ONE of the most impressive features of Darrell Clarke’s time as Bristol Rovers boss is the work put in on the training ground.
Not just by the manager himself, but by his coaching staff and players whose attributes include a thick skin and an appetite to learn and improve.
After the 4-1 home de- feat by Peterborough United just 15 days ago, all the talk was of how open Rovers were to Posh at- tacks and how poorly they defended as a team.
A visibly angry Clarke didn’t let the fact that it was the first home League game of the season prevent him being highly critical of the performance.
It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘fluffy’ used by a manager to describe the efforts of certain individuals. Their boss ex- plained he meant it in the sense of mentally weak and stressed that there was no room for such frailty in his teams.
Clarke publicly promised a tough week ahead for the players, describing them as ‘nowhere near’ being the play-off contenders pundits such as yours truly had been labelling them.
Some squads might have considered the comments over the top so early in the campaign, particularly as Rovers had come up against a Peterborough side them- selves strongly fancied to do well.
But Clarke knows his players inside out. No doubt the promised week of hard graft on the training ground followed and the effect was little short of extraordinary.
First Rovers kept a clean sheet until injury time at Bury last weekend, only con- ceding a couple of consolation goals in stoppage time, having built an impressive 3-0 lead.
That was a commendable improvement. What followed at Fulham in the Carabao Cup second round tie the following Tuesday night was a defensive masterclass against opponents, who passed a lot of teams off the pitch in the Championship last season.
Granted, the Londoners fielded a much-changed side, as is the current trend in the early rounds of a competition that merits greater respect.
But Fulham only know how to play one way and had more than enough talent on the pitch to slice their way through League One opposition.
The most incredible statistic of a famous Rovers win was that goalkeeper Sam Slocombe did not have to make a testing save.
Clarke limited himself to three changes, which is reasonable, giving a debut to Arsenal loanee Marc Bola in an unfamiliar right-back role – he is used to playing on the left – and bringing in Stuart Sinclair and Byron Moore for Ollie Clarke and Tom Nichols.
Rovers lined-up with only Ellis Harrison as a lone front-runner and the tactics proved spot-on as Fulham threatened at times down the flanks, but came up against a brick wall down the centre of the pitch and in the opposition penalty area.
From looking vulnerable to virtually every Peterborough attack, Rovers were transformed into a rock- solid outfit, defending from the front and able to absorb continual pressure as the game wore on.
While that owed much to the passion and commitment of the players on the night, it was also positive proof of the work done be- hind the scenes since that 4-1 hammering by Posh.
Harrison took his goal with a calm assurance to cap an incisive move about which Fulham would have taken pride.
There were still 77 minutes to play and for the hosts to go that long without creating a clear chance must have surprised even the 800 Rovers fans who made the trip to Craven Cottage.
Successful seasons have to be built on a solid foundation. Clarke’s men can take huge confidence from such a tight away performance and must now look to repeat it at Bradford City on Saturday.
Before then comes more Cup action at Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday night where Rovers begin their Checkatrade Trophy campaign.
The efforts at Fulham de- served better than another hugely testing trip to Wolves in the Carabao Cup third round and made me wonder what Clarke might achieve given better training facilities.
On that subject Rovers issued a statement on their club website during the week in answer to fans questioning what progress is being made with the new training ground, purchased last February.
It read: ‘Pre-application consultation is ongoing with South Gloucestershire Council.
‘We expect their written feedback on proposals imminity work will not com- mence until official approval has been received.’
It seems that, not for the first time, patience will be a necessary virtue for Rovers followers.