A Cheltenham Town XI came back from 3-0 down to defeat Bristol Rovers 4-3 in a reserve friendly.
A strong Cheltenham Town reserve XI eventually overcame a youthful Bristol Rovers side in an entertaining friendly encounter.
A first half hat-trick from Rovers front man Mitch Harding gave the away side a commanding 3-1 lead at the interval but a resurgent Robins team stepped up a gear in the second half to run out 4-3 winners.
First team regulars Steve Elliott, Sam Deering, Terry Gornell and David Noble were all named in the starting eleven with Zack Kotwica and Ashley Vincent also given a chance to impress ahead of the visit of Rochdale this weekend.
A lively start saw Rovers chalk up a 2-0 advantage after only 15 minutes. Rovers had been looking dangerous down the right hand side and they took the lead in the 12th minute after Alefe Santos’ cross was spilt by Rivers, leaving former Gloucester loanee Harding a simple tap in. Their lead was doubled only three minutes later when Matt Gill’s corner was met by Harding who leapt high to send a powerful header beyond Harvey Rivers.
After the first 20 minutes Bristol were firmly on top. Midfielder Matt Gill in particular was causing problems for the Cheltenham defence with some testing deliveries from corners. A short corner to Hunter looked a threat but his shot was blasted over the cross bar.
Cheltenham’s real first foray forward ended with a weak shot from Vincent that provided Gough with his first save of the match. Shortly after the half hour mark Cheltenham registered their first corner after a direct dribble from Zack Kotwica but the corner came to nothing.
With about ten minutes until the interval Rovers looked in control and composed in possession. A loose pass from David Noble allowed Shaquille Hunter to run at Elliott Keightley - he beat him with a clever flick inside but his shot was well saved from Harvey Rivers to stop the Rubies going three down.
However from the resulting corner Cheltenham did go three down. Some poor defending saw Andersen rise to head a Gill corner back across goal and Harding was on hand to apply a flicked finish to seal his hat-trick after 38 minutes. It was a soft goal to concede but Bristol Rovers were good value for their lead.
Cheltenham responded with some good wing play from Vincent and then Kotwica which suggested the Robins were finally starting to find some rhythm. It was their best spell so far and after 44 minutes Sam Deering gave the Robins a lifeline in the game. A clever dummy from young striker Harry Williams allowed Gornell to lay off to Sam Deering, who unleashed a rocket from around 30 yards out which crashed in off the crossbar.
The Robins may well have been on the end of some stern words at half time – and whatever was said seemed to have worked as Steve Elliott nodded in a free header from Noble’s corner after 49 minutes to reduce the deficit to 3-2.
Although this game was a friendly on paper, on the pitch it had been strongly contested in all departments with some tough challenges flying in and both sides trying to win the game. Cheltenham were now firmly in the ascendency and Zack Kotwica attempted to level the scoreline with a firm header from Keightley’s cross, but it was straight at Gough in the Rovers’ goal.
It wasn’t long though until a rejuvenated Cheltenham levelled the game. Some good work from Kotwica saw the ball find Ashley Vincent who delivered a floated cross which was headed in low by Terry Gornell to make it 3-3 after 58 minutes.
Rovers’ reserve team boss Marcus Stewart responded by sending on Jamie Lucas for the pacey Shaquille Hunter but the much improved Robins were now enjoying large spells of possession. Cheltenham were now pressuring for a winner, but Bowen’s scuffed shot from distance and a blocked effort from Gornell didn’t test Rovers keeper Conor Gough.
With one eye on the weekends first team fixture perhaps, Neil Howarth withdrew Noble and Gornell for Bobbie Dale and Adam Powell in the 70th minute. Bristol Rovers also sent on Greenslade in place of Alefe Santos.
Cheltenham were still searching for the winner and the breakthrough came after 77 minutes. Substitute Adam Powell passed to Kotwica and the young winger dribbled into the penalty area, produced a lovely shimmy inside to beat the defender before applying an assured finish from 12 yards.
With ten minutes to go, Cheltenham looked to see the game out but there was an awkward moment when Mitch Harding, looking for his fourth goal of the afternoon, prodded towards Rivers and the ball looked to squirm between the young goalie’s legs, but he managed to hold onto it.
The final action of the game saw Rovers’ substitute Jamie Lucas nearly equalise in dramatic style – he turned well and in one swift movement volleyed towards goal from 25 yards – fortunately for the Rubies his shot came off the post and went safely out for a goal kick.
An encouraging second half performance from Cheltenham and a good run out for the players involved. An impressive showing from Zak Kotwica - who looked dangerous throughout - might put him in Mark Yates’ thoughts for Saturday’s home game.
Full Time: Cheltenham Town XI 4-3 Bristol Rovers XI
Cheltenham Town Reserves Starting XI: Rivers (GK); Keightley, Hamilton, Elliott, Bowen; Vincent, Noble, Deering, Kotwica; Gornell, H. Williams
Bristol Rovers FC Starting XI: Gough (GK); Southway, Keary, Andersen, Green; Santos, Goddard, Gill, Clucas, Hunter; Harding