By Keith Brookman
December sees us travel back in time 15 years, to December 2004. Hopefully much of the following information will remind you of what it was like supporting Rovers back then.
The first day of the month saw the reserves take on Swansea City in a Pontins Holiday Cup victory at the Vetch Field and Rovers returned to Bristol having won 2-1; ‘Swansea took a fourth minute lead when Mark Pritchard beat Rovers keeper Richard Heiniger.
‘They had to wait until 48 seconds into the second half when former Swansea youth player Lewis Powell created an opening for Lewis Haldane to shoot home from six yards out. Sam Duggan fired in the winner in the 76th minute.’
Midfielder Dave Savage was concerned that he might be one of the players to be shown the door after it was announced that Rovers were looking to reduce their wage bill. He had put in a transfer request earlier in the season but said that he was in no rush to move and would be happy to see out the remainder of his contract.
The Irish midfielder admitted that the demands of travelling to Bristol from his Northampton home had prompted his transfer request but acknowledged he might have been a little bit hasty in asking to leave; ‘We had been in the Isle of Man, had a tough pre-season and I think I’d only managed to get home once in a fortnight. The kids were off school and they were difficult times from a family point of view.’
Having lost to Carlisle United in the first round of the FA Cup, Rovers had a blank first Saturday in December and so were preparing for their next game, a home match against Chester City.
Midfielder Stuart Campbell said; ‘In a way it’s a shame we don’t have a game but we are all really looking forward to getting out on the pitch again on Tuesday for the game against Chester. If we can beat them and carry our form into the next game, against Macclesfield, who knows how different the league table might look.’
Goalkeeper Kevin Miller said this about his side’s enforced break; ‘The week has been a bit strange with no game to prepare for. We trained as normal, and we did get the chance to have a couple of days off on Wednesday and Thursday.’
The draw for the Southern Area Semi Final of the LDV Vans Trophy handed Rovers an away tie at Leyton Orient, with the game to be played in January 2005. Rovers had already beaten Kidderminster Harriers, Barnet and Wycombe Wanderers to get to that stage of the competition.
Thoughts were already turning towards the game against Chester and manager ian Atkins had injury concerns over Liam Burns and Ali Gibb. Burns was to make the bench for the game, though Gibb missed out altogether.
The manager was saying, to anyone who would listen, that his side could get their promotion challenge back on track with wins against Chester and Macclesfield in their next two games; ‘It’s a big week for us and if we can get two home wins, the league picture will probably change again and we could be back in the top seven.’
As it turned out, Rovers brushed Chester aside by winning 4-1 in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd of 5,514. Craig Disley’s first goal for the club set them on the way to winning for the first time in five matches.
Kevin Ellison equalised for the visitors, but Jamie Forrester’s penalty put Rovers back in front while second half goals from Lee Thorpe and substitute Paul Trollope killed off Chester, managed by former Liverpool legend Ian Rush.
Atkins declared himself pleased at a good night’s work; ‘That had been coming. Some of our recent performances hadn’t been that bad, but we hadn’t had any breaks. This time we made things happen and I thought our performance was probably the best at home this season.’
Ahead of the game against Macclesfield Robbie Ryan, who had lost his place in the side that played Chester to Aaron Lescott recalled that ‘Macc’ manager Brian Horton had given him his league debut for Huddersfield; ‘Neil Warnock brought me over from Ireland, but Brian took over from him and he’s gone on to manage over 1,000 games in his career, which is a fantastic achievement.’
A couple of Rovers squad players were, apparently, in demand, with Kidderminster Harriers keeping tabs on striker Richard Walker while Shrewsbury Town were reportedly interested in signing Liam Burns until the end of the season, and Ryan Williams was being linked with a loan move to Forest Green Rovers.
As it turned out Kidderminster were unable to come up with the cash to sign Walker, but Burns did join Shrewsbury as a non contract player; ‘When Liam first came down here he wasn’t being paid and it’s a tribute to his professionalism that he stuck with it to try and get regular football,’ said Atkins, ‘In an ideal world we would like to have kept him, but we have to get one or two people off the wage bill.’
Rovers drew a crowd of 6,504 to The Mem for the visit of Macclesfield Town, and also drew the game 0-0. Reports suggest that they outplayed their visitors but simply couldn’t make the vital breakthrough.
Central defender John Anderson missed this game through injury, the eighth consecutive match he had sat out, but declared himself ready to return to action by the time of the next game, at Rochdale, the following week.
The big man said of the injury, inflammation of the pubic bone,; ‘Now I’ve stepped up my training and started running again and if all goes well I hope to be involved in a reserve game on Monday.’
Unfortunately, he didn’t make that reserve game, against Yeovil Town at the Memorial Stadium. Rovers started with seven Academy youngsters and the experience was provided by Robbie Ryan, Richard Walker, Ali Gibb and Lewis Haldane.
Chris Lines was one of the Academy youngsters involved and he set up the opening goal, scored by Rovers. He played in Gibb whose cross to the back post was turned in by Walker from close range. Yeovil, though, went on to score four times to win 4-1. Richard Heiniger was again in goal for Rovers.
Of Kidderminster’s bid to sign him, Richard Walker said; ‘They offered me a deal to the end of the season on a lot less money and to be honest, with two kids, I just couldn’t afford to take it. I still think that Rovers are a club that’s going places and I’d still like to be part of that, so ideally I would like to stay here.’
