Wanderers suffered back-to-back defeats in League One for the first time in 14 months to complete a tough week at the top end of the table, writes Pete Oliver.
After a first loss in 12 games at leaders Portsmouth on Monday night, for once Ian Evatt’s men couldn’t bounce straight back as first-half goals wrapped around the dismissal of Ricardo Almeida Santos proved just too much of an obstacle to overcome.
Eoin Toal’s late reply in a second half totally dominated by the Whites raised hopes of snatching a point from an impressive fight-back with 10 men.
But Wanderers couldn’t find a way through again as they suffered a first home defeat in seven games stretching back to early October.
With Josh Sheehan serving a one-match ban, Aaron Morley returned to the Wanderers’ midfield and Jack Iredale also earned a re-call in two changes to the side that had started the defeat at Fratton Park
That first loss in a dozen games had the Whites looking for a positive response and they had to try and do it the hard way after falling behind 10 minutes in.
Rovers had scored four times away from home in a mid-week FA Cup replay at Crewe to secure a first win under new boss Matt Taylor and picked up where they left off when Grant Ward crossed low for John Marquis to convert inside the six-yard box.
That gave the Gas something to hold onto and two of their players had been booked inside the opening half-hour for time wasting as they tried to make it a frustrating afternoon for the Whites.
It was becoming that way as Wanderers had plenty of the ball without being able to find a way through the visitors’ defence and the Whites’ task then became even more difficult when Santos was sent off 12 minutes before the break.
A rare slip from the skipper allowed Aaron Collins a clear run at goal and a clip on the Rovers’ forward to prevent him shooting resulted in an inevitable red card for Santos and a change in personnel with Will Forrester sent on to plug the defensive gap at the expense of frontman Dion Charles.
Wanderers needed time to re-group and reach the break just one down but were quickly hit by another blow as Rovers doubled their lead four minutes before half time.
Again, the Whites allowed a delivery into their box from Collins and this time Antony Evans drilled the ball home to put the Pirates in even firmer control.
Evatt’s men needed to find some kind of reply and came out fighting at the start of the second half with a spell of pressure in and around the Rovers’ penalty area as they desperately tried to find the goal that could give them a route back into the game.
The home fans tried to lift their side as Wanderers forced a flurry of corners and did everything but score as Rovers made a succession of goalline blocks and keeper Matt Cox made one excellent save to deny Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.
Virtually all of the game was played in the Rovers’ half and with 20 minutes to go Wanderers made a further triple substitution in the hope of finally forcing a break-through and make it a nervy finish.
And with six minutes to go it came to give the Whites’ renewed hope as a free-kick from Randell Williams was deflected across the goalmouth where Toal showed superb reactions to reach the ball first and flick home his second goal of the season.
The visitors were hanging on but with time on their side – and only five minutes added at the end – they had just enough in hand to repel Wanderers long enough to deny the Whites the point which would have kept them in the top three with one game to go before Christmas.
Wanderers: Baxter; Jones, Almeida Santos, Toal; Morley; Dacres-Cogley, Maghoma (Dempsey 60), Thomason (Mendes Gomes 72), Iredale (Williams 72); Charles (Forrester 40), Bodvarsson (Adeboyejo 72). Substitutes: Ashworth, Jerome.
Booked: Forrester, Baxter, Dempsey, Williams
Bristol Rovers: Cox; Wilson, Taylor, Evans; Thomas (Martin 86), Ward (Woods 77), Finley, Vale; Collins; Evans, Marquis (Hoole 80). Substitutes: Ward, Grant, Sinclair, Martin, Brown.
Booked: Finley, Thomas, Taylor
Referee: Carl Brooks
Attendance: 19,534 (703 away)