PREVIEW: Bristol Rovers v Luton Town

The Memorial Stadium
The Memorial Stadium

Home form has been the absolute bane of Bristol Rovers’ season as the Pirates sit far too close to the choppy waters of the drop zone, still with a real chance of walking the plank to League Two this term.

It looked ominous from the start, beaten in their opening fixture at the Memorial Stadium by division new-boys Accrington Stanley.

That saw Rovers lose the first three games in front of their own supporters, only stopping the rot with a 0-0 draw against Plymouth.

Finally, Coventry were dispatched 3-1 on September 22 as although they went and lost the next game to Walsall, a draw and win over AFC Wimbledon saw signs of real improvement, with seven points garnered from possible 12.

However, their old ways soon returned as Rovers went down 2-1 at home to Scunthorpe on November 17, which has seen them win just twice since, from 11 attempts.

It leaves them with the least amount of home wins in the whole division, just four all season, nine defeats from 19 games, scoring a mere 18 goals, but only conceding 22 as well.

Their rare successes did include a 4-0 win over Blackpool, while since they turn of the year, Rovers have been much harder to beat on home soil drawing four out of seven, including picking up points against Charlton and Peterborough.

The run has coincided with Graham Coughlan taking over in January after Darrell Clarke paid the price for a difficult first few months in December, when his four and a half year stint in charge was ended.

Since Coughlan stepped up from his role in the coaching staff, he has improved the club’s fortunes, securing four wins, six draws and just three defeats,

The club’s recent form had been excellent too, going five games unbeaten with three wins, although that was ended in somewhat unceremonious fashion by Doncaster Rovers on Tuesday night, the Pirates hammered 4-1.

That result came as a shock to Coughlan, who told the Bristol Post: “I’m obviously bitterly disappointed, we weren’t good enough, we’re not at that level.

“We’ve a long way to go before we get to their level – individually and collectively, they were better.

“At times, we have to hold our hands up and say we were beaten by the better team.”

Although Rovers are currently 15th in the table, such is the closeness of the relegation battle this term, then they are just three points above the dotted line, with seven games to go.

Team news: Luton welcome back James Collins from international duty, plus Alan McCormack as he has recovered from a hamstring injury.

Dan Potts is unlikely to feature after hurting his knee last weekend, while Brighton striker Aaron Connolly isn’t ready yet and Glen Rea remains out for the season.

Top scorers: Hatters: James Collins (20). Rovers: Jonson Clarke-Harris (8).

Man in the middle: Charles Breakspear - has taken 38 games this season, showing 124 yellows anda hefty 12 reds.

Refereed Luton twice in that time, the 1-1 home draw with Sunderland in August and then 2-1 victory at Coventry.

Last year, he had three Town games, the 1-0 win over Chesterfield, dismissing Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, plus the 1-1 draw with Notts County and 2-2 draw at Coventry.

Officiated Hatters three times in the 2016-17 season, the 4-0 win over Chesterfield at Kenilworth Road, plus both games with Newport County, dismissing Johnny Mullins in the 2-1 home win.

Also sent off Exiles defender Mark O’Brien as Luton were held to a 1-1 draw in Wales.

Took Luton twice in the 2015-16 season, 1-0 wins over Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge, while had the 2-2 draw with York in February 2015, showing red cards to both Jake Hyde and Steve McNulty.

Town are yet to lose with Breakspear in charge as his only other match a 2-2 draw at Cambridge in March 2013, when both sides were in the Blue Square Bet Premier.

Assistants referees are Paul Hobday and Marc Wilson, with the fourth official Kevin Morris.

In charge: Graham Coughlan. 44-year-old who started his career with Bray Wanderers, having spells with Blackburn Rovers and Livingston before joining Plymouth in 2001.

Integral part of the Pilgrims side who won Division Three and Division Two during his four years at Home Park, making almost 200 appearances.

Joined Sheffield Wednesday in 2005 and went on to play for Burnley, Shrewsbury and Southend United, completing more than 500 games.

Doubled up as reserve team boss with the Shrimpers in August 2010, becoming player/assistant manager a year later, then dropping down to first team coach in 2013.

Headed to Bristol Rovers in 2018 as defensive coach, appointed caretaker manager when Darrell Clarke left in December 2018, given the job on a permanent basis a month later.

View from the opposition: Graham Coughlan speaking to the Bristol Post after Tuesday’s 4-1 defeat to Doncaster - “It’s a reaction I want off the players. You’ve seen them when we’ve been beaten in the past, it’s the reaction they give.

