By Keith Brookman
This month we are going back 15 years to see what was happening in BS7 in March 2005 when we were coming to an end of Ian Atkins’ first full season in charge of the Gas.
The month began with the news that Atkins might well hand defender Jon Bass the opportunity of relaunching his career at the Memorial Stadium. The 28 year old former Birmingham City and Hartlepool United player had been training with the club after time in Malaysia playing for Pahang.
In addition, the club were speaking to Aaron Lescott about the possibility of extending his contract to cover another season. Atkins said this about the former Stockport County defender; ‘I think he has played his best at full back although he prefers to be in midfield, and sometimes it needs someone else to tell players where their best position is!’
Meanwhile midfielder Dave Savage was hoping to play in the club’s first game of March, against Rochdale at the Memorial Stadium, following a spell on the sidelines after a hamstring injury.
Another former Stockport player, Ali Gibb, was also hoping he was on the road to recovery after suffering a strained posterior cruciate ligament in a game against Lincoln City; ‘I’d like to think that maybe next week or the week after I could be back in training with the rest of the lads to some extent,’ said Gibb.
The bad news continued when manager Atkins said it was possible that Stuart Campbell might miss the final ten games of the season as he needed surgery to cure a double hernia problem. Atkins said; ‘At least we know what the problem is, and he will have to have it done to be ready for next season. But in the meantime, he can’t really make it any worse so we’ve said to him he might as well join us for training.’ Full of sympathy that man!
The day before the match against Rochdale defender Christian Edwards was warning his teammates that everyone was playing for their futures with the club and he wasn’t sure that he would keep his place in the side following a run of poor performances; ‘My performance last Saturday wasn’t good enough and neither was the one the week before. I’m probably my own worst critic, but if you come off the pitch pretending you’ve played well when you haven’t, you are only fooling yourself.
‘I’ve got another year left on my contract, but everybody’s contract is up in the air because no one has been a world beater this season.’
Well, Dave Savage and Stuart Campbell were both missing from the side that faced Rochdale and Christian Edwards was named on the bench. They all missed out on being part of a club record as Rovers drew their 17th game of the season. What’s more, it was a goalless one so there was very little for the Memorial Stadium crowd of 5,464 to get excited about! Interestingly, former Rovers striker Paul Tait and future Rovers front man Rickie Lambert were both in the Rochdale side and even they couldn’t find the back of the net!
This is what the manager had to say after the game; ‘We had enough opportunities, especially in the second half, but sometimes our final ball lets us down and we fail to get strikes on goal when we are in good positions.’
Atkins also hit back at terrace criticism of the club’s reputation as draw specialists following this game, citing a crippling injury list as the reason for a lack of wins rather than his defensive tactics; ‘Saying we are defensive is an easy option for people who don’t really understand the game. If I think we need to put players behind the ball in order to get a result between now and the end of the season, then we’ll do it.’
A goal down from the first leg of the LDV Vans Trophy Area Semi Final (Southend United won 2-1 at the Mem in the first leg), Rovers travelled to Roots Hall for the second leg on the Tuesday after the draw against Rochdale.
The Essex side shattered Rovers dream of progressing any further in the competition thanks to a 2-2 draw on the night. Southend opened the scoring through Wayne Gray, though Richard Walker equalised for Rovers before half time. Freddy Eastwood edged Southend back in front and although Junior Agogo got Rovers back on level terms it was the home side that went through to the Millennium Stadium Final as they won 4-3 on aggregate.
Adam Barrett and Che Wilson, both former Rovers players, were in the Southend side, as was current Rovers coach Kevin Maher. Atkins’ take on this game went like this; ‘It’s a case of so near yet so far. I believe that over the two legs we more than matched them and were probably the better side. But the goals we conceded in the first game, and the penalty miss, cost us. The two goals we gave away in this game were sloppy as well.’
With media reports suggesting that the manager’s position was under threat because of the Southend defeat, Atkins moved swiftly to deny that he was on the verge of getting the elbow; ‘If people want to speculate, then that’s up to them. I didn’t come here to sort out everybody’s mess from the past and then have people knocking me down. I came to push the club forward and there will be a plan in place to do that over the summer.’
