By Keith Brookman
January sees us travel back in time exactly 20 years to the beginning of a new Millennium; January 2000. Hopefully much of the following information will remind you of what it was like supporting Rovers during the promotion season that never quite was…
The first game of the new year was against Cambridge United at the Memorial Stadium, one in which Jason Roberts scored his 16th goal of the season after 71 minutes to earn Ian Holloway’s side a 1-0 win.
The goal arrived after Holloway changed the formation of the side from 5-3-2 to 4-4-2 and had the attacking quartet of Roberts, Jamie Cureton, Mark Walters and Nathan Ellington on the pitch.
Goalkeeper Lee Jones picked up an injury in this game and failed to appear for the second half, which meant that Brian Parkin replaced him at the start of the second half, thus making his first appearance for the club since January 1996.
Cambridge not only ended the game pointless, they ended it with ten men following the red card collected by Jason Kavanagh in the 83rd minute.
Next up for Rovers was an away trip to face Colchester United at Layer Road and they learnt that they would be without the services of Ronnie Mauge for that game. He had been called up by Trinidad & Tobago for their friendly against Canada; ‘I’m absolutely delighted,’ said Mauge, adding ‘I’ve always wanted to play at international level and this is a great chance for me. I knew the selectors had been watching me, so I was thrilled when they asked me to play.’
In addition to Mauge, manager Ian Holloway revealed that goalkeeper Jones and central defenders Andy Thomson and Andy Tillson were also struggling to make the trip to Essex.
His biggest problem was the goalkeeping spot and he was hoping to persuade Parkin to come out of retirement until Jones was fit to resume playing. His knee injury was causing concern and the shot stopper said; ‘A spell out is the last thing I need because I’m playing well. But I have to be fair to the gaffer and I’ll make a decision on Friday.’
Meanwhile Trevor Challis was saying that he and his teammates welcomed the arrival of Mark Walters even though he had been the player dropped to make way for ‘Wally’; ‘Mark Walters’ arrival has given us all a real boost because he’s great to have around and his quality on the ball is different class. I’ve certainly learned from him and added to the attacking side of my game since he came in,’ said Challis.
Hopes of seeing 28 year old Latvian skipper Vitalijs Astafjevs arrive at the Memorial Stadium were dashed when the club’s application for a work permit for him was turned down. Rovers subsequently appealed against the ruling and the case was set to be heard in London later in the month.
The day before the trip to Colchester United physio Phil Kite was sent home suffering from flu and no fewer than six players faced fitness tests before the team departed.
In the face of so many injuries Holloway moved to add to his squad and brought in West Ham United defender Shaun Byrne on loan and he went straight into the travelling party.
It was announced that England’s women’s team would play an international against Switzerland at the Memorial Stadium on 13th May.
On to Colchester and although Jones recovered to take his place in goal, Thomson and Tillson were missing, while Byrne made his debut.
He must have wondered what he had come into as Rovers were beaten 5-4 in a game in which they were 3-1 ahead at one point. A Jamie Cureton penalty had given Rovers that two goal advantage and after the home side had pulled a goal back Rovers were awarded another spot kick. On this occasion, although ‘Curo’ beat the keeper, his effort struck the post and bounced away to safety. Nathan Ellington made it 4-4, with four minutes remaining, after Colchester had edged in front but Tresor Lua-Lua scored what proved to be the winning goal in the final minute.
Interestingly, former Rovers assistant manager Joe Dunne was in the Colchester lineup – wonder what he remembers of that game!
Although he was Rovers’ star man, David Pritchard sustained a knee injury after a late challenge by Titus Bramble. He had a badly swollen knee after the game and, ultimately, it was the tackle that ended his career.
Of the remarkable game Holloway said; ‘It was bedlam from one minute to the next and although it must have been a great game to watch it was a disappointing end for us. I thought we were well on top for most of it and it looked as though we were going to win at a canter – but things don’t always work out like that.
‘We played some fantastic stuff going forwards, but defensively it looked like they might score as well. We’ve built success on being solid. But we didn’t look like that here.’
Next up for Rovers was an Auto Windscreens Trophy tie against Northampton Town at Sixfields and on the morning they were due to travel midfielder Simon Bryant signed a new three year contract.
The tie took place a year to the day that former Northampton assistant manager Garry Thompson had arrived at The Mem and he was looking forward to going back; ‘I spent five good years at Northampton but I don’t regret leaving for a minute because things have gone well since I came to Rovers. There is a good coaching team here and the gaffer has been brilliant because he allows us all some input.’
The game at Northampton, described as ‘dismal’ in the local press, ended goalless after 120 minutes (there was extra time in the competition back then), watched by a crowd of 2,443.
