By Keith Brookman
It’s the month when non league clubs enter the FA Cup at the first round stage and for some it’s their cup final as they will have played up to seven games in the qualifying rounds just to get this far.
Given that Rovers have drawn a non league side, Bromley, in this year’s competition, we have gone back just five years to the time when we were also a non league side.
Can you/do you want to recall that time in our history?
Rovers played just three home games in November 2014, against Kidderminster Harriers, Barnet and Welling United. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, as we begin our journey on the first day of the month when we travelled to the New Bucks Head Stadium to take on AFC Telford.
Ollie Clarke scored the only goal of the game that afternoon, just as he had when the sides had met at The Memorial Stadium back in August, so I think it’s fair to say that Telford were glad to see the back of him!
The result saw Rovers into fourth place but the day hadn’t started well for Darrell Clarke’s side as goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall was taken ill on the journey from Bristol to Telford, so Will Puddy came in for his fourth game of the season. Defender Neal Trotman limped off before half time with an ankle injury and Andy Monkhouse was red carded three minutes from time to complete an eventful day for The Gas.
‘We might not have been at our best,’ said Clarke afterwards, ‘but the boys deserve great credit for the way they put their bodies on the line and battled for a result.’
With no midweek game Clarke and his troops were able focus on their next match, a first round FA Cup tie against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park. Rovers had beaten Dorchester Town 7-1 in a fourth round qualifying tie at the end of October and had lost only four games all season, so hopes were high of making FA Cup progress at the expense of the Rovers from The Wirral.
Defender Tom Parkes, speaking two days after victory at AFC Telford, said that he felt that Rovers would have to keep grinding out results; ‘I can’t recall a game where we haven’t had to be at 100% to get a win and every point we have got has had to be earned. If we have to play scruffy and grind out 20 less than entertaining victories than that’s what we will do because getting the points to take us where we want to be is all we are interested in.’
Rovers’ Development side, meanwhile, lost 4-3 against Exeter City though assistant manager Marcus Stewart saw many positives in the performance and singled out Tyler Lyttle for particular praise. Goalscorers for Rovers in this match were Jamie White, David Martin and Jamie Lucas.
Two days before the cup tie Ryan Brunt returned to the club following a loan spell with York City where he made five starts and one substitute appearance. In the meantime, an appeal against the red card collected by Andy Monkhouse was lost and he faced a three match ban.
Press reports suggested that Rovers were interested in signing strikers Matt Tubbs and Lee Hughes. Needless to say, it was just a rumour and nothing ever materialised.
Rovers did, however, make one signing ahead of their trip to Tranmere. Nineteen year old Lyle Della-Verde arrived on a one month loan deal from Fulham and went straight into the squad that travelled north to do battle with Tranmere.
League Two side Tranmere had former Rovers striker Eliot Richards waiting to face his former club, while Rovers’ skipper Mark McChrystal was a former Tranmere player and kitman Steve Yates was something of a Tranmere legend having played almost 150 games for them and hitting a vein of goal scoring he never achieved at his home town club (almost 250 games without a Gas goal!). Their fans still refer to 27th January as St Yates Day, in recognition of the two headed goals Yatesy scored in their 3-0 FA Cup win over local big boys Everton at Goodison in 2001.
A crowd of 3,559 looked a little lost in the surrounds of Prenton Park and they only had one goal to cheer. That came from the penalty spot in the 54th minute, converted by Tranmere’s Max Power following an inexplicable handball by McChrystal.
Naturally, the manager was disappointed at the outcome; ‘We threw everything at them and were the better side for most of the first half. In the second half, after their penalty, we had two clear appeals for one of our own and that was frustrating.’
The aforementioned Della-Verde made his Rovers debut in this game, going on as a 58th minute substitute in place of Jake Gosling.
There was no time to feel sorry for themselves, though, as there was a Tuesday night league game at Alfreton to prepare for. Gosling would miss this one as he was away on international duty with Gibraltar, Andy Monkhouse was serving the second game of his three match ban and Neal Trotman’s ankle injury was still keeping him on the sidelines.
Rovers supporters numbered 315 in an attendance of 880 that night and there was very little to cheer as the game ended goalless. The home crowd were fine, but a few angry Rovers supporters were waiting by the team bus after the game, not happy with what they had just witnessed, and one even tried to get on board.
‘We were camped in their half for long periods of the second half and we were pretty solid from a defensive point of view’, said manager Darrell Clarke, adding ‘We just need to be better in the final third with that final run or that bit of instinct to poach us a goal to open these sorts of games up a bit.’
