It was, I think, Geoff Dunford, the former chairman, who first described Bristol Rovers as a family club. Given that it was his family that quite literally saved the club several decades ago, saw the club not just survive at Bath but, for a while prosper, and then return triumphantly to Bristol I am not going to argue with that. For the last decade, the Rovers family has been a dysfunctional family, constantly arguing and occasionally tearing itself apart under an autocratic regime that almost destroyed it. Yesterday, the final game of the season, saw the Rovers family fully restored to how it could and should have been decades ago. 20 years ago to the day, the song Things Can Only Get Better gripped the mood of the nation. Now things can only get better could be the theme tune at the Rovers.
That a chaotic defensive performance saw us lose 4-3 to Millwall was, in the end, of little consequence. We’d have liked to have won, of course, but I saw only smiles on the terraces. Two years ago, we were in the National League and now we were challenging for the Championship play offs, finally ending the campaign with a top ten finish. Come on: who could be disappointed about that?
Not the supporters who created a wave of emotion I have not felt since the joyous days of Ian Holloway’s early days in charge. Matchday PA man Nick Day returned triumphantly to top form and gave the performance of his life, pressing all the right buttons, ensuring that supporters could say farewell to those who were leaving the club. Here’s a man who knows how to find the G spot of Gasheads. Even the regular atmosphere crushing “ding dong – attention” announcements caused more laughter than anger. There was no promotion, no play offs to celebrate but we had our club back.
What summed up the day more than anything for me was what happened after the game. My loyal reader will recall the story of the legendary Stoke Gifford villager Ben Hiscox who lost his life playing for his club two short years ago. I have become very close to the family since the tragedy and arranged yesterday a meet-up between Ben’s parents Clive and Gloria with club chairman Steve Hamer and club president Wael Al Qadi. Well, Steve and Wael could not have been more generous with their time. They knew all about the story, indeed I reminded Steve that he had personally paid for a signed football to be auctioned at a recent fundraiser. I left more convinced than ever that Bristol Rovers Football Club is in very safe hands. Wael Al Qadi is in it for the long haul and his evolution not revolution strategy is exactly what the club has needed.
My own relationship with the football club in recent years has been fractious to say the least but yesterday was my light bulb moment when I finally put all the bad memories to the back of my mind. The good guys – the likes of Nick Day, Keith Brookman, Darrell Clarke to name but three – are still there providing continuity and striving always to improve, an ideology shared by the club president and his impressive team behind the scenes.
It’s a big summer for the club as Darrell Clarke carries out his first major overhaul of the playing side in three years. This is where we come in. In the same way that we accept the need for evolution in building the club off the pitch, exactly the same thing must apply on it. That is not to say that we abandon ambition and accept League One status forever but football is not an exact science. Even the great Sir Alex Ferguson made a series of expensive dud signings during his tenure and we must not expect every change Darrell introduces to work straight away. They might and all well and good if they do, but if there are setbacks along the way – and the law of averages tells us there will be – let’s cut this fine young manager some slack.
If I had one minor complaint yesterday, it was the same one I always have. Why is it that some supporters have players they love to hate? The enduringly excellent Chris Lines was described by some people near us of having a “nightmare” yesterday when my own eyes were telling me something very different. Ellis Harrison struggles but strives to bring consistency to his game but there are those who are just waiting for the boy to make a mistake and then get on his back. If I am asking folk to cut the manager slack if things don’t always go as planned, then for goodness sake get behind our players, not on their backs. This is, I know, relatively small beer but try, if you possibly can, to imagine yourself playing on a bouncy, slightly bobbly pitch in a strong wind and trying to achieve perfect ball control that, perhaps, only a Lionel Messi might manage in such conditions. League One players are very good footballers with stellar skills compared to those of us who never got beyond parks football and of course those who never kicked a ball in anger.
I will remember many things from yesterday’s game, from the farewells to those who are leaving us, to the kindness of Wael Al Qadi and Steve Hamer, to the brilliant goals from Chris Lines and Billy Bodin to Darrell Clarke’s thunderous facial expression at half time. It was probably the most enjoyable defeat I have every enjoyed, if that’s the right word, in well over 40 years of watching the Gas.
If we all play our parts, things really can only get better at Bristol Rovers. 18 months ago, who would have thought that?