Players must take share of responsibility for Jekyll and Hyde campaign so far

Will the real Bristol Rovers please stand up against MK Dons at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday?

Is it the slick outfit who put six past Northampton Town on their own ground – it could have been ten – a fortnight ago? Or the hapless group who shipped four first-half goals themselves at Shrewsbury Town last Tuesday night?

Are we talking about the committed and skilful side who dumped Fulham out of the Carabao Cup and took Wolves to extra-time? Or the team comprehensively beaten by three goals at home to Peterborough United and away to Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth?

Normally, by this stage of a season it is possible to gauge a club’s prospects for the remainder of fixtures with at least some degree of accuracy.

But I confess that with Darrell Clarke’s current pool of players, I’m finding it hard to conclude whether they are set for a play-off challenge, mid-table security, or a relegation battle.

Every time one of those possibilities begins to look likely, Rovers produce a result that confounds such expectations.

You only had to look at the League One table going into yesterday’s match at Rochdale to see what an unpredictable side the Pirates have become.

Eight defeats by mid-October is relegation form. Yet, because Rovers had yet to draw a game, they also boasted six victories, which left them in a respectable, if not spectacular, 13th position.

Consider the roller-coaster campaign so far. There was no disgrace in an opening day 1-0 reverse at Charlton Athletic and when it was followed by a thumping 4-1 Carabao Cup win over Cambridge United at the Memorial Stadium all seemed well.

Defeat by the same score at home to Peterborough made for a poor start in League One, but doubters were quickly silenced by a 3-2 victory at Bury.

Three more victories followed against Fulham, Fleetwood Town in the League and Wycombe Wanderers in the Checkatrade Trophy where Rovers romped to a 5-1 success.

But optimism was then dampened by defeat at Bradford and, while Rovers squeezed home 2-1 against Walsall at the Mem, a shock defeat by struggling visitors Oldham Athletic was compounded by being outplayed at Wigan.

Pride was restored with a luckless Carabao Cup exit at Molineux and the 3-1 home win over Blackpool that followed suggested Clarke’s men were back on the right track.

Instead, that dreadful word ‘inconsistency’ continued to haunt them. A poor effort at Portsmouth preceded a narrow home win over Plymouth Argyle before the six-goal blitz at Northampton provided a great platform to build on.

Even that didn’t prove a launchpad to climbing the table. The performance in defeat at home to Oxford United was acceptable as the visitors played well, but the first-half capitulation at Shrewsbury was unacceptable, particularly the manner in which goals were conceded.

Clarke chose to shoulder the inevitable criticism that followed. “I always question myself first. We let the travelling fans down and I take full responsibility for that,” he said.

In fact, the manager made just one change to the team who had performed well enough against Oxford – Ryan Sweeney replacing Tom Broadbent in central defence – kept the same shape, and was let down by his players on the night.

Liam Sercombe failed to track his man for the first goal and Sam Slocombe should have saved the second. Sweeney and Tom Lockyer could have done more to prevent the third, while the fourth was down to rank bad marking at a set-piece.

Shrewsbury may be carrying all before them this season, but the truth was that they did not have to work hard for their goals. By the interval the game was over and the second-half was merely a damage limitation exercise for the visitors.

Describing a team as inconsistent does not seem the most damning criticism. What it means, however, is that too many players are failing to maintain form over even two or three games.

That is down to the individuals concerned, rather than the manager. Clarke is never more impressive than when assessing defeats and his post-match press conference at Shrewsbury was brutally honest.

“I can only apologise to the fans who have spent a lot of money and travelled a long way to witness that first-half performance,” he said. “Shrewsbury cut through us like butter.

“Aim the criticism at me. I’ll protect my players because it is me who leads them. We haven’t had many lows during my time, but this is up there.”

Footballers get paid a lot of money and shouldn’t need protecting from criticism when dipping below the standards expected of them.

If Rovers are to fulfil pre-season optimism, each member of Clarke’s squad needs to accept a share of responsibility for the campaign so far and work harder to stabilise results.

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.