By Tony Leighton
Bristol Rovers will head into their Tuesday evening clash with Port Vale knowing that victory will virtually seal their Football League survival.
That situation, with eight games of the npower League 2 season remaining after Vale's visit to the Memorial Stadium, represents a remarkable turnaround in fortunes since John Ward was appointed manager just before Christmas.
When Ward arrived back at the club he had managed for three years during the 1990s, a relegation battle was being fought as the Pirates lay firmly entrenched in the drop zone after a run of eight defeats in 10 matches.
The transformation which has followed has seen 27 points collected in Ward's 15 matches to date - that's a points tally which, extrapolated over a full season, would almost certainly guarantee at least a Play-Off place.
"To give ourselves a chance of staying in the Football League," Ward told football-league.co.uk: "We had to play to that level from day one.
"On that first day I got to the club, mind you, I had only 12 fit players - and six of them were either first or second year professionals.
"The treatment room was full of players and that was the problem that [previous manager] Mark McGhee had suffered with.
"I got a few breaks, like having games postponed during the cold snap we had and that gave me time to get players fit and bring new ones into the club.
"When we recruited I concentrated on the spine of the team and we brought in strong players who've really helped us. That in turn has helped the young boys in the squad to progress and we've really come on as a team."
Ward is now aiming to guide his side to complete safety as soon as possible, and a meeting with currently out of form Vale could bring three valuable points.
Micky Adams' team are second in the table but, after collecting only one point from their last four matches, they are having a dangerous wobble.
Ward is not expecting his opponents' slide to continue, however. "People say this is a good time to play Port Vale," he noted, "but I'll only know that after the game.
"They've had a tricky spell, but I've got big respect for Micky Adams and I see them as being one of the top three come the end of the season.
"They've won 10 away games this season so perhaps they're more relaxed away from home. But whether that's the case or not, we're in for a tough night.
"If we can win and other results go our way though, we could go up a couple more places to 15th and I've been telling the players that must be our aim now, to keep on pushing the teams above us and hopefully keep climbing the table.
"I've not set the lads a points target, but I have told them, 'don't look back.' We shouldn't be looking over our shoulders any longer, we have to look forward."
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