His dramatic right-footed finish in the dying seconds of last season secured him a place in the history books – and in the hearts of Rovers fans forever. But even Lee Brown may not escape the brutal cull manager Darrell Clarke looks set to embark upon to ensure the club secures second tier football in the not too distant future. The club’s longest-serving player, who has racked up over 200 games for The Gas since he signed in June 2011, was ‘rested’ for the 1-1 draw at Vale Park and replaced by Bob Harris, who Clarke picked up on a free.
Before kick off, social media was buzzing with dozens of ‘Where’s Browner?’ tweets from puzzled Gasheads. Despite an unfortunate own goal, which put the home side in front, Harris boarded the team bus with his reputation intact. ‘Browner’ is Rovers through and through and was always considered the ‘first name on the team sheet’, along with skipper Tom Lockyer. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out how he may have felt when he was told he would be starting on the bench against struggling Vale, allowing Harris to make his debut.
Of course, DC may have been ‘saving’ Brown for tough games against Scunthorpe and Bolton Wanderers, or perhaps wanted to give Harris minutes on the pitch in case he is needed in an emergency. The gaffer is known for treating each match as ‘a project’. But on the face of it, Port Vale looked to pose little threat on the right side of their attack. The likelihood, however, is Clarke has seen something during training which persuaded him the Glasgow-born 29-year-old former Sheffield United defender was worthy of a run-out.
I’m sure Brown may have appeared to have taken it in his stride, if the cool, calm and collected temperament he shows when pulling on the famous blue and white quarters is anything to go by. But it would have come as shock, make no mistake about that and privately Brown may have felt his nose was put out of joint. Players hate being ‘rested’, even though managers and coaches frequently reiterate the importance of a squad mentality to cope with the pressures of the modern game and its gruelling fixture lists.
An unfortunate knock suffered in training two days before Rovers took on the high-flying Iron at the Mem saw Brown sidelined once again, giving Harris another opportunity to shine. Gobsmacked fans, unaware of the injury, were left scratching their heads. ‘Brown’s not even in the squad!’ and ‘Must have had a fall out with DC’ were among suggestions muted in the supporters’ club bar before the game. While Gasheads were still coming to terms with the omission of their hero, Harris took his latest opportunity with both hands – or should I say feet. Still searching for match fitness following a long-term injury, Harris looked assured and cultured on the ball, quick when he needed to be and was positionally rock solid. He linked well with Stuart Sinclair, confidently played short balls to feet when he had time and space, and popped teasing passes down the line when there was little else on.
Harris’s emergence from beneath what was supposed to be the large, impregnable shadow of Rovers’ beloved left-back is great news for the club, but bad news for Brown. Rovers’ number 3, who is three years younger than Harris, has been so consistent for so long and seemed bullet-proof in terms of injury issues, that at one point, The Gas almost didn’t require another left-back.
Chelsea loanee Jake Clarke-Salter was signed to cover Brown as well as the left side centre back position or on the left of a back three, but injury put paid to that possibility. During the summer, Darrell Clarke toyed with the idea of converting flying winger Ryan Broom into a left-back to cover Brown, but that concept seems to have been put on the back burner for now. So that leaves Bob and Browner to scrap it out as the first choice left-back and neither has long to prove they are capable of playing week in, week out in a team with aspirations of making it to the Championship toot sweet.
Until a fortnight ago, Brown was the shoe-in, Mr Consistency, the one name fans KNEW would on the team sheet. Not anymore. It will be interesting to see who, when both are fit and raring to go, gets the nod and who can impress DC to such an extent they will start next season as his favoured left full-back for what will be an all guns blazing assault on at least the play-off places. If Brown is eventually deemed surplus to requirements, it will be akin to Claudio Ranieri’s recent departure from Leicester in terms of outpourings of grief on the terraces. But whatever happens, we’ll always have Dagenham.
Featured image credit; Wikimedia Commons