Friday 15 December 2017

Clark cuts Bristol down to size

Bristol Rovers 1 Aston Villa 3

Joe Lovejoy at the Memorial Stadium

The 'Pirates' versus the 'Villans' promised a Johnny Depp-style epic, but this was no FA Cup classic, with the Premier League team overcoming their lowly League Two opponents without great difficulty to claim their place in this afternoon's fourth-round draw.

Goals from Marc Albrighton, substitute Gabriel Agbonlahor and a superb solo effort from Ciaran Clark saw off Rovers on their mudheap of a pitch, which to some degree negated Villa's superior skills. Rovers had token consolation after 90 minutes from Scott McGleish, who then had a penalty saved by Brad Guzan in added-time, but they were well beaten, and now turn their attention to appointing a new manager. Sean O'Driscoll doubled yesterday's disappointment by turning them down.

Upsets, by definition, are a surprise, but this was particularly unpromising territory for the Cup romantics. Rovers, 19th in League Two, had been beaten in their past four matches in the league, where they have lost twice as many as they have won. The manager, Paul Buckle, was sacked in midweek, having signed 21 players in his seven months in charge, to no avail. The last two, the goalkeeper Michael Poke and the centre-back Aaron Downes, were recruited after the decision had been taken to change management.

It never rains but it pours and the Bristol team's minuscule chances were diminished by the absence of their leading scorer, Matt Harrold, with ankle trouble. Small wonder that before the kick-off the crowd sing the lament "Goodnight Irene", with its lyrics about jumping in the river and drowning.

When it comes to popularity with his club's fans, Alex McLeish is only marginally ahead of Blackburn's Steve Kean, and after Villa's defeat at home to Swansea last Monday he could not afford another embarrassment here.

Consequently, unlike some other top-flight managers yesterday, he paraded something like his strongest line-up.

Villa made a tentative start, struggling to come to terms with the uneven pitch that Rovers share with Bristol rugby club. Albrighton made promising inroads on the right, but his crosses came to nothing, and the first chance -- after 17 minutes -- came from the opposite flank; Emile Heskey scooping Stephen Warnock's cross over the bar at close range. When he tried again, the former England blunderbuss had his shot blocked by Downes. Third time lucky? No, Heskey's header, from an Albrighton corner, was tipped over by Poke.

Villa finally took the lead after 34 minutes when Heskey, deep in midfield, supplied Stiliyan Petrov, whose pass inside Gary Sawyer enabled Albrighton to cut in from the right and shoot under the sprawling Poke from 10 yards.

McLeish replaced the blunt instrument that is Heskey with the infinitely more incisive Agbonlahor for the second half, but a combination of the Bristolian mud and Rovers' obduracy continued to thwart their attempts to put the tie to bed. That and the poverty of much of Villa's own play.

Agbonlahor eventually doubled the margin after 64 minutes, when he dispossessed Cian Bolger in midfield and ran on through the middle before cleverly curving a shot low into Poke's left-hand corner.

The third goal, after 77 minutes, suggested Rovers had finally accepted the inevitable, McGleish surrendering possession in midfield to enable Clark to run through unopposed from the centre circle before scoring left-footed from 15 yards.

McGleish partially atoned by lifting the ball over Guzan in the last minute of normal time and in a dramatic finish, out of keeping with the rest of the tie, the Rovers substitute had his a penalty saved after Warnock's handball.


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