By Keith Brookman
This month we have gone back 13 years, to April 2007 for no other reason than it was a great month for Rovers and their supporters and because, in this very difficult time, we thought it might cheer everyone up!
We hope you enjoy the memories that looking back to this time brings and trust that you are all taking care of yourself, your loved ones, friends, and those who may be in the vulnerable category. Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, please stay safe.
The first day of the month was a Sunday, and not just any Sunday as Rovers were involved in a Cup Final. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final to be exact and their opponents were Doncaster Rovers in the last English Final to be played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Paul Trollope and his squad made the short trip across the Severn Bridge on the Saturday and, after a light training session at the University of South Wales and a trip to view the Millennium Stadium pitch, headed for the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel where they stayed the night before the final.
On the morning of the final breakfast was followed by a brisk walk and once everyone had changed into their cup final suits there was time for a team photo before heading off to the stadium. Gasheads on their way to the match seemed to be everywhere and almost every car was decked out in blue and white as the team coach sped towards the Welsh capital.
The streets surrounding the stadium were a sea of blue and white and red and white (Doncaster colours) and there really did seem to be a carnival atmosphere around the whole area.
The dressing rooms were, at that time, the most luxurious I had ever seen though I wasn’t to know that they would be bettered the following month (that’s another story!).
Once the preliminaries were over the game got underway and the Rovers of Bristol made a disastrous start. Having reached the final without conceding a goal, Paul Trollope’s side conceded twice in the opening five minutes.
Jonathan Forte opened the scoring for the Rovers of Doncaster after only 50 seconds and Paul Heffernan, who would later in his career join Paul Trollope’s side on loan, added a second with just five minutes on the clock.
There were no further goals in the first half but Trollope’s side pulled a goal back five minutes into the second half, through a Richard Walker penalty and drew level just after the hour mark when Sammy Igoe rifled home from close range.
No further goals meant extra time and that’s when blue and white hearts were broken as Doncaster skipper Graham Lee headed the winning goal just ten minutes before the final whistle.
It really was a match that was a credit to the lower divisions and was witnessed by a crowd of 59,024, of which almost 40,000 were supporting the Gas.
‘I am very proud of the way we played,’ said Trollope, adding ‘we played some good football in the first half but we really got a hold on the game after the interval. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be for us on the day, but we will treasure the memories from it.’
It wasn’t the end of the season for Rovers, though, as they still had a play off place to aim for, a fact not lost on skipper Stuart Campbell as he and his team mates prepared for trip to face Mansfield at Field Mill; ‘The final gave us a taste of the big occasion. Hopefully it will whet our appetites for getting to the play offs.’
Events off the field saw Chairman Geoff Dunford step down after the Millennium Stadium Final and Ron Craig moved into the hotseat and he said; ‘My tenure as Chairman will be different to that of Geoff because we are different people and have different personalities. Many people will wonder if a younger man would have been more appropriate in the post, but my answer is that age is not a concern for me.
‘Bristol Rovers are facing a stern challenge over the next couple of years and I’m up for that.’
Goalkeeper Steve Phillips, who admitted that the first Doncaster goal was down to him, looked ahead to the remainder of the league programme and said; ‘We’ve got seven cup finals and although they may not be in a fantastic stadium, if people want their careers to go forwards rather than backwards then we need to win the next five. It’s not going to be easy.’
Ahead of the trip to Mansfield, Rovers were five points adrift of a top seven place with a game in hand and Paul Trollope felt that his side could put themselves in the mix for a play off place if they enjoyed a good set of results over the Easter period; ‘Other results have gone for us recently but that will be insignificant if we don’t do our jobs tomorrow.’
Midfielder Sammy Igoe said he felt that Rovers could reach the Wembley play off final; ‘I think, realistically, if we can win five games out of our remaining seven it could be enough. But we are capable of winning all seven and that’s what we will be setting out to do.’
A 35th minute Steve Elliott goal at Field Mill ensured that Trollope’s side collected three points on Easter Saturday and left them three points away from a top seven finish, still with a game in hand.
‘It was a vital victory,’ said Trollope afterwards ‘the three points were the be all and end all, no matter how they came.’
Of his goal, his fifth of the season, defender Elliott said; ‘It was my aim to improve my goal tally this season and maybe I can get a couple more before it ends. That would be very nice. ‘As for this one, it’s hard to say whether it’s the best I’ve ever scored or not (it came from an overhead kick). I need to see it again, and sometimes things look different on the telly!’
Two days later Bury were the visitors to the Memorial Stadium and, in front of a crowd of 6,266 they were beaten 2-0 thanks to two goals from Rickie Lambert who said afterwards; ‘It was important that I started scoring and I was pleased to get two. For the first Andy Sandell won a header, Richard Walker got a great touch to take it away from their player and I hit it early.
‘The second one came from a free kick we work on every week in training, although it never seemed to come off in games until now. I think it hit me just below the knee before it went in, but I was pleased it bounced up and into the net.’
Defender Ryan Green, injured at Grimsby in February, played 70 minutes of a reserve team game against Weymouth at the Memorial Stadium a day later and came through with no ill effects; ‘Missing out on playing at the Millennium Stadium was a big disappointment, but hopefully we can get into the play offs now. We’ve got a massive chance and I would like to be fit and available.’
Rovers were 2-0 winners against Weymouth in that game, both goals being scored by Chris Lines.
Man of the Match in the Millennium Final, Lewis Haldane, said he felt he was now too old for the tag of promising youngster, especially as he found himself the longest serving player on the books!; ‘I was 22 a few weeks ago and when you look in the Premiership now and see 17 and 18 year olds it’s time I need to fulfil my potential and show people what I’m made of.’
