By Keith Brookman
Having looked back at the month of April 2007, we have returned to the same year and the following month. We have also taken this lockdown opportunity to give you a bumper month, with a separate release for each of the four stunning wins in May 2007!
We hope that the memories contained in these articles will bring back many memories of an incredible month of May just 13 years ago. We also trust that you are all taking care of yourself, your loved ones, friends and those who may be in the vulnerable category as we wait for this awful virus to pass. Wherever you are, and whatever you do, please stay safe.
A final appearance meant that Rovers created a little bit of history as they became the first Football League Club to play in finals at the Millennium Stadium and Wembley in the same season. Only Chelsea, of the Premiership as it was then, could boast that feat as well.
Almost every squad player was interviewed ahead of the game, and all said something very similar. They couldn’t afford to lose. Byron Anthony summed it up in this way; ‘We’ve had quite a few big games this year and we’ve coped with them pretty well. Our whole season is going to come down to this one game and there is so much more at stake than in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
‘That’s why we have to treat it just like any other game. The most important thing is not to let the occasion get to us, but to enjoy it. We’re certainly looking forward to it.’
The squad and staff members left Bristol the day before the final and headed for London Colney and Arsenal’s training ground. From memory it was Lennie Lawrence who arranged that one – he had so many contacts in the game and always managed to get a decent training venue when we were on the road. When we were in the north east, he invariably arranged training at Middlesbrough, one of his former clubs, while Paul Trollope would always manage to obtain the use of Derby County’s facilities. Other favourites for training on the way to an overnight stop were those at Stoke City, Nottingham Forest, Watford, Sheffield United and QPR.
The Arsenal facilities were, as you would expect, outstanding and everyone seemed fairly relaxed. There were enough staff to arrange an impromptu kick around in the goalmouth of one of the training pitches and we all made sure we were on the scoresheet, just to say we’d scored at Arsenal…childish, I know, but it just had to be done!
From Colney it was on to the team hotel in Hertfordshire and then a few of us went on to Wembley with kitman Roger Harding, who had obtained permission from the stadium authorities to drop the kit in the night before. Naturally, photos just had to be taken. A group of grown men acting like excited schoolchildren, though I guess the staff at the stadium had seen it all before!
Back at the hotel where everyone gathered for the evening meal and, when the players departed and went to their rooms the staff relaxed, outside in the garden, with a few alcoholic beverages. Given that the club was to be involved in one of the most important games in recent club history less than 24 hours later, everyone was remarkably calm. There was no tension, or nerves, just a quiet confidence that we would get the job done.
Club suits and blue buttonholes were the uniform we all wore the next day before boarding the team coach for the short drive to Wembley. We had to stop in the car park to pick up Lennie Lawrence for the short journey from there into the bowels of the stadium before pulling up outside the entrance to the dressing rooms. Lennie never travelled on the team coach and he wasn’t about to start on the day of the final, apart from hitching a short lift of a couple of hundred yards to the inner sanctum.
Remember, this was only the second final to be played at the new Wembley and everything behind the scenes was in pristine condition and the dressing rooms were even bigger than those at the Millennium Stadium.
Once again, there was a calmness about the side prior to kick off and the feeling was that we were going to win. We did it the hard way, though.
Just as in the final at the Millennium Stadium the previous month, Rovers conceded an early goal. Stuart Drummond headed home after only three minutes to give the Shrews the lead.
Rovers, though, hit back and Richard Walker equalised with 21 minutes on the clock, clipping the ball past goalkeeper Chris Mackenzie with his left foot.
The striker then scored one of his best ever goals in a Rovers shirt with ten minutes of the half remaining. Running into space on the left he latched on to a pass from Chris Carruthers and as Mackenzie advanced off his line, he chipped the ball over the goalkeeper’s head and into the far corner of the net.
Shrewsbury did all they could to get back on level terms after the break but resolute defending and some excellent saves from Steve Phillips kept them at bay. With added time looming the Shrews were reduced to ten men when Marc Tierney picked up his second yellow card of the afternoon following a late challenge on Stuart Campbell.
Goalkeeper Mackenzie went up for a last minute corner but the ball was cleared as far as Sammy Igoe deep inside his own half and we all know what happened next…he set off for the unguarded Shrewsbury goal with Shrewsbury players in hot pursuit. As they closed in, Igoe summoned up enough strength to shoot and the ball rolled agonisingly to the empty net. For one minute it appeared that defender Kelvin Langmead would get back to clear. After what seemed like an eternity, though, the ball crossed the line. Rovers were promoted, and the celebrations began!
After the customary champagne spraying out on the pitch and the short interviews for TV it was back to the chaos in the dressing room and more spraying of fizzy alcohol! There were formal press interviews to be done before we boarded the bus back to Bristol.
We didn’t get far, though. I’m not sure if it’s still there, but just down the road from the stadium was a Tesco and the coach driver was politely asked if he would pull into the car park as everyone had contributed to a kitty for some liquid refreshment on the journey home (Actually, it wasn’t exactly a polite request!)
Craig Hinton, who had missed the game through injury, was first off and into the supermarket and he and one or two others returned with trolleys full of liquid gold!
Needless to say, it was quite a happy journey back the Mem where a reception had been laid on by Directors for players, staff and partners which meant forcing down another beer or three! Rovers fans everywhere were celebrating that win for days to come and two days later the club celebrations climaxed with an open top bus tour and a civic reception at the Council House on College Green.
Goalscorers Igoe and Walker had created a little piece of history for themselves, having scored in finals at the Millennium Stadium and Wembley in the same season. Only Chelsea’s Didier Drogba had managed that up until that point.
Igoe said; ‘With the great cup runs we had this year we fell by the wayside a little bit in the league, so to put in a run like we did after appearing at the Millennium Stadium has been absolutely unbelievable. Hopefully this is the start of things to come, not the end and with Lennie and ‘Trolls’ in charge I think we can go further.’
Walker added; ‘It’s been a fantastic all round day and I’m absolutely delighted. To be honest, it’s been that good I’m almost speechless. To go 1-0 down so early was a setback, but we still believed in ourselves. To come back as we did, and for me to get two goals, means it’s been the best day of my career.’
Director of Football Lennie Lawrence was also interviewed on this momentous occasion and he said; ‘I’ve had lots of times where things have come down to the last game. I’ve lost in semi finals and I’ve been promoted and relegated before the end of the season, but when it’s come down to one final game I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve never lost, whether it’s league or play offs. It was nice to maintain that record today, especially in a play off final.
‘In football you are either going forwards or backwards, there is no such thing as standing still. At the moment we are going forwards, and we need to keep that momentum going.’
Paul Trollope had this to say; ‘All the players that played here today, we want here next season. They know that, we’ve said it publicly now; we want to keep this group together.’
‘I’m happy at Bristol Rovers. There’s a new stadium around the corner, and I want to be here for the foreseeable future because I owe the club a great deal. It made me a proud man to take charge of the club and I want it to continue.’
The open top bus tour passed through Warmley and Kingswood on its way to the city centre and College Green which was a sea of blue and white.
Inside the civic centre there were the customary photos with the local dignitaries before players departed for a well deserved short break.
It was a truly fitting end to what had been such an amazing season.