He went on to say that he might use the remainder of the season to have a look at some of the club’s younger players in league action; ‘Lewis Haldane hasn’t had many starts and we have spent a lot of time trying to toughen him up physically and mentally. Maybe now we will give him the opportunity to play.
‘It might also be time to bring Ryan Clarke back in for the rest of the season to give him experience and Scott Sinclair will come into our thoughts as well.’
The day before their next game, against Bury at Gigg Lane, the manager revealed that both Dave Savage and Craig Disley might return after injury and there were also rumours that the club were preparing a bid for Carlisle United goalkeeper Matt Glennon in the summer. He had already played one game for the Gas when on loan from Bolton, though letting this news slip out after he had said he wanted Ryan Clarke to have a run in the side did seem a little bit strange and couldn’t have done a lot for Clarke’s confidence or that of first team keeper Kevin Miller. And Glennon never did return!
Savage and Disley did come back into to the side for the trip to Gigg Lane, though a bout of tonsilitis put paid to any hopes Ryan Clarke might have had of being involved. It was Disley who scored Rovers goal in a 1-1 draw, their eighteenth of the season.
There was an interesting quote from Atkins after this one; ‘I’m not Paul Daniels and I can’t just wave a wand and make things happen. I’ve tried to sort the club out from the bottom upwards and am still only halfway through the process.’
Goalscorer Disley revealed he was preparing to add a bit of bulk during the summer and said; ‘The gaffer gave me some vitamin tablets and I’ve also been out and got some of my own now. I’m going to have to get to the gym and build myself up and then come back next season as the bionic man!’
Off the pitch it was reported that the club’s matchday magazine, The Pirate, had won Programme of the Year for the fifth time in seven years.
Loan signing Ricky Shakes, who had featured at Southend but not Bury, returned to his parent club Bolton Wanderers with Atkins saying; ‘Ricky is going back to Bolton today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the end of him at Bristol Rovers.’ I think that was manager speak for ‘we won’t be seeing him again’!
There were a few words about Kevin Miller, as well, as it was revealed that he would step down for the final nine games of the season in favour of Ryan Clarke; ‘Kevin’s contract is up and he’s been a fantastic keeper and a great servant to this club’ said the manager, adding ‘He’s 36 now and I don’t know whether he wants to carry on playing or goalkeeping coaching.’
Goalkeeper Kevin Miller, pictured at Gigg Lane. He made way for Ryan Clarke after this game and was soon on his way to Derby County. Photo credit Jeff Davis
Jon Bass was given an outing in the reserve side a few days after the first team game at Bury and he helped the second XI win 2-0 against Team Bath. Lewis Haldane and Jamie Forrester were on target for the Gas.
There were rumours that Accrington Stanley winger Rory Prendergast might be arriving at the Memorial Stadium on loan, ahead of a permanent move in the summer. Stanley were, at that time, in the Conference and had paid a sum of £5,000 to secure his signature in December 2002. He never did show up in BS7!
The club announced their renewal of their shirt sponsorship deal with Cowlin Construction and Chairman Geoff Dunford said; ‘The relationship between Cowlin Construction and Bristol Rovers is about more than simple shirt sponsorship.
‘We are working with them on both the Phase One North Stand Development and the Filton College project. We believe this association has been mutually beneficial to both the club and Cowlin Construction.’
North Stand redevelopment? The club were waiting for planning permission for the North Stand which would replace the existing Blackthorn End with a 5,500 seat facility while their £18m training centre and Centre of Excellence at Filton College was due to open later that year. I didn’t realise that planning permission took so long – here we are some 15 years later and we still have a covered terrace behind the goal only now it’s the Thatcher’s Terrace as opposed to the Blackthorn End!
Ryan Clarke was looking forward to his promised run in the first team. At 23 years old he was the longest serving player at the club and was in line to play in the next match, a home fixture against Mansfield Town. He said; ‘There has been speculation about people coming in, so now it’s down to me to prove to the gaffer as well as myself that I’m ready for next year.’
