"Goodnight Irene", the odd choice of anthem for Bristol Rovers, rang out at regular intervals from a crowd of more than 10,000 here yesterday evening but in the end and to no great surprise it was goodnight to the home side.
At one of the lowest points in their history and without a manager, they predictably found even the erratic Aston Villa an entirely different proposition from Corby Town and AFC Totton, who in earlier Cup rounds had provided two victories during a dismal season following relegation from League One. The final margin should still have been closer, for after the veteran journeyman Scott McGleish scored in the last minute, his even later penalty was saved by by the otherwise under-employed Brad Guzan.
Villa, 73 places ahead of their opponents in the great scheme of things, endured an uncomfortable first 20 minutes in unfamiliar surroundings and on a soft pitch used by Bristol rugby club, but they controlled matters thereafter, finding themselves allowed to get away with mistakes that would have been punished in the Premier League, where they have recorded only one win in the past five games – paradoxically, at Chelsea.
Alex McLeish, a Carling Cup winner with Birmingham last season, fielded a strong side and was delighted that all three goals came from homegrown players in Marc Albrighton, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ciaran Clark. "We got a wee bit complacent at the end but I felt we controlled it pretty much," he said. McLeish also confirmed that Robbie Keane should arrive on loan from LA Galaxy this weekend and that there is no truth in speculation about Darren Bent leaving.
As the opposing manager it was a daunting first match in charge for Shaun North, who had arrived as assistant to the highly regarded Paul Buckle from Torquay last May, only to find the senior man sacked after five months of football that culminated in four successive defeats and a position in the bottom six of the Football League. Sean O'Driscoll, who once did good work at Doncaster Rovers, is regarded locally as the favourite to take over permanently, ahead of Richard Money. North was also forced to do without his injured leading scorer Matt Harrold, who might have offered a threat as Villa tooka while to settle. Midway through the first half the flow of play changed, as well as Rovers having to replace the injured Mustapha Carayol with the 37 year-old McGleish.
Albrighton began putting over a stream of dangerous crosses and corners from the right, from one of which Emile Heskey had a header turned over the bar in fine fashion by Michael Poke, the goalkeeper on loan from Brighton. Then, 10 minutes from the interval, they scored a straightforward goal. Stiliyan Petrov, the captain, made it with a diagonal pass along the ground to Albrighton, who finished smartly. He should have made the half-time lead more comfortable soon after but volleyed horribly wide from 10 yards.
Heskey did not appear for the second half, having suffered a recurrence of an achilles injury that will keep him out for a month. That had the effect of enlivening Villa's attack with the introduction of the much speedier Agbonlahor, who brought a touch of class to the proceedings with the second goal. Before he had acclimatised, they suffered a nasty moment with McGleish wasting a good chance from Joe Anyinsah's cross. But that was a rare threat from the otherwise toothless Pirates, and in the 65th minute Agbonlahor collected a pass from Clark, wriggled past the central defender Cian Bolger and from 15 yards angled the ball perfectly inside a post. A quarter of an hour later, Clark strode forward himself and finished just as impressively low in the opposite corner. Less distinguished was Richard Dunne's backpass to let in McGleish to score and the striker then hit what he admitted was a poor penalty easily held by Guzan.
Bristol Rovers (4-2-3-1): Poke; Woodards, Bolger, Downes, Sawyer; Stanley, Dorman; Zebroski, Richard (Brown, 79), Carayol (McGleish, 28); Anyinsah (McLaggon, 86).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Hutton, Collins (Gardner, 74), Dunne, Warnock; Albrighton, Petrov (Bannan, 82), Clark, Ireland; Bent, Heskey (Agbonlahor, h-t).
Referee Howard Webb.
Man of the match Albrighton (Aston Villa).
Match rating 6/10.