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Half-time team talk: Faith in Rovers misplaced, but Luton can turn things around; Hopefully those with ante-post vouchers for Bristol Rovers have recovered their stake by opposing them every week.

Byline: Paul Johnson

ANY normal, fallible, human football punter is almost guaranteed to have one ante-post selection that would be best swept under the carpet, a choice that causes a blush of embarrassment to race to the cheeks whenever the team's name is mentioned.

Last year it was Stirling Albion who caused the sackcloth and ashes to be donned; this time it is Bristol Rovers who have brought shame to these columns.

The idea that the return of Gerry Francis, a terrace legend for his exploits when manager in the late 1980s, could outweigh the club's lack of the proverbial pot, has proved misguided, to put it euphemistically. And, ironically for a club who have frittered away more strikers than soft Mick, their problems have been compounded by the lengthy injury lay-offs of Nathan Elllington, their one danger up front.

Hopefully those unfortunate enough to be saddled with ante-post vouchers for Rovers have recovered their stake and more by opposing them on a weekly basis before bookies twigged just how limited they were, notably at the end of October when Plymouth did the business carrying as near to maximum confidence as your correspondent can muster.

The superbly-organised Pilgrims, suggested here as each-way material early in the season, are now worthy favourites for the title. Anyone who witnessed their goalless draw at Cheltenham last month will understand why they have lost only two of their 22 league games and boast easily the best defensive record in the Nationwide League, having conceded just one goal in their last ten starts.

But, with talented goal-scoring midfielder David Friio in their ranks, they are always capable of pinching the points, as they did at home to Darlington on Saturday in one of their least convincing home displays of the season.

That win showed they can cope without target man Mickey Evans, who has just started a ban, but there are too many points still up for grabs for Argyle to warrant odds-on quotes and even at 6-4 they are resistible.

Hull are a solid enough side who may well claim one of the automatic promotion places, as indeed they ought to, given their close-season spending spree and the proven track record of manager Brian Little. Yet the fact they have lost three of their last six Third Division matches suggests they are not about to carry all before them in the second half of the season.

At current prices Mansfield are the obvious value call, given they have put four past both Hull and Luton at Field Mill, but anyone availing themselves of the whopping odds will be having kittens every time the name of striker Chris Greenacre is linked with a bigger club between now and transfer deadline day.

LUTON were hugely disappointing in a 4-1 drubbing at Macclesfield where their keeper Carl Emberson twice watched long-range efforts sail over his head into the net, but have steadied the ship since with wins over Hartlepool and Rushden.

Jean Louis Valois, tagged the poor man's David Ginola when he arrived at Kenilworth Road, has shed much of his early sparkle but is potentially a cut above this division and there are other Hatters' players who are capable of operating at a higher level.

Luton boss Joe Kinnear has always proclaimed his intention to win the title and, with a reasonable depth to his squad and the prospect of one or two more significant signings, his team must be possibilities, even though it is disconcerting they have lost to all of the other sides in the top five.

Rochdale can safely be dismissed from the championship equation, even though they are currently in with a shout of landing at least the place element of this column's ante-post handicap investment.

Dale lost manager Steve Parkin to Barnsley early last month and have been pretty unconvincing since, beating only Bristol Rovers in five league starts and scrambling a 1-0 FA Cup replay win over minnows Tamworth before being outclassed by Blackpool in the next round. New boss John Hollins started his Spotland career with a home defeat by Southend on Saturday.

Far more interesting for those wishing try to squeeze out some each-way value are Scunthorpe, despite the loss of midfielder Richard Kell with a broken leg in Saturday's 2-1 derby win over Hull. The Iron possess two of the most gifted players in the basement in Peter Beagrie and Lee Hodges and their strikers Martin Carruthers and Steve Torpey are nothing if not vastly experienced.

Leaders' best prices at the start of

the season: Plymouth 20-1 (Hills), Luton 15-2 (Stan James, Super Soccer), Mansfield 66-1 (Stan James), Hull 11-2 (Super Soccer), Rochdale 25-1 (Chandler, Ladbrokes, Stan James), Shrewsbury 50-1 (Stan James), Scunthorpe 25-1 (Coral, Ladbrokes, Sunderlands), Cheltenham

25-1 (Heathorns, Hills, Ladbrokes), Rushden 11-1 (Chandler, Tote).

CAPTION(S):

Luton's Jean-Louis Valois, who looks to be a cut above in Division Three, is tackled by Swansea's Nick Cusack
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Dec 18, 2001
Words:820
Previous Article:Football: Fall from grace starts here for Toon Army.
Next Article:Half-time team talk: Bold Brechin look to have the title sewn up already.


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