Bristol Rovers 2 Fleetwood Town 1: VERDICT
For some reason Christmas needs a pantomime villain and Joey Barton was just that for a host of seething Bristol Rovers fans, though the real bad guy was the man in black.
Take Joey Barton and Ched Evans’ names out of Fleetwood Town’s Bristol Rovers’ clash and it would be a tale questioning why referee Brett Huxtable is officiating at League One level.
There was no ‘mass brawl’ as reported in some national newspapers. Just a head coach voicing his frustration at a referee out of his depth after his side had conceded a last-gasp winner.
Had that been Clint Hill, Steve Eyre, Barry Nicholson or David Lucas boiling over, the nationals would not have looked up from their London base.
But throw Barton’s name in and a red card for Evans, and suddenly we are looking at a ‘fiery’ game.
The truth is Evans was sent off for an accidental collision with Tom Lockyer in the 55th minute.
It changed the game, and although Fleetwood did not deserve to win they did not deserve to face the final 30 minutes without their star striker.
Violent conduct was the reason for that straight red. It will be a Christmas miracle if Evans’ red is not overturned after the footage is reviewed.
After Ash Hunter’s sublime piece of skill to open the scoring with an effort from distance, Fleetwood looked to be ending a run of five straight defeats on the road.
But after Gavin Reilly levelled from a corner after some sloppy defending by Fleetwood, the managerless hosts fought back, fuelled by a cauldron of noise.
To say the referee was swayed by the crowd would be unfair but the number of times he went over to chat to his assistants showed Huxtable rarely goes off his own judgment.
Just about the only thing he got right was to rule that Ash Eastham had fairly won the ball with a brilliant last-man tackle to thwart former Town man Alex Jakubiak.
Fleetwood committed 13 fouls, Bristol 14, yet Town received seven yellow cards and the hosts only three.
Yes, Bristol deserved to win the game, the woodwork saving Fleetwood on more than one occasion. But does Barton deserve this pantomime villain tag? No.
Did he lash out at anyone? No. Did he try to tell a referee who had lost control of only his fifth League One game of a season that he was wrong? Yes.
Huxtable got the big decisions wrong.
Barton was rightly shown the red card for dissent towards the referee, no argument about that.
The Town boss has not been happy with the refereeing since he dropped down to this level but he has perhaps voiced his feelings too much.
So on a day when the referee needed to be brought to account, Barton’s words were lost as he became the story – something he should learn from.
Fleetwood’s defence was less than impressive in the first half. The grace of God and the woodwork aided Alex Cairns’ Christmas wish for a clean sheet before Hunter opened the scoring.
The attacker had a blistering start to the season but has been off his normal levels in recent weeks.
But Hunter loves playing against Rovers and notched his fifth of the campaign in some style, sweeping the ball home. He should have scored in the first minute, Evans teeing him up.
But then it was Rovers who had the better chances as former Town flop Jakubiak was a thorn in his old club’s side but he too wasted a fine opportunity by firing over.
Reilly had cannoned the ball into the post, with Alex Rodman somehow failing to divert the ball home unmarked in the six-yard box from the rebound.
But after Evans had stung the palms of Jack Bonham, Hunter stepped up to curl the ball home.
It was a move initiated by Conor McAleny. The right winger teed up Paddy Madden, the forward holding the ball up before Hunter could sublimely curl home.
That 28th-minute strike was cancelled out eight minutes later.
Fleetwood’s defending had been shaky throughout the first half. The new combination of Nathan Sheron and Eastham were under pressure from a Rovers side determined to show what they were capable of despite being without a manager since Darrell Clarke’s exit
The post, Cairns and questionable finishing thwarted the hosts until a corner from the left was flicked into the path of Reilly.
Ross Wallace was out-jumped and the Bristol man nodded home. It was just rewards for the home team.
In the second half Hunter nearly had a second, firing a well-worked corner routine round the post.
And he was on hand to defend, blocking Rodman’s shot before Evans was sent off.
Rovers’ Jakubiak nearly found himself one on one but was thwarted by a last-ditch Eastham challenge.
The crowd chanted “off” ludicrously as the Town defender had clearly won the ball.
Town kept challenging and nearly scored themselves, Lewie Coyle’s strike from distance deflected just wide of the post.
Barton threw on Craig Morgan, Harrison Biggins and Ryan Taylor as Town defended in their numbers.
As soon as the board revealed six extra minutes the crowd rallied, Rovers surged forward with more purpose and Town were fighting for their lives.
James Clarke and Rodman hit the post before Chris Lines’ free-kick eventually fell for Clarke to sweep the ball home.
Ross Wallace had been pushed off the ball by Lines as he waited to take the set-piece – more a case of violent conduct than the Evans red.
The referee booked Lines but Rovers kept the set-piece, scoring to win the game and sparking Barton’s fury.