“I thought Lines and Clarke were our best players today,” I said to anyone in particular as Bristol Rovers cruised to a comfortable and well deserved 2-1 win against Oxford United.
“Which Clarke?” asked a fellow terrace-dweller.
Oh shit. There’s more than one? “The one in midfield!”
“Yeah, he was superb.”
I excused my own ignorance by virtue of my non-attendance at the Memorial Stadium for the last three years or so. I don’t think any of the players were at the club when I was last a regular supporter and even now I am struggling to recognise all of them. It’s going to take some time.
It was also a salutary exercise in keeping your gob shut when you’ve nothing useful to say, something I should do more often. There is always the opportunity for talking too much when you are watching the game, thanks to the adrenalin and sheer desire to see your team win.
One thing I have gained since I have been away is to watch the game with two eyes instead of one. Not that I was by any means a neutral, but I was able to work out that the referee was not quite as bad as many people around me were suggesting from time to time. Most of the referees decisions were correct and we always forget that many decisions are “in the opinion of the referee” which is not the same thing as being totally, 100% correct every single time. But I know me. Given a few weeks of getting carried away with the mob, the referee will always be as bad as he used to be, always favouring the away team, unless we are the away team, of course.
There was certainly a different “vibe” about the Mem than I remembered under the grim days of Nick Higgs’ incompetent, autocratic and ill-tempered ownership. In fact, hardly any remnants of those dark days remained and those who did were now an irrelevance, not least the self-styled “fan directors” Ken Masters and Brian Seymour Smith whose function was merely to glad-hand and gurn as they made their respective ways to the corporate trough.
Yes, there was still some moaning. The manager Darrell Clarke’s team selection, his “tinkering”, was condemned by some (“What on earth did he do that for?), but for some reason there was little by way of complaint when Rovers largely played a half-decent Oxford United off the park. We still moan and groan at a misplaced pass but by and large we were far more patient.
The players looked very well drilled and confident. Clarke – the manager: at least I recognised him, even if his tracksuit bottoms were a little too figure-hugging for my liking – is a man at the top of his game and it shows. Almost all his decisions came off, he is plainly a good tactician and coach. He knows that someday this unqualified support from the hordes will come to a juddering halt – all bar the greatest coaches know this will happen – and it is how he deals with it that will be his judge. Almost all managerial careers end in failure. As things stand, his appointment by the otherwise bungling Higgs was a masterstroke, almost as great as selling the club to someone who knows what they are doing.
Despite the inadequacies of the Mem, the new owners have made the best of a bad lot. The pitch is magnificent, there is now a working scoreboard, the PA system actually works; the entire place is more professional, apart from the amateur quarter of an hour at half-time with the toe-curling Helpline draw.
I am hoping to learn the names of a few more players this week when we – we!!! – play Bolton. If they can find any more Clarkes I will be in a lot of trouble.