v Bishops Cleeve (Uhlsport Hellenic League, Premier Div – 22 Jan 2022)




“What a difference a day makes”, they say. Or maybe the more salient observation is “everything can change in a minute”. Whichever way Neil Mustoe surveyed the outcome of his struggling side’s meeting with the current league leaders could apply in equal measure to the other.

This was a first Premier Division meeting between the two Gloucestershire clubs since Kevin Slack’s late equaliser past then Rovers keeper Luke Merchant had salvaged a point for Cleeve in March 2019. On this occasion, Merchant found himself suffering the double-whammy of conceding two late goals, but wearing the colours of Cleeve, who had held a 2-0 lead with less than four minutes remaining and would leave Glevum Park with only a single point.

Following the calamitous defeat against another high-flying opponent, Bradford Town, the previous week, Mustoe made four changes to his starting line-up, with Will Ramsey absent with injury, Joe Shutt and Josh Aldridge relegated to the bench, and Tom Spencer omitted from the squad completely. Ashley Davies, Joel White and Liam Wright all returned, to add much need experience to the line-up and they were joined by Rovers’ latest signing, as Sammie Hicks made his debut after signing from Cinderford Town on a dual registration.

Cleeve arrived at Glevum Park amidst a spate of injuries, illness and non-availability issues, meaning they started with Archie Haskayne, Jake Parrott, Sam Blackie and a plethora of other regulars, including former Rovers players Mark Pritchett, Kieran Alder and Jake Rhodes. Of interest, when looking at the visiting bench was the inclusion of Brennan Denness-Barrett, who had been Rovers’ top goalscorer – and remained as such – since he last scored in mid-October, but who had seen his Work Experience arrangement terminated in the week leading up to the game and promptly signed for Paul Collicutt’s side.

So, two very much changed line-ups stepped out onto the pitch at 3pm and although this was a meeting between two sides with very much contrasting fortunes since their 0-0 draw on 16 October 2021 at Evesham, Rovers started brightly, matching their visitors in the early stages.

Dominik Kent had an early effort on goal for Mustoe’s side but didn’t trouble Merchant, before Jordan Annear had the first chance for Cleeve without creating issue for Rovers keeper Jack Copland.

Despite the hosts contributing to a competitive game of football, their all too familiar defensive vulnerability was exposed again, on 28 minutes, when they fell behind. Iuean Crowe held off White’s challenge and made enough space to cross the ball to the back post, where Blaine Waugh rose highest to head goalwards, forcing a block save from Copland but the young keeper’s effort was in vain as the loose ball rolled towards the goal and over the line, only just before Jacob Geddes hooked it away. The Assistant Referee didn’t flag for a goal but the match official, Mr Hunt, made the award and was quite correct in doing so.

With the goal came increased confidence and Cleeve were by far the more threatening side as the half progressed. Crowe should have scored, but he couldn’t get over a ball that fell into his path in the six-yard box. Steve Davies was a busy presence for the visitors but although he had a couple of speculative efforts on goal, Copland wasn’t forced into many saves and the first half ultimately closed without any addition to the score.

The opening moments of the second period very much resembled the closing moments of the first, with chances sparse but both sides competing to get a grip on the game, making for an absorbing contest. Fin Gwillim, who had scored four against Rovers U18s for Cleeve’s U18s in a recent youth fixture was introduced, for Crowe, on 58 minutes as Collicutt looked to press home his side’s advantage.

Copland might have been at risk of being the busier keeper but, for once, his defence served him proudly, making a succession of blocks and tackles that held Cleeve at bay. However, they looked to have been on the path to another defeat when Waugh netted his second on 68 minutes, rising highest to head home Davies’ corner kick, with the goal awarded despite claims that Warren Mann had cleared the ball from the line after it had initially bounced down off the opposite post.

Shutt was then introduced from the bench, with Aldridge added three minutes later, for Hicks and Jack Beardsell, then Aaron Basford was added, for Kent, as Mustoe made all his changes in the space of six minutes. The visitors then made two changes themselves, with Denness-Barrett and Elliot Kennedy on for Annear and Davies, the second coming with just seven minutes remaining.

When Harvey Greenslade, who had made such an emphatic impression on his debut two weeks previous, cut in from the left before spearing a wonderful shot beyond Merchant and into the bottom corner from 20 yards, after 87 minutes, it seemed like Rovers had a consolation goal but driven on by Ashley Davies, who had been magnificent in the centre of midfield, Rovers launched an attacking effort that had been the only thing missing from an otherwise positive performance.

Sixty seconds later, Shutt whipped a ball into the six-yard box and as Davies looked to hook the ball home Will Turner made a good block but the ball fell into the path of Basford, who showed wonderful composure to smash the ball beyond Merchant from five yards out.

The equaliser was nothing more than Mustoe’s side deserved on an afternoon when they had showed a mettle that had been largely non-existent in recent months. When the referee’s whistle sounded a couple of minutes later it called time on a fantastic spectacle that could have gone either way but ultimately concluded with the points split, one apiece.

In the process of salvaging a point from the jaws of what seemed like another defeat, Rovers edged just a little further away from the relegation places at Step 5, increasing hopes that Mustoe can mastermind an end to the season that will ensure football at the same level in 2022/23. Four points from his first five games as manager doesn’t sound like a reason for too much celebration, but when balanced against a return of zero points in ten league games prior to his managerial debut it makes for promising reading and gives Rovers’ supporters genuine hope of survival.