Critical Clarke faced with selection dilemma ahead of crucial cup game

Darrell Clarke faces one of his most testing selection problems of the season when Swindon Town visit the Memorial Stadium in the Checkatrade Trophy on Wednesday night.

A tough League One game at Scunthorpe United follows three days later and under normal circumstances the manager would treat that as priority, relying on his fringe players for a Cup competition that attracts little interest in its early stages.

But that plan came unstuck against West Ham under-21s last Tuesday evening and now Rovers must beat Swindon to qualify for the last 32.

The disappointing Emirates FA Cup first round defeat at Notts County on Friday night means the Checkatrade Trophy is the only remaining means of adding to the revenue gained from reaching the Carabao Cup third round this season.

That money can become serious in the latter rounds of the competition for League One and Two clubs. It’s worth remembering that a crowd of 74,434 watched the last Checkatrade Trophy final between Coventry City and Oxford United at Wembley last April.

Rovers’ season is in need of the sort of lift a Cup run can provide. And that will surely have Clarke, who was unusually critical of his players after the FA Cup exit, thinking long and hard before settling on a starting line-up against Swindon.

What the game against West Ham under-21s appeared to show is that Rovers do not have the necessary strength in depth to cope with injuries to senior players.

While Clarke handed a full debut to Luke Russe in midfield, the team, beaten 3-1 after taking an early lead, featured more than enough experience to overcome the young Hammers.

Instead, despite Tom Nichols’ second goal in successive games, Rovers ended up well beaten and neither Clarke, nor his assistant Marcus Stewart made any attempt to disguise their frustration.

Said Clarke: “I was very disappointed with the performance. In fact, I was pretty angry, not over any lack of effort, but the way we used the ball.

“The ability wasn’t good enough on the night. One or two people let themselves down in their opportunity to shine.”

Stewart elaborated on the same theme at the post-match press conference, saying: “It was a chance for players to show us what they can do, or what they can’t do as it turned out with one or two of them.

“There will be a lot of lads hurting. When you are a senior player up against youngsters your pride can be hurt and that will hit home in the cold light of day.

“There is no doubt that there were some disappointing performances. Did we get selection right? Probably not, because we lost the game, but at some point you have to give players a chance to prove what they can or can’t do.

“You couldn’t expect the same first team to play against West Ham and then again against Notts County on Friday and get the same energy levels.

“We will learn more about the lads who came in over the next couple of games they play because they will get other opportunities.”

Whether Clarke will be prepared to make one of those opportunities the Swindon game remains to be seen. If he is, and he is let down again, there could be serious consequences for some players.

One to earn praise against West Ham was teenager Russe, given his first start after appearing as a substitute at Wycombe Wanderers in Rovers’ opening Checkatrade Trophy match.

The youngster lined up alongside Stuart Sinclair in central midfield and gave a good account of himself, moving Stewart to describe him as a potential future captain.

But overall it was a worrying night for Rovers, compounded by letting a two-goal lead slip at Notts County and conceding four against a League Two side, albeit an in-form one.

Together with the up-and-down League form, the FA Cup defeat was more evidence of a disappointing campaign to date. The Checkatrade Trophy, for all its detractors, will gather pace and Rovers must do all they can to stay involved.

That means coming out on top on Wednesday evening. If the scores are level against Swindon after 90 minutes there will be a penalty shoot-out to decide who wins and goes through.

At least the Pirates managed to progress in the FA Youth Cup during the week, following a penalty shoot-out win over Forest Green Rovers.

Jordan Carey gave Bristol Rovers a 34th minute lead, but the visitors equalised through a Jordan Stevens penalty shortly afterwards and there were no further goals after extra-time.

Goalkeeper Liam Armstrong was the hero of the shoot-out, which Rovers won 3-1, saving three of the four Forest Green penalties.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.