Today is the day that non league football fans look forward to more than just about every other date in the football calendar: the FA Trophy First Round Proper. It really is an excellent tournament, culminating in a day out at Wembley. It’s the non league FA Cup and the first round is the nearest they get to the FA Cup Third Round.
Happily, or sadly, depending on which way you look at it, it’s a great chance for my former club Bristol Rovers, which will remain my former club at least until chairman Nick Higgs departs for that great vineyard in Italy, or receivership, whichever comes first.
Anyone, like the manager for example, who criticises the supporters needs a reality check. Having endured more than a decade of miserable failure, Gasheads have embraced non league football and seen it as an opportunity, at last, for some success, that success being restoration of the club’s league status. Crowds, amazingly, have gone up this year and the away following often dwarfs the numbers attending their own games. We should not, of course, be surprised since the Vanarama Conference includes a good number of part time clubs and an even larger number whose grounds make the Memorial Stadium look like the Emirates.
Personally, I regard many things about Rovers as nothing more than an embarrassment. The club may well bask in the honour of players representing the England ‘C’ team but may I remind good folk that the ‘C’ status is a gross exaggeration and is probably nearer the ‘E’ or ‘F’ team and the ‘honour’ only exists because Nick Higgs has led the club into non league football. Yes, it is great for the players concerned, no one is pretending otherwise, but to imply in any way that this represents success, honour, for the club seems absurd to me.
And today, Rovers play Bath City from the Vanarama Conference South. Now pardon me, but this fixture should be nothing more than a pre season friendly and probably at Bath too. Oh, you want to win all right but let us put this into context: Rovers have become a non league club, have players in a representative non league international team and are participating in a non league Cup tournament. Winning is the way by which you achieve confidence and confidence boosts results so only a fool of a supporter would want Rovers to lose these games, but let’s put this in perspective. It’s a terrible standard.
Despite my doubts as to the wisdom of embracing non league football – people have actually told me they are enjoying the experience, fair enough – fans have grasped the importance of escaping non league football at the earliest opportunity. Failure to go up at the first attempt could be a financial disaster for the club whose directors are known to have tired of financially propping up the club they themselves have run into the ground. The importance of getting promoted at the first attempt and, finally, having a winning team to support are the reasons for the increased support.
After a series of disastrous managerial appointments, culminating with the return of John Ward which ended in the farcical situation of him being sacked near the end of last season, er…moved upstairs, with a handful of games remaining and seeing a rookie taking over only to confirm relegation. That rookie, Darrell Clarke, is under enormous pressure to achieve promotion this year but then it’s clear that the board is supporting him in bringing in new players and paying fees for players.
I would be amazed if Rovers didn’t go up this season. They are a far bigger club than any in the Conference with levels of support that put many League Two clubs to shame. If the pressure gets to Barnet, who knows what Clarke can achieve?
In the meantime, it’s a big welcome to Bath City who probably can’t believe their good luck playing before a good four figure crowd and making a few bob to help them along.
I don’t suppose I ever thought I would see Bristol Rovers and the FA Trophy in the same sentence but this is the world in which we now live. I suspect that if a similar situation ever arose at Bristol City, Steve Lansdown would be chased out of time but this is Ragbag Rovers and many of the supporters are, as we say, lions led by donkeys.