Of the incident afterwards the manager said; ‘It is a bit of a disgrace when a fan wants to get on the bus at the end of an away draw and wants to have a go at our players. God help us if we lose a few games or go on a bad run.’
Immediately after the game striker Adam Cunnington, who had spent the night on the bench, was recalled by Cambridge United, his parent club. He had scored three goals in 16 games for The Gas.
Before the next game, a visit from Kidderminster Harriers for the first home game of November, midfielder Lee Mansell revealed that one or two of the younger players in the squad were finding it hard to deal with some of the criticism that was being aimed in their direction; ‘We were told by one or two people when we were walking off the pitch on Tuesday that we are the worst players ever to play for Bristol Rovers. We don’t need those sort of people having a go at young players whose confidence is hanging on a knife edge even though we are fourth in the league.’
On a day when Remembrance Day was commemorated, and in front of a crowd of 5,848, Rovers and Kidderminster Harriers played out a 1-1 draw. Nathan Blissett headed Kiddy in front on 67 minutes, while Matty Taylor equalised for Rovers seven minutes from time.
After the game Darrell Clarke revealed that he was trying to sign Jermaine Easter; ‘Jermaine contacted me. He wants to be nearer his Cardiff home but there are some League clubs chasing him and we will have to wait and see if anything develops.’
Another week without a midweek game followed, the next game on the horizon being the away fixture against Chester FC seven days later.
One player on his way out of The Mem was Jamie White. Great things had been expected of the striker signed by Darrell Clarke in the summer, but things never really worked out and after 11 games in which he failed to score, he was on his way to Sutton United.
In a Gloucestershire Senior Cup tie played at The Mem ahead of the trip to Chester, Angelo Balanta got through ninety minutes on his return from injury. Goals from Jamie Lucas and Jake Gosling gave Rovers a 2-1 win against Cinderford Town.
While their team mates (some of them, at least) were up against Cinderford, Lee Brown and Tom Parkes were sampling the delights of Halifax; both started for the England ‘C’ side in their 4-2 win against Estonia at The Shay. It was a first cap for Parkes and a second for Brown.
Before the side travelled to Chester, Rovers signed Nathan Blissett, the striker who had scored against them, for Kidderminster, a week earlier. He got off to a great start in a Rovers shirt and scored his first Gas goal after 51 minutes. When Tom Parkes doubled the lead seven minutes later, it seemed as though Rovers would go on to collect all three points.
It didn’t happen, though, and the home side scored twice in the space of three minutes to gain a point. The manager said, afterwards; ‘We scored two good goals but then had a crazy ten minutes defensively all over the park when our decision making was poor. It was, all in all, a frustrating afternoon for us.’
Three days later league leaders Barnet were the visitors to The Mem though goalkeeper Will Puddy was ruled out of the squad after it was revealed that he had cracked a bone in his arm during the game against Cinderford.
Rovers went without a back up shot stopper for this game and won 2-1 though they left it late. Matty Taylor’s fifth minute goal was cancelled out by Luisma Villa’s 38th minute equaliser but Angelo Balanta, on his home debut, scored the winning goal in the 90th minute.
Former Rovers loan striker John Akinde was in the Barnet side that still led the table with an eight point gap between themselves and fourth placed Rovers.
Defender Lee Brown, who had played with Balanta at QPR, was full of praise for his team mate; ‘I was with him the whole time through the youth ranks at QPR and I don’t think I have played alongside many better players on the ball than Angelo. He could have three or four players around him but, when he has the ball at his feet, nothing fazes him.
‘The manager asked me for my thoughts on him over the summer and I didn’t hesitate in giving him a glowing recommendation because a player of his ability can be the difference between winning and not winning promotion. That’s how highly I rate him.’
On transfer deadline day, two days before the next game, a home match against Welling United, Darrell Clarke brought in another striker. Alex Wall moved to BS7 on loan from Luton Town, while two more strikers left the club. Ryan Brunt signed for Stevenage, on loan, while promising youngster Donovan Wilson joined Wolverhampton Wanderers after impressing whilst on trial at Molineux.
Also moving out on loan were Jamie Lucas and Pierce Mitchell. Jamie joined Gloucester City on loan, while Pierce signed a temporary deal with Weston super Mare.
Wall made his Rovers debut against Welling United, but only featured in the first half. He was replaced at the break by recent signing Nathan Blissett, who took just eight minutes to score his second goal in a Rovers shirt.
Matty Taylor wrapped up three points with a 73rd minute penalty, awarded after he had been fouled in the area by Zach Flanagan.
By then the visitors were reduced to ten men following the red card issued to Jake Gallagher for his two footed challenge on Lee Mansell.
Rovers remained undefeated in six November league games and went into December in third place.