Fixture: Bristol Rovers v Northampton Town
Date/kick-off time: Saturday, August 8, 3pm kick-off
Venue: Memorial Stadium, Bristol
Weather forecast: 23C, sunny
Outs and doubts: Bristol: Mark McChrystal (knee). Cobblers: Evan Horwood (groin), Brendan Moloney (knee)
Betting: Bristol 13/10, draw 23/10, Cobblers 21/10
Form guide: Bristol LLLLWW, Cobblers WWDLDW
Likely line-ups: Bristol (4-4-2): Mildenhall; Lockyer, Brown, Parkes, Brown; Monakana, Sinclair, Lines, Montano; Taylor, Easter. Northampton (4-2-3-1): Clarke; Lelan, Diamond, Cresswell, Buchanan; Byrom, Corry; Potter, Adams, D’Ath; Richards.
Most recent meeting: Saturday, March 1, 2014 – Northampton Town 0 Bristol Rovers 0
Cobblers connection: Having been born and raised in Bristol, new Northampton goalkeeper Ryan Clarke will be keen to start against his former club this weekend. The 33-year-old began his career with the Pirates at the age of 18 and went on to play 23 times in a six-year spell at the club which also included loan spells at Southend United, Kidderminster Harriers and Forest Green Rovers. He then moved to Salisbury followed by six-year stint at Oxford United – where he played under current Northampton boss Chris Wilder – before signing for the Cobblers in July.
James Heneghan’s preview: So here we are again. Barely two months after the 2014/15 Sky Bet League Two season ended with the play-off final – 77 days to be precise – we’re about to do it all over again and the Cobblers begin their new campaign with a trip to recently-promoted Bristol Rovers.
It’s far from a straightforward start, but while off field issues remain unresolved, the Cobblers can head to the south west with a quiet sense of optimism, largely thanks to an encouraging pre-season campaign coupled with an exciting batch of new signings.
Boss Chris Wilder has been busy during the summer with nine new faces on board and this weekend’s clash could potentially see a host of Northampton debutants. Either Adam Smith or Ryan Clarke will start in goal, young defender Josh Lelan will start at right-back if Brendan Moloney doesn’t pass a late fitness test and there will likely be starts for David Buchanan, Nicky Adams and Alfie Potter.
Pre-season is, of course, a dangerous way to gauge where a team is at when coming into a new season, but there can be no arguing that Wilder’s side have shown some encouraging signs in their seven friendlies that yielded four wins, one defeat and two draws, particularly in their performances against Championship sides Derby County and Birmingham City. Jon Brady and Gary Rowett, managers of teams who have faced the Cobbers in pre-season, both expressed how impressed they are by the current crop at Sixfields, with Brady labelling them as “the best Northampton team” he has seen in recent years.
Facing a newly-promoted side on the opening day of the season, particularly away from home, is rarely a straightforward task, and Bristol will have high hopes of building on last year’s success following their return to the Football League after one year of exile in the Conference.
Rovers endured mixed fortunes in a pre-season programme which culminated in a 4-0 defeat to West Brom last weekend and also included manager Darrell Clarke branding their loss at Cheltenham Town as “awful”, but as previously mentioned, pre-season form is so rarely indicative of what lies ahead and the Cobblers will have to be wary of a side still on a high following their dramatic penalty shoot-out win in the play-off final against Grimsby just 11 weeks ago.
Stevenage, Exeter and Crawley are sides who have all won promotion from the Conference and then gone straight up from League Two the following season and that will no doubt be in the sights of Clarke and his men.
The Pirates have stuck with the bulk of the squad that won them promotion, although new additions do include former West Ham United midfielder Christian Montano as well as Chris Lines, who has re-signed on a permanent deal having spent time on-loan at the club last season.
It’s always tricky to predict how the first game of a brand new season will unfold, and I’m expecting a classic, cagey opening day draw. Cue a 4-4 thriller.
Prediction: Bristol Rovers 1 Northampton Town 1