Speaking of Kidderminster, they already had one Rovers player, Ryan Clarke, on loan with them and they were hoping to keep him for another month; ‘Playing there has been brilliant for me,’ said Clarke, adding ‘a lot of the time we have been under pressure so I’ve had a lot more to do than I would in reserve games at Rovers.’
Two young players who were hoping to break into the first team, Chris Lines and goalkeeper Martin Horsell, were nursing injuries that would keep them out for a few weeks. Lines had a toe injury and Horsell a broken finger.
Meanwhile the Supporters Club were urging fans to write to Bristol City Council and local Councillors backing moves to redevelop the Blackthorn End of the Memorial Stadium which involved the development of a 5,500 seat stand which would include bars, restaurants, a fitness centre and a creche. Think we might still be waiting for that!
Although he had been told to make cuts, manager Ian Atkins added to his staff by recruiting former Irish U-21 winger Brian Cash on a non contract basis. The midfielder had been released by Nottingham Forest and so the terms of the deal meant that there was no significant outlay and he was only to be paid when he played.
With the Rochdale game looming, 15 year old Scott Sinclair was added to the squad for the trip to Spotland. He had scored 26 goals in 15 youth team games that season and several top clubs were watching him; ‘He’s got fantastic pace and sometimes being an unknown quantity is an asset’, said Ian Atkins, adding, ‘It will be a wonderful opportunity if he makes the bench or the team. He’s a really exciting talent.’
As it turned out, Sinclair never started or made the bench at Spotland and watched on as Rovers and Rochdale played out a goalless draw in front of a crowd of 2,623.
Rovers had the better of the game’s chances and twice hit the woodwork but they had to thank a late penalty miss by Rochdale for their point, Gary Jones blazing the ball over from the spot after Steve Elliott was adjudged to have fouled Grant Holt. Former Rovers striker Paul Tait partnered Holt up front for Dale.
Manager Atkins wasn’t entirely happy with the point; ‘That was the sixth 0-0 draw of the season and we should have taken three points in all of them because we’ve had decent chances and the opposition have created very few. We are drawing games we should be winning and it’s costing us.’
As Christmas approached the Rovers boss was concerned that he might not have a fully fit squad ahead of the Boxing Day match against Leyton Orient. Craig Disley was being treated for a groin problem, Aaron Lescott had a badly bruised leg while Stuart Campbell was also recovering from a groin injury and Richard Walker had an ankle injury. John Anderson and Ali Gibb had recovered from their respective injuries although they were short of match fitness.
Just a few days before the festivities it was announced that 82 year old Denis Dunford had stepped down from the Board after 18 years as a Director. Many tributes were paid to him and the man himself said; ‘I have enjoyed being Chairman and a Director of this wonderful football club, but it is time for me to step down and give an opportunity for younger people to become involved.
‘I leave knowing the club is in safe hands with the present Directors. I would also like to thank our fans for their loyalty and support during my time in office.’
Having conceded just once in the four games prior to the clash with Leyton Orient, Ian Atkins paid tribute to one of his star defenders, Craig Hinton; ‘Craig can play in central defence as well as right back and that versatility could prove useful to us. He might have struggled a bit at first, but his game is now coming together and people are seeing just what he’s capable of.’
The game against Orient, played in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd of 8,414, ended all square at 1-1 though Rovers had to graft hard for a point when Robbie Ryan was sent off after only four minutes for handling the ball on the goal line. Former Rovers player Matt Lockwood converted the subsequent penalty and it took another spot kick, in the 51st minute, for Rovers to get back on level terms. Jamie Forrester converted that one after a Junior Agogo cross into the box struck defender Andrew Scott on the arm.
Scott Sinclair, then aged just 15, made his Rovers debut in the match when he went on in the final minute, making him the second youngest Rovers player to make his debut.
Next up for Rovers was a trip to Whaddon Road to face Cheltenham Town and 19 year old Elliott Ward who had arrived on loan from West Ham was included in the matchday squad. The result was another draw, the fourth game in a row in which Rovers had shared the spoils.
Jamie Forrester scored for Rovers after only four minutes, while Gavin Caines equalised for the hosts on 37 minutes. Former Rovers shot stopper Shane Higgs was in goal for Cheltenham and Jerry Gill, a future Rovers coach and the current Bath City manager, also played for the Gloucestershire Robins.
And Ward? He was sent on in the 90th minute for his Rovers debut. Probably one he will want to forget, as Atkins stuck the central defender on as a left sided midfielder, prompting Ward to say this afterwards; ‘I was told before the game that I would probably play in a back three, but Steve Elliott recovered from illness and the gaffer decided to go with a flat back four instead, leaving me on the bench.
‘Rovers fans were probably wondering what on earth was going on when I came on to play a midfield holding role for the last few minutes. In case there’s any confusion, I’m definitely a central defender.’
One concern for the manager was the fitness of Kevin Miller. The goalkeeper picked up an ankle injury in the Cheltenham game and was rated doubtful for the New Year’s Day clash with Shrewsbury Town at Gay Meadow.
Going into 2005 central defender John Anderson insisted that Rovers could mount a promotion challenge, but only if they could overcome their dependence on Junior Agogo and Jamie Forrester for goals; ‘We don’t score enough goals from other areas. We need to get more from midfield and the defenders have to start chipping in as well. We can’t rely on the front players all the time.’