I am sorry I wasn’t at the Memorial Stadium today. Not particularly because I would have been pleased to see the Gas lose to a team near the foot of the Southern League – far from it – but because of who came on as substitute for Chesham United in the FA Cup round against Bristol Rovers. Only Mister Barry Hayles, that’s who.
We signed him in 1997 from Stevenage Borough where he had been scoring for fun. He scored for fun for us, too, scoring 32 goals in 62 games. Time plays tricks with the memory, doesn’t it, because I somehow thought he had been there longer than that. He was a force of nature, a pocket battleship. Immensely strong, sharp in front of goal, Hayles had the X factor. Very good player on the pitch, a lovely bloke off it and fans loved him for both. That’s where the “Mister Barry Hayles” introduction came from. Nick Day, out matchday PA announcer, always called him that and it sounded just right.
Hayles is 43 now so his powers are well on the wane, but I am proud to say my old Gashead friends gave the great man a standing ovation when he came on today. Even though Rovers were tumbling to a humiliating defeat, they rose above their disappointment at what, from all accounts, was a dismal performance to remember, salute and thank an old friend for outstanding service from another era. He left 17 years ago, for goodness sake, so many of the younger supporters will only know about him as an ex player. Those of us longer in the teeth will recall a brighter day, in League One, with a charismatic young manager, Ian Holloway at a club that had not long returned from an enforced stay in Bath.
Those were the days, the late 1990s, when we believed a return to what is now the Championship was not far away. With Hayles knocking in the goals, we nearly made it too, losing in the play off semi final to Ian Atkins’ Northampton Town. Compared to what followed, certainly following the botched promotion drive of 2000, it was generally downhill. The era of the much derided Dunford family looks like a golden era compared to the grinding inertia that has persisted under the dead hand of bungling chairman Nick Higgs.
The Rovers of 1998, fast, exciting, attacking football, ambitions of the Championship; the Rovers of 2015, back from a catastrophic fall into the Conference, but now losing in the FA Cup to a team from the lower echelons of the Southern League.
That Hayles has returned in middle age to be part of a non league team that has turned over the club whose fans still worship him, as they should, is yet another embarrassment in a long line of embarrassments at Bristol Rovers.
I have long given up on change coming to Bristol Rovers. It will only happen if the fans make it clear to the custodians who own the club, but only the bricks and mortar and not the spirit, that they have to do better. There is no indication, yet, that enough people do want better, do want to feel as good as they did when Ollie was our manager and Barry Hayles was scoring our goals. Darrell Clarke could be the one to do that, if only he didn’t have to manage with at least one hand tied behind his back. I suspect if Nick Higgs was a chairman of a different Bristol club, he would have been run out of town by now, but then, apparently, I’m bitter and twisted with an axe to grind. Well, no I’m not and no I haven’t, not any more. But I lost the argument a decade ago, maybe even longer.
Great to see Barry Hayles back at the Mem, great to see Gasheads remembering this top player and top man, bad to see Bristol Rovers humiliated in the FA Cup and in League Two. There has to be a better way, but we’ve been saying that for decades, haven’t we, and there are no signs that the powers-that-be have any idea what or where it is.