By Keith Brookman
The final home game of 2019 sees Rovers welcome AFC Wimbledon to the Memorial Stadium, the second time the teams have met on Boxing Day.
Four years ago, we travelled to Kingsmeadow and returned home with a point from a goalless draw. On that occasion AFC were reduced to ten men after only four minutes when Paul Robinson was red carded for a foul on Ellis Harrison.
In spite of their numerical advantage, Rovers were unable to pierce the AFC defence and the game, played in front of a crowd of 4,468, was a poor one.
There was a minute’s applause held in memory of Don Howe before proceedings got underway and there were a few familiar faces involved in the game. Adebayo Akinfenwa led the AFC front line, former Rovers player Sean Rigg was an 81st minute substitute for the home side and future Rovers loanee Ryan Sweeney was an unused substitute.
Ryan Broom was included on Rovers’ bench for the first time for a league game, and that’s where he stayed, alongside Tom Parkes who was an unused substitute for the fifth time that season.
It was Rovers’ second goalless draw of the campaign and goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall became the fourth Rovers custodian to keep a clean sheet, following in the footsteps of Will Puddy, Aaron Chapman and Lee Nicholls.
We didn’t have a game on the first Boxing Day of the decade and so caretaker manager Darren Patterson, appointed in the wake of Paul Trollope’s sacking, had a Christmas off and Rovers didn’t play a match between 14th December 2010 and 1st January 2011.
Boxing Day that same year (2011) saw us lose at home against Plymouth Argyle who went away from the Mem with a 3-2 win under their belts. Matt Harrold scored twice in three minutes in the first half to give Rovers what many thought to be unassailable lead.
Argyle had other ideas, though, and second half goals from Warren Feeney, Nick Chadwick and Ashley Hemmings saw them take all three points in front of a crowd of 8,090. Manager Paul Buckle was on the verge of being sacked at this time and lasted just two more games before his miserable spell in charge came to an end.
One year later and John Ward was in charge for the Boxing Day visit to Aldershot Town, a game that ended in a 2-2 draw.
Both sides were awarded, and scored, a penalty. Craig Reid for Aldershot and Rovers’ David Clarkson scored the spot kicks. Michael Hector and Eliot Richards, who scored Rovers’ equaliser three minutes from time, scored from open play.
Defender Michael Smith said afterwards; ‘The conditions were horrible, but I thought we adapted well and came away with a good point in the end.’ However, the Aldershot News & Mail said; ‘Aldershot Town were cruelly denied by a late Bristol Rovers equaliser for the second time this season.
It definitely wasn’t a Happy Christmas, as Rovers were left at the bottom of the table following this game.
Moving on to 2013 and Rovers were off to Plainmoor where they drew 1-1 against Torquay United. John Marquis scored Torquay’s goal from the penalty spot after only six minutes, while Matt Harrold equalised for Rovers with 27 minutes on the clock.
Former Rovers players Michael Poke and Aaron Downes were in the Torquay side as were future Rovers players Billy Bodin and Lee Mansell.
One year later, in our non league season, we again travelled down to Plainmoor where we won 2-1. Matty Taylor and Neal Trotman scored the Gas goals that day, while on loan goalkeeper Fabian Spiess managed an own goal for the home side’s consolation when he punched the ball into his own net.
On this occasion Rovers fielded two former Torquay players in their starting lineup in Daniel Leadbitter and Lee Mansell, who had become a Gashead in the summer of 2014.
The Torquay manager that day was Chris Hargreaves, now in charge of the Rovers Academy and he said after the game; ‘A couple of mistakes made at critical times have cost us in a game that was end to end at times. They were difficult conditions, difficult weather and a difficult pitch and they had a couple of players that just made the difference.’
Boxing Day 2015 is covered above and so we move on to 2016 when we met this season’s Third Round FA Cup opponents, Coventry City, at The Mem.
Billy Bodin scored a hat trick that day after Peter Hartley opened the scoring for the Gas, while Coventry’s response was a 56th minute goal scored by Jordan Willis.
‘It’s always nice to score your first hat trick,’ said Bodin afterwards, ‘and it will obviously be up there as a proud moment in my career.’
A crowd of 11,200 were inside the Mem to witness this one, Rovers first competitive match against the Sky Blues since 1964. It was the third time that season Rovers had scored four goals in a match.
In 2017 we made the relatively short journey up the M5 to face Walsall at the Banks’s Stadium where we played out another Boxing Day goalless draw.
Darrell Clarke was in charge of the Gas that day and James Clarke started while Stuart Sinclair and Rory Gaffney both made substitute appearances. All four are, of course, now with Walsall.
After the game Darrell said; ‘To start the second half of the season with an away point and a clean sheet from a game that could have gone either way is very pleasing.’
Last year saw Rovers travel back to Walsall to fulfil their Boxing Day fixture and on this occasion they ran out 3-1 winners.
Tom Lockyer, Alex Rodman and Tariq Holmes-Dennis were on target for Graham Coughlin’s side while Josh Gordon scored a consolation goal for the Saddlers.
Having beaten Fleetwood Town in their previous game, it meant that this was the first time that Rovers had recorded back to back victories since February of 2018.
We move quickly on, because I want to mention the seven Rovers players who have made Boxing Day debuts for the Gas since the Second World War.
Norman Sykes first pulled on a blue and white quartered shirt back in 1956, when Rovers were 6-1 winners against Bury at Eastville in front of a crowd of 19,672. Twenty four hours earlier the sides had met at Gigg Lane and Bury had won 7-2! Rovers would play on Christmas Day followed by a Boxing Day game just once more, in 1957 when Swansea Town were the opposition.
It was the turn of Carl Gilbert to make his Rovers debut on Boxing Day 1969 and there was a crowd of over 12,000 at Eastville to see Rovers draw 1-1 against Reading and to see Gilbert make a goalscoring debut.
Gary Emmanuel also made his debut on Boxing Day in 1978 and a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park made it a special day for him.
Goalkeeper Ray Cashley was on the losing side on his debut, as Oxford United were 3-2 winners at the Manor Ground on Boxing Day 1983.
In 2004 a young player by the name of Scott Sinclair his Rovers debut with a brief substitute Boxing Day appearance at the Mem in a 1-1 draw against Leyton Orient. There was just one more substitute appearance before he was snapped up by Chelsea.
Kayne McLaggon made his one and only league appearance for The Gas as recently as 2011 in a 3-2 home defeat by Plymouth Argyle which is mentioned above.
However, I’ve saved what I think is the best until last.
Step forward Harold Jarman, one of the few former Rovers players deserving the accolade of legend. Sixty years ago today Harold made his Gas debut in a Boxing Day clash against Swansea Town at Eastville and Rovers won 3-1 courtesy of goals from Geoff Bradford and Alfie Biggs (2) in front of a crowd of 16,501.
We are indebted to Harold’s son, Richard, for sending us this photo taken at that match.
Two days later Rovers travelled to The Vetch for the return fixture and Harold was again in the side, though on this occasion the Welsh side ran out 3-0 winners.
We are delighted that Harold is a member of the Bristol Rovers Former Players Association and trust that this article will bring back memories of the first of his 452 league games for the Gas.