The ironic cheers in the supporters’ club bar after the game when Sky Sports showed the League One table, with Rovers planted firmly at the bottom, said it all.
Yesterday was a chastening experience for Darrell Clarke and his players. Rovers are at a certain level, but they are not at the level of this Posh side. In the last two seasons, we have struggled to take points off the best sides in the league. I think yesterday may turn out to be another example of that. Peterborough threw a bucket load of cash at a string of signings this summer and they have built a squad which, even at this early stage, looks capable of being there or thereabouts at the end of April.
Rovers weren’t really at the races until the half hour mark. Yes, we looked like we might score, but at no point did it look as if we were going to win. Posh utilised the high-pressing game in the way Spurs did when they strangled the life out of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side last season. And they were quick, strong and effective. As soon as the ball was played back to Adam Smith, Junior Morais went after him and he was backed up by his team-mates who sprinted to shut down Lee Brown and Danny Leadbitter if Smith found the time to spray the ball wide. Their pressing harassed Browner and Ryan Sweeney into thumping long balls up to Ellis Harrison and Tom Nichols, where Posh’s three centre backs gobbled up every 50/50. At times it looked as if Ellis Harrison and Tom Nichols had almost given up trying to win headers against the triple towers.
Leadbitter was having a torrid time trying to stop wave after wave of attack coming down his side. He missed his first attempt at a tackle and left Gwion Edwards with acres of space to sprint away and fire across the six-yard box, where Ryan Sweeney’s block only succeeded in landing the ball at the feet of Jack Marriott who finished with ease after only six minutes. Rovers lacked a real attacking threat as Billy Bodin struggled to get into the game. As the North Terrace reverberated with shouts of ‘wake up, Gas’ and ‘Change it, DC’, the manager did change it. Rovers were being so badly over-run in the centre with the outstanding Anthony Grant pulling the strings, that Clarke pulled Nichols back from partnering Ellis, into the wide left position of the three, allowing Stuart Sinclair to add some much-needed bite in the middle where Liam Sercombe and Chris Lines were like frustrated passengers waiting for a delayed train as the ball was pinged around them.
The Gas didn’t have their first meaningful effort on goal until the 30th minute when Nichols shot was blocked by the keeper’s feet and even when Bodin rattled the bar in first half stoppage time we were still swimming against a fluorescent yellow tide.
DC clearly read the riot act at the break, and it appeared to have the desired effect. Rovers moved the ball quicker, took players on and played higher up the pitch and it almost paid dividends immediately. Sercombe had a shot from distance well saved.
Nichols then had a shot spectacularly tipped over the bar. But the best chance of an equaliser fell to Ellis Harrison who with time and space inside the box smashed a volley high over the bar. The miss let Posh off the hook and they made the most of it. Two minutes later, a poor ball by Sweeney let in Morais, who spotted Marriott in space, and the £750,000 signing from Luton slotted home his second of the game.
A couple of goalmouth scrambles ensued after the introductions of Rory Gaffney and Byron Moore for Lines and Harrison, but it was all in vain as Posh, who in all honesty controlled the game bar a 10-minute spell at the start of the second half, scored again. This time a corner was flicked goal-wards, looped over the advancing Smith and ex-Newcastle defender Steven Taylor was on hand to prod it over the line. The third goal saw hundreds of Rovers supporters head for the exits, something which is not only disappointing but which I haven’t witnessed since we collapsed against Charlton at the Mem last season.
Fans flooding out seemed to affect the players as the atmosphere in the stadium turned from frustration to anger, and Marriott rubbed salt in the wounds at the death with a tap in to make it four. In his post-match interview, DC described some player’s performances as ‘powder puff’ and quite rightly so. This was a poor performance, one of the poorest I have seen. In the first half, we were slow, lacklustre and lacked energy. There was little or no quality. As I said earlier, Posh have pushed the boat out financially, but Rovers haven’t had any trouble matching bigger clubs with more spending power in the past. Last season, we battered Blades at their place and should have won at Bolton. Yesterday, we not only lacked skill. but there was little fight. Confidence and composure went missing for spells too, particularly early on when we were unable to get a foothold in the game.
It is easy to be downhearted after a defeat like this and it is easy to tar all the players with the same brush. If this wasn’t a one off, and let’s be honest, we all knew we had a tough start to the season, there could be trouble ahead. We had momentum for three seasons. Have we stalled? Are these players, a year older, and having given their all in the famous quarters, still good enough? We will see.
Last season, we lost at Scunthorpe on the first day and the prophets of doom were out in force. Scunny made the play offs. We didn’t. The year before, J.J O’Toole’s bullet header for Cobblers did for us and they won the league. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water after two defeats, the first of which was controversial, to say the least. However, on yesterday’s showing, I would say Danny Leadbitter, at fault for at least two of the goals, may take a while to get his confidence back. Edwards had the better of him going forward and was rarely troubled with his back to goal. Sinclair works incredibly hard but he was up against Anthony Grant, a player with a remarkable engine, but outstanding quality too. Even Tom Lockyer and Chris Lines looked lost yesterday and Ellis Harrison had a horrible afternoon. Admittedly, he was isolated against a back three, but watching him fling his arms up in the air instead of getting on his bike and trying to win the ball back when Sweeney’s pass failed to find him, summed up his, and the team’s performance. Next up is Bury away, Fleetwood home and Bradford away. It doesn’t get any easier …