Bristol Rovers. . .1
ELSEWHERE there were better chances of bigger Cup upsets than Bristol Rovers beating Aston Villa, but this seemed to be the place to find a rare conflict: and so it was. Ron Atkinson's Villa and a team now inspired by Malcolm Allison, managers from different eras but with similiar imaginations, clashed with style and thought, and in the end could not be separated.
This was a meeting on two levels. There was the match itself, potential champions of all England against a side likely to finish the season satisfied if they are the best in Bristol and can fend off relegation from the Division that calls itself the First but still threatens its failures with removal to what everyone knows is in effect the Third.
And then there was the touchline meeting of the two flamboyant men of past and present: Allison, in his 65th year but no more retiring than he was all of those years ago when he directed wonderful Manchester City teams, and Atkinson, who has always been the kind of man who breaks open champagne with Monday lunch but knows that this season brings him his most serious chance of proving that he really knows what he is about.
Since he took over from Dennis Rofe in November, Allison had inspired Rovers to a promising run, but last Monday should have put everything in perspective. Rovers had lost at home to Southend, while Villa had dominated Arsenal and moved to within three points of the top of the Premier League.
Often the Cup respects no such logic and favours the meek. Rovers were almost instantly favoured with the referee's curious interpretation of the rules when he failed to send off or even take the name of their goalkeeper, Gavin Kelly, when he stretched an arm to stop the ball outside the area - the offence for which Everton's Neville Southall was sent off last Monday.
The touch of luck allowed Rovers to keep abreast of Villa, who again had to omit Dalian Atkinson and relied heavily on the strength of Paul McGrath and Shaun Teale in a defence kept under pressure by a Bristol attack that rarely stopped pressing them back. An early, sliding clearance by Kevin Richardson was typical as he took the ball away from Marcus Browning, who had collected a perceptive header into the area by Andy Tillson.
Villa's loss of Steve Staunton after only 17 minutes with concussion compounded their difficulties. The Saunders with the best chances throughout was Rovers' Carl, who several times troubled Nigel Spink, and was certainly not intimidated by the reputation of the Villa central defenders. Villa's own counter-attacking style was usually stifled, but after 38 minutes they forced a corner which Stephen Froggatt curled in, Dwight Yorke deflected and the substitute Neil Cox volleyed in from two yards out.
Rovers had contributed too much to deserve falling behind, yet when they conceeded a penalty early in the second half, it was difficult to afford them sympathy. Richardson had sent Yorke scampering away but as he sped through the area Steve Yates took his heels. In the preamble to Dean Saunders' strike, Kelly had his name taken for time-wasting. The effect of the delay was to unnerve Saunders whose penalty Kelly turned round the post. After an hour Allison ambled along the infield as if to direct Rovers from the bridge. The effect was invigorating as Rovers threw themselves into blanket attacks.
All through the game Villa had offered Rovers space between the half-way line and the area. It was there, on the left side, after 73 minutes that Browning took possession and ran some 20 yards without interruption and finished with a fine, low drive in off the near post.
Dean Saunders ought to have made the replay on Wednesday, 13 January, unnecessary when he was left with time and space close in but hit his shot against the post.
Aston Villa: N Spink; E Barrett, S Staunton (N Cox, 17 min), S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, G Parker, D Saunders, D Yorke (C Regis, 79 min), S Froggatt. Manager: R Atkinson.
Bristol Rovers: G Kelly; I Alexander, A Tillson, S Yates, P Hardyman, R Evans, M Browning, M Stewart (D Mehew, 67 min), J Taylor, C Saunders, G Waddock. Sub not used: G Twentyman. Manager: M Allison.
Referee: R Nixon (West Kirby).
Goals: Cox (1-0, 38 min), Browning (1-1, 73 min).
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