LISTEN: Rovers’ title hopes in own hands due to Howitt goal

AND then there were two. Rovers took a big step towards reclaiming the Priaulx Cup on Saturday afternoon as they beat the current holders 1-0 and surely ended St Martin’s hopes of retaining the silverware in the process.

Kevin Gillease’s side now lead the third-placed champions by 11 points and while Saints have two games in hand, this was the proverbial six-pointer as far as they were concerned and they came up short against hosts who could, and really should, have won by more.

As it turned out, Blair Howitt’s trademark goal full of power and directness midway through the first half proved decisive on a pitch that passed the morning inspection with flying colours and held up well throughout.

In contrast, an admittedly-understrength Saints lacked a cutting edge and, in truth, were disappointing, particularly in the second half, considering what was at stake.

But that should take nothing away from Rovers who, despite having luck go against them once more in terms of injuries as they lost two of their starting back four before 50min. had been played, were resilient when they needed to be while also posing a threat going forward, especially after the break.

‘We spoke before the game about how important the game was,’ Gillease said.

‘It was a game we had to win, we felt, just to keep that feeling going and making sure that we cemented ourselves at the top and I thought on the day we were brilliant, to be honest.’

‘On another day we would have had three or four, but very happy with the win – very happy.’

The closest Saints came to scoring was inside the first 30 seconds of the game when a long ball forward sliced off a defender’s shin and Callum Le Lacheur won the race with goalkeeper Adam Bullock to knock the ball past him before striking it goalwards, but the retreating Louis Falla was in the right place at the right time to clear off the line.

That would be the most significant contribution that member of the starting Falla centre-back partnership would make as just a dozen minutes later he had to be withdrawn through injury.

The enforced reshuffle saw Niall Hainsworth move inside to partner Saul Falla with Tyler McKane switching to right-back with Colton Fletcher introduced on the left, but the changes had no adverse effect on the blue-and-whites who were soon creating a couple of half-chances with Hainsworth volleying over at a corner before Martin Savident’s shot from 16 yards flew just wide.

As they built some momentum, so the goal arrived on 23min. when Howitt showed why he thrives in such an environment.

Rovers had knocked the ball around nicely for several passes with captain Aidan McKay and Max Simpson-Cohen involved before Howitt injected the impetus, driving forward and playing a neat one-two with Savident to burst into the box and slot the ball past Ollie Harrison into the net via the inside of the right-hand post.

There were a couple of other moments of promise before the break, but play was largely scrappy and players started to find themselves in referee Maged Elsadek’s book as the fouls mounted up.

At half-time the lead seemed slender, especially with Saints having the breeze at their backs in the second half, but it was Rovers who were much the better side, even when McKane’s withdrawal through injury caused another reshuffle.

Max Robin came on in midfield with McKay switching to right-back and it was down that flank where they caused Saints real problems.

Time and again Charlie Platt would beat his marker and find his way to the byline from where he would fizz low balls across the six-yard box that were just begging to be turned home, but neither Savident nor Simpson-Cohen could quite get there.

In fact, the one notable save Harrison had to make was the time Platt himself opted to shoot and the young keeper got down low to push the attempt away.

As the game entered the final 10 minutes, you wondered whether Rovers would be made to pay for their failure to add to their lead, but although there were a couple of anxious moments towards the end, Bullock did not have a save to make.

It was no surprise that Gillease had words of praise for the versatile Hainsworth and McKay afterwards, as well as the eye-catching Platt, but it was Howitt who proved the match-winner on a day when he repaid his coach’s faith to play him in that central role.

‘We looked at what we were up against, what the conditions were, we thought he could just go and express himself today – he’d have that bit of power over everyone and that burst from midfield is what brought about the goal.’

Gillease added that his team’s performance showed the belief they have this season and it has nearly got them to where they want to be.

‘Three games left, just got to get through them.

‘The only way I’m thinking of it is it’s in our hands. We are only thinking about ourselves, we want to go out and win the next three games and that’s job done. That’s all we’re thinking about.’

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