The resulting penalty shootout saw Rovers win 5-3, with Brain Parkin, in the side for the injured Lee Jones, saving the crucial fourth Northampton penalty. Rovers had scored their first four and when Shaun Byrne slotted home the fifth there was no way back for the Cobblers.
The future Rovers players Ali Gibb and James Hunt were in the Northampton side.
Next up was a home league game against Gillingham and Ronnie Mauge, back from international duty, was expected to start this one though it was thought that he would be jetting off again straight after the game for Trinidad & Tobago’s friendly fixture against Morocco.
It was also though that Jason Roberts would be called up by Grenada for two games in March, thus hampering Holloway’s team selection for vital games that month.
Jamie Shore was told by a specialist that he would be ready to play again by the end of the season following the knee cartilage transplant operation he’d had the previous summer.
A Memorial Stadium crowd of 8,331 saw Rovers beat Gillingham 2-1, a win that saw them move back into second place in the Division Two table, with Jamie Cureton and Jason Roberts scoring the all important goals.
After the game manager Holloway said; ‘There’s an awfully long way to go. I am delighted tonight but this time last week I was reflecting on conceding five goals. The good thing is that the players responded superbly to what we discussed on Monday. They kept a clean sheet at Northampton and looked solid again today, apart from the last ten minutes.’
In the week after that game it was reported that Rovers were reconsidering their offer to Kettering Town to secure the services of their goalkeeper Adam Sollitt after having had a bid of £30,000 turned down.
The club also told Bradford City to forget putting in a bid for Jason Roberts as he wasn’t for sale and also ruled out rumours linking Ronnie Mauge with Sheffield United, whose manager Neil Warnock had been his boss at Plymouth Argyle.
With an away trip to face Oxford United next on the agenda, Holloway was going to have to reshuffle his side as both Steve Foster and Jason Roberts were suspended for the visit to the Manor Ground.
The suspension meant that Foster would have to wait to make his 100th league start for the Gas and, given the result achieved at Oxford, realised he might have to wait a little bit longer to hit the century mark.
Holloway’s side destroyed Oxford, winning 5-0 thanks to a Jamie Cureton hat trick and further goals from Robbie Pethick and Nathan Ellington. Not surprisingly, Holloway was delighted with the result; ‘I was very proud of the performance and it pleased me, just as much as our goals, that we kept a clean sheet.’
Two days later Rovers took on fellow Second Division side Reading in the Autowindscreens Shield at the Memorial Stadium.
There was to be no trip to Wembley that season, though, as Reading were 2-1 winners in front of a crowd of 4,948. Jamie Cureton scored for Rovers, from the penalty spot, with Mark Nicholls scoring both Reading goals. In goal for the visitors was Rovers’ future shot stopper Scott Howie and former Rovers player Andy Gurney.
There was good news off the pitch, though, as Rovers won their battle to sign Vitalijs Astafjevs. The department of Employment gave the club the go ahead to complete the signing in a £150,000 deal from Latvian side Skonto Riga.
Holloway was delighted to secure the signature of the Latvian skipper and said, two days before the game against Wrexham; ‘He trained with us for the first time today but has to get to know us just as the rest of the players have to get to know him. He is a good footballer, but he’s not the be all and end all of our season, just another piece in the jigsaw.’
Ahead of the Wrexham game Robbie Pethick, who had scored his first Rovers goal at Oxford told everyone how he had celebrated; ‘I went home and treated myself to a takeaway curry and a bottle of diet coke and because I’d scored for the first time I really pushed the boat out and got it delivered to my house!’
There were a few quotes from Astafjevs as well, though quite how that was managed I’ve no idea. The only time I attempted an interview with him during his time with the club Rovers and the Evening Post as it was then known, shared a bill for the services of an interpreter!
He allegedly said this; ‘I know it will be tough, but I have played international football against countries like Spain and Portugal and in the Champions League qualifying against Chelsea so I have good experience. It is my dream to play in the Premiership against my friend Marian Pahars (Southampton) and I hope Rovers can help me do that.’
The Latvian made his debut against Wrexham when going on as an 81st minute for Robbie Pethick and the Memorial Stadium crowd of 8,196 saw a 3-1 Rovers win with Jamie Cureton, Jason Roberts and Rob Trees on the scoresheet, a result that saw Rovers finish the day top of the league. It was a first Rovers goal for Trees and I think it’s fair to say he didn’t celebrate his goal in the same way that Pethick did the previous week!
Heading into February, Rovers held a three point lead over Wigan Athletic at the top of the table and were, seemingly, favourites for an automatic promotion spot at the end of the season but we all know how that turned out!