Ahead of the next match, against Barnet at Underhill, Paul Trollope said; ‘We are very much focused on the game. They are on a good run and have had some positive results against top clubs, so it’s going to be tough.’
The manager also revealed that the club would be taking another look at striker Josh Klein-Davies, recently released by Bristol City.
A point gained at Underhill, thanks to a 12th minute Richard Walker goal, saw Rovers remain in ninth place, just a point away from a play off spot. However, they had to play out almost all of the second half with ten men following Aaron Lescott’s 48th minute red card.
The referee said that Lescott was dismissed for a two footed challenge and trying to find video evidence to prove otherwise was proving to be problematic as the company that normally filmed Barnet’s home games didn’t turn up!
There was more bad news as defender Craig Hinton limped off with a groin injury 15 minutes from time and there were fears that his season might be over.
Stuart Nicholson had to be substituted before half time in a midweek reserve team game against Cheltenham Town with a stomach injury and he was also rated doubtful for the next match, against Lincoln City at the Mem.
Ahead of that match Paul Trollope said; ‘We are seven points behind Lincoln with a game in hand and they are in fifth place. A win might be enough to get us into the top seven this weekend.
He went on to tell Rovers fans that they had a major part to play in the club’s late push for a play off place; ‘Our fans can be a huge factor for us. We had a great following at Barnet last weekend, and they were very vocal and really got behind the lads. After we went down to ten men you could see what the result meant to them and I think after the final whistle they realised that it was probably a good point for us.
‘Hopefully the supporters will realise how big the Lincoln game is and come out and back us in numbers and volume.’
Off the pitch supporters were being asked their opinions on two possible ground share options when the redevelopment of the Memorial Stadium began! Cheltenham Town’s Whaddon Road and Swindon Town’s County Ground were the grounds in question. Geoff Dunford, the club’s former chairman, said; ‘We are not asking fans to pick the venue, we are looking to find out how they would travel to either ground.’
Craig Hinton’s season ending injury meant a return to the side for Byron Anthony. Injured in the final game of 2006, at Walsall, the defender had started the previous nine games on the bench having recovered from the knee injury sustained in that game.
‘I feel I’m back to full fitness. It took a bit longer than I would have liked but with Craig and Steve Elliott doing well I couldn’t come straight back in the side. But now my chance has come along again, and I aim to take it.’
A Memorial Stadium crowd of 6,828 saw Rovers and Lincoln play out a goalless draw. Three times the Gas were saved by the goal frame and by a Lincoln side that also missed two golden opportunities to seal victory and extinguish Rovers’ hopes of a play off place.
Goalkeeper Steve Phillips was quite brutal in his assessment of the game; ‘We are shooting from 50 yards and my gran would save the ball from there. We were on top for 60 minutes or so, yet Lincoln hit the woodwork several times and their goalkeeper hardly made a save.’
Paul Trollope, though, felt that three wins from the remaining three games, beginning with an away match at Macclesfield Town the following Tuesday, would seal a play off place; ‘We needed three points against Lincoln and the draw just makes the job a bit more difficult. We probably need to win the last three games now and we have to bounce back quickly at Macclesfield.’
Ahead of the trip to the Moss Rose it was announced that the club were close to agreeing new deals with skipper Stuart Campbell and goalkeeper Steve Phillips, though Director of Football Lennie Lawrence felt that the club could face a battle to hold on to defender Steve Elliott who had been the subject of enquiries from other clubs. Lawrence also revealed that the club was keen to secure the future of Lewis Haldane and to keep Richard Walker at the Mem.
Rickie Lambert and Byron Anthony both passed fitness tests at the Moss Rose ahead of the game against Macclesfield and took their places in the starting lineup. However, it was left to second half substitute Sean Rigg to seal the points for Rovers as his 59th minute goal was the difference between the sides as Rovers continued their quest for a play off place. It was the first senior goal scored by Rigg and his manager said; ‘Sean has made an impact from the bench in the last two games, but this time he got his first goal and it was a crucial one for us.
‘It’s a huge win because it keeps us in the hunt ahead of a derby game at the weekend against a Swindon Town side that needs a point to go up.’
Rovers were expecting their biggest crowd of the season for the game against Swindon at the Mem and Trollope said; ‘The prospect of a midweek trip to Macclesfield wasn’t very enticing but our travelling fans followed us again and gave us great vocal support. Now we have to give them something else to shout about on Saturday.’
Ahead of the game against Trollope’s hometown side, it was confirmed that Stuart Nicholson’s season was over as he was undergoing a hernia operation to cure the problem that had hindered him for a while.
Midfielder Sammy Igoe, a former Swindon player, said he hoped that his former side would gain promotion, but a week later as this was game that Rovers needed to win; ‘It’s the most important game of our season, more important than the Millennium Stadium game. After that defeat we could easily have fallen to pieces, but the team has kicked on and we haven’t lost.’
There were 9,902 fans inside the Mem to see Rovers register another single goal victory, achieved thanks to Rickie Lambert’s 26th minute goal. The three points lifted Rovers into the final play off place with just an away game at Hartlepool United to come the following weekend.
Lambert said afterwards; ‘That might just be the most important goal I’ve ever scored. It’s definitely the best.’
His goal saw Rovers leapfrog one of his former clubs, Stockport County, into the top seven and now both sides would fight it out for the final play off place, ironically in the north east, as Stockport’s last game was just down the road from Hartlepool, at Darlington.
Final word of what was an outstanding April for his side, goes to Paul Trollope; ‘We are the team in from and we’ve worked very hard to get where we are. We know what the target is, and we know what we have to do. All our focus now is on winning at Hartlepool.
‘It’s a big achievement because after we played Notts County last month we were only 17th. We’ve done well in our games in hand and picked up some good points since then. Now we need to stay there, and any complacency next weekend will mean our season ends there and then.’