When Mark McGhee was handed the Bristol Rovers hotseat his task was to fortify a house made of straw. Nearly four months into the job, the Scot has laid foundations for progress during the close season.
Paul Buckle’s command of the club was cut short with Rovers languishing in 19th, only a quarter of their League 2 games having ended in victory and with a miserable goal difference of -17 to boot.
The new resilience and defensive work ethic instilled under McGhee was instantly recognisable. Over the course of Buckle’s final four games at the helm the Pirates had conceded 14 goals; it wasn’t until the new manager’s 16th appearance in the dugout that they had relinquished the same number.
With the bulk of the defensive issues resolved, the past two home games have seen the new look Rovers turn their attention to the opposition goal with a 7-1 win against Burton Albion a fortnight ago, followed by a 5-1 thrashing of Accrington on Saturday.
Lead superbly by the twin jewels of Mustapha Carayol and Matt Harrold, the Gas put Stanley to the sword with a display of flowing football that will raise hopes of a promotion push come the new season.
In the reverse fixture back in December, Carayol had terrorised the Accrington defence to the point that defender Peter Murphy sacrificed himself to a red card with a cynical late challenge on the winger, but with just 22 minutes played he had already punished the visitors twice.
First, the Gambian clipped over a cross for Harrold to nod past Ian Dunbavin, before a typically skilful run had the Stanley defence on the back foot once again.
Having blazed into the box, Carayol got a touch of revenge on Murphy, drawing a desperate challenge and winning a spot-kick from the 22-year-old. It left Harrold the opportunity to net his 18th of the season, a chance he took with aplomb, powerfully beating the keeper with a swoop of his right instep.
Two became three within the first half hour. Carayol combined in the build-up to Harrold’s cross, on-loan midfielder Andy Dorman putting forward a case for a permanent contract. With coaching manual technique the Wales cap volleyed sweetly across Dunbavin to claim his second goal since joining from Crystal Palace.
Most of the creases had been ironed out by McGhee, but there was evidence that his transformation is not yet complete. Scott Bevan allowed a seemingly innocuous corner from Kevin McIntyre to slip through his grasp and into the top corner.
However, where heads would have dropped following the goal during the first part of the season, the home side comfortably rode out a spell of Accrington pressure before stepping out reinvigorated for the second half.
By the time substitute Matt Lund had converted another Carayol cross to restore the three goal advantage Bevan had restored a sense of personal pride with a series of saves, including an improbable reflex stop from Padraig Amond.
Lund was on hand to double his personal tally and add Rovers’ fifth, this time without direct involvement from either Carayol or Harrold. Wayne Brown’s cross, dug out from the byline, was left to bounce through by the latter, but the Stoke loanee’s finish was both impressive and emphatic.
This was quite a way to end the season at the Memorial Stadium, with just a trip to Dagenham & Redbridge left for Rovers, but what will make better reading for the faithful support is that McGhee maintains an unbeaten record over his nine games in Bristol.
Though the overriding mood around the club and its short-term future is positive, there remain questions over players in various positions and, though progress has been made, there will be a certain amount of rebuilding and fine tuning required over the summer months.
But what McGhee has formed from the patchwork squad inherited in January, coupled with his long and successful track record in Football League management, can leave supporters heading into the summer break with an air of quiet confidence that, this time, they finally have a man who can take the club forward.