I wasn’t well enough to go to the Rovers v Gillingham game today, but I wasn’t surprised at the outcome, a 2-1 win to the home team. I was even less surprised by the fact that we scored the winner at the death. We always seem to do that and it isn’t an accident. The teams that the fittest physically and the sharpest mentally are at their strongest throughout the game, rarely running out of steam. Add to that almighty pinches of hunger, desire, confidence, belief and heart, then you have a winning combination. After 12 games, with the team a point off the play offs, five points away from automatic promotion and with a game in hand on almost everyone else, the league table doesn’t lie.
The ‘experts’ didn’t quite see it like that a few short weeks ago, though, did they? Some railed against manager Darrell Clarke’s selections, his tactics and even his tracksuit (I am not making this up). Results weren’t perfect – they never are – so maybe we should start to doubt the manager, even those of us who have never played so much as a Sunday League game, never mind in the third tier of professional football. “Why did Clarke leave out X and pick Y,” asked some people. “It doesn’t make sense.” No, it doesn’t make sense if that player has been suffering from a virus during the week, had some family business to attend to or hadn’t trained well. But us terrace dwellers don’t know that bit. That’s why we’re supporters and Clarke is a manager.
None of this is to say that Rovers are on course for automatic promotion, or even the play offs. A million things can happen between now and the end of the season to turn a good season into a bad one. A series of bad injuries, a run of bad form and a loss of confidence, even the pitch churning up and becoming irreparable. These are the known unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it. But I don’t think the known unknowns, or even the unknown unknowns will derail Bristol Rovers.
As a friend of mine put it, we should be erecting a statue to Darrell Clarke at the Memorial Stadium for what he has achieved since inheriting the poisoned chalice of Rovers manager from John Ward. Let us not forget that Ward dropped the club in general and Clarke in particular in a heap of manure with just weeks of the season to go with Rovers on the brink of relegation to the Conference. He could not undo the mess created by John Ward under the shambolic governance of former chairman Nick Higgs in a few weeks, but he could in a year.
I keep wondering when Clarke will go through a bad run and what he will do then. Unless you are Sir Alex Ferguson, every football manager does. But perhaps Clarke is a lower league version of Sir Alex and one day a top flight version. He demands continuity and sets high standards and he will always give a player a chance. I think he might well be the real deal and is already becoming one of the great Rovers managers.
Promotion to the Championship? Well, why not? Worse teams and smaller clubs than Bristol Rovers have been there and stayed there and who would bet against us in a play off final? There wouldn’t be a big enough ticket allocation at Wembley.
Perhaps if they strip Philip Green of his knighthood, they could give it to Darrell Clarke?