“They’re an honest, hard-working group of players and, to a man, I can guarantee that they will react and they’ll give a spirited display on Saturday.

“They’re a good bunch but obviously we’ll take a bit of stick – each and every one of us, me included – and we deserve it.

“We know we deserve it, the fans were different class, they were shouting at us at the end to keep going, which gives you faith.

“It’s a positive to take into the changing room and filter to the boys, to tell the boys that the fans are still behind us.

“They still believe in what we’re doing and so do I and so do the players.”

Friendly faces: Rovers midfielder Stuart Sinclair was on the books of Luton as a youngster although never made a first team appearance while with Town.

Went to Cambridge, City, Bedford Town, Dunstable Town, Arlesey Town and then Salisbury City, earning a move to Bristol Rovers in the summer of 2014.

Has made over 150 appearances for the Pirates now, including playing 19 times this season.

Played for both: John Taylor - striker who started life with Colchester United, as he went to Sudbury with Cambridge paying £1,000 for him in 1988.

Forged a fine partnership with Dion Dublin as the club went from Division Four to Division Two, Taylor himself moving to Bristol Rovers in March 1992 after scoring over 50 goals.

Netted 44 times in 95 games for Rovers, heading to Bradford for £300,000 in 1994, scoring 11 in 36, and then Luton in March 1995, the Hatters paying £200,000 for his services.

Had a tough time at Kenilworth Road, struggling with injuries, as he scored just four goals in 40 games, the leanest spell of his career.

Went on loan to Lincoln and Colchester, heading back to Cambridge in January 1997 on a free transfer.

Refound his scoring boots, with more than 40 goals for the U’s, finishing his career with Northampton and then Dagenham before moving into non-league.

Went back to Cambridge United as manager in January 2002, leaving in March 2004, before various spells lower down the pyramid, his last job as Walsham-le-Willows assistant in 2014

One to watch: Jonson Clarke-Harris. Striker, 24, who has made a superb start to life at Rovers after joining on deadline day in January from Coventry.

Was off the mark in a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth and then bagged a hat-trick as Rover hammered Blackpool 4-0.

Up to eight in eight now, having scored four in his last five matches including during successive away matches at Plymouth and Doncaster.

Had started the season with Coventy, netting just six goals in 29 games, including one against Luton.

Signed for the Sky Blues on loan initially from Rotherham in January 2018, making the move permanent last summer.

Started out with Coventry as a trainee, going to Peterborough, Southend, Bury and then Oldham, snapped up by Rotherham for ££350,000 in September 2014.

Scored 10 goals in 81 matches for the Millers, with loans at MK Dons and Doncaster, before his move back to the Ricoh Arena.

We’ve got form: Luton have had a pretty tough time of it on their trips to Bristol Rovers over the years since they began with a 1-0 Southern League defeat in 1900.

The Hatters went on to lose their first six visits, until securing a 1-0 win in 1906.

That led to three victories in a row, before Rovers regained the upper hand, winning the next eight, as it took until the 18th match for a draw to be registered in 1923.

Strangely that led to four stalemates in a row, as Town went on to have a nine game unbeaten run, ended convincingly with the Hatters thumped 5-1 in 1930.

Since then it has been largely miss and very few hits for the Town, as they haven’t won in their last nine visits, since 1995 when a Dwight Marshall goal settled an FA Cup third round replay.

Their last league success is almost 50 years ago now, back in 1980, Brian Stein netting a treble and Ricky Hill on target during a 4-2 Division Two triumph.

They haven’t actually won at the Memorial Stadium either, with Rovers moving in 1996 after being at the Eastville Stadium up until 1986 and then a brief spell at Twerton Park.

In total, Town have played 60 matches, with just 11 wins, 15 draws and 34 defeats, scoring 65 goals but conceding 121.

Last time out: Luton produced a toothless performance to go down 2-0 at Bristol Rovers in January 2016 when both sides were in League Two.

Under the caretaker charge of Andy Awford, the Hatters barely threatened as Rory Gaffney’s second half double condemned them to defeat.

Hatters: Mark Tyler, Stephen O’Donnell, Jake Howells (Paddy McCourt 68) Scott Cuthbert, Magnus Okuonghae, Jonathan Smith, Alex Lawless, Cameron McGeehan, Ryan Hall, Paul Benson (Josh McQuoid 75), Craig Mackail-Smith (Jack Marriott 82).

Subs not used: Elliot Justham, Sean Long, Luke Wilkinson, Olly Lee.

Referee: Lee Swabey.

Attendance: 9,131.