Meanwhile Geoff Dunford announced that the club had made a loss of £450,000 in the previous season and said; ‘The 2003/04 season was yet another one of underachievement for Bristol Rovers, despite our investments in the playing side, and your directors were very disappointed with team performances.’
The Mansfield game did see Ryan Clarke take his place between the posts and he and his teammates were involved in yet another draw as the sides shared eight goals. Ryan Williams and Jamie Forrester scored from open play, while both Junior Agogo and Richard Walker converted penalties. Rovers had been 2-1 ahead at the half time break but Mansfield raced into a 4-2 lead in the second half only for Rovers to hit back to claim a point.
Manager Atkins described the game as a comedy of errors; ‘The game was riddled with mistakes and after getting our noses in front we made two horrendous errors at the start of the second half. The goals we gave away were very poor, although the pitch isn’t the best at the moment and had a lot to do with a couple of them. But if we give the ball away in stupid areas then it is going to cost us goals. We can’t keep giving people leads.’
Midfielder Dave Savage, who had asked for a transfer earlier in the season, but had since returned to the side after a hamstring injury, was playing well enough to be considered for a new contract and his manager said this about him; ‘Dave is one of the players that makes us tick. I think he’s played some of the best football of his career for us this season.’
Atkins also denied that Rovers had turned down a bid from Mansfield for Junior Agogo and said that the rumours were ‘laughable’. The manager also said that the club were hoping to keep 15 year old striker Scott Sinclair at the club by guaranteeing a professional contract in the future.
A few days after this news, Atkins revealed that both Christian Edwards and Paul Trollope were being placed on the transfer list. This news came just 24 hours before the transfer deadline and with both players still having a year left on their contract it seemed unlikely they would be moved on quickly.
One player who did leave the club on deadline day was goalkeeper Kevin Miller, who signed for Derby County on loan for the remainder of the season. Derby were, at that time, a Championship side.
One player was signed by Atkins, namely left sided midfielder Chris Carruthers, signed on loan from Northampton Town and he was in line to make his debut for the club in their next fixture, against Notts County at Meadow Lane.
Surprise, surprise, Rovers didn’t draw this one but came away with a 2-1 win, after being a goal down, courtesy of goals from Junior Agogo and Richard Walker. There was a debut for Carruthers, who replaced Craig Disley in the 78th minute.
‘Again we gave away a silly goal and went behind,’ said Atkins, adding ‘but we showed character to come back and overall I thought our performance was excellent and the overall balance of the side looked good.’
Atkins also revealed who he thought should win the club’s Player of the Year Award; ‘As a manager you don’t like to single out individuals, but you have to look at ‘Hunty’ (James Hunt) because of what he gives you week in, week out. He has played through a lot of injuries and also went right through all the games when we were struggling, with a virus.’
Scott Sinclair was hoping for his first start for the club just a few days after his 16th birthday in the Easter Monday clash against Darlington at the Memorial Stadium.
No prizes for guessing that Rovers drew against Darlington and it was another high scoring one (it finished 3-3) and so they ended March having played five league games, winning one and drawing four.
Richard Walker (2) and Steve Elliott were on target for Rovers in this one, while Sinclair didn’t even make the bench. Once again Rovers recovered a two goal deficit to claim a point, the fourth time that season they had done that.
Final word of March goes to the manager; ‘We looked at the state of the pitch and the report we’d had on Darlington from Saturday when they played with three big centre halves who marked man to man and we didn’t think it would suit Scott.
‘We didn’t want his confidence destroyed by playing on a pitch where the ball was bobbling all over the place, but he will get his chance.’
There might not have been any more games that month, but there was still time for Lewis Haldane to go out on a one month loan, to Forest Green Rovers, and for the club to reveal it’s new kit for the 2005/06 campaign and announce a new kit supplier.
Strikeforce were binned, with Errea replacing them and the new home kit featured a yellow trim on the traditional blue and white quartered shirts while the away shirts were yellow with a black trim.