
Aldershot FC met Rovers on 36 occasions, with Rovers winning 20 to The Shots’ 12 in a run of fixtures which seemed to guarantee goals. Results included three 5-1 wins for Rovers, plus 6-1 and 7-1 victories, whilst in December 1935 Aldershot dished out a 6-1 thrashing of their own.
Lancashire’s Ben Toner has officiated in 17 Conference matches this season, issuing 39 yellow cards and just one red card. In September, he took charge of Rovers’ 3-2 victory at Lincoln City, having refereed The Shots’ 1-0 defeat at Southport in August 2013.
BBC Bristol will provide full live commentary from the Memorial Stadium from 7.40pm tomorrow night. Click here to listen online.