By Keith Brookman
As with any new season, the start of the 2011/12 campaign brought with it a sense of optimism following a traumatic season that had seen the club go through a number of managerial changes and had ended with relegation to League Two.
Paul Buckle had taken over the managerial reigns and had brought in so many new players, many from his former club Torquay United, that supporters were losing count.
The first day of August saw Rovers send a squad to play Bitton to mark the opening of their new clubhouse and Buckle performed the opening ceremony before watching his side lose 2-1 in front of a crowd estimated to be 1,200.
Steve Jones and Luke Clarke scored for the home side while Eliot Richards replied for Rovers, who gave a trial to former Swindon Town striker Vince Pericard and fielded many of the younger players on their books.
Buckle, though reckoned that his first team squad were in good shape for the start of the new season, as they had won six of their eight warm up fixtures.
The manager named newly arrived midfielder Matt Gill as his skipper for the season ahead and the former Norwich City player said; ‘It’s an honour and I’m looking forward to leading the team. I was captain when I was at Exeter City, so I have some experience of it, though I’ve always liked to think of myself as a leader on the pitch. Even if I don’t have the armband I try to lead by example anyway.’
The first league match of the new season was an away match against league newcomers AFC Wimbledon at their shared Kingsmeadow home. The SKY cameras were going to be in attendance for the match and central defender Adam Virgo, another of the newcomers, said; ‘There is a belief in our squad that we can win every single game of football, and that’s the way we need to approach it if we are going to go out and win promotion at the end of the season.’
Former Lincoln City, Torquay United and MK Dons winger Mustapha Carayol was another of the new recruits also looking ahead to what he hoped would be a successful season; ‘I think we’ve had a good pre-season with some decent results, so hopefully we can keep that going. Anything less than promotion will be a disappointment, and hopefully we can go up automatically.’
Striker Matt Harrold, a summer recruit from Shrewsbury Town told of his goalscoring record against AFC Wimbledon; ‘I scored a hat trick against them, for Wycombe Wanderers, in a 4-1 FA Cup clash in 2008 and scored another in a pre-season friendly, so that’s four goals in two matches against them.’
Meanwhile goalkeeper Scott Bevan, signed from Torquay United, said he was expecting some stick from the Wimbledon fans because, in a previous life, he had played for their arch rivals MK Dons.
As it turned out, Buckle’s side were 3-2 winners against the League’s newcomers, though they had surrendered a two goal lead given to them by Scott McGleish and Matt Harrold and had to rely on an Adam Virgo penalty for the winner after Jamie Stuart and Charles Ademeno had put the hosts back on level terms.
The only player in the starting XI from the previous season was central defender Byron Anthony, though Chris Lines and Jo Kuffour did make substitute appearances.
The manager was delighted with the three points and said; ‘We want to try to win every game and even if we are 2-0 up, we want to go on and score a third. It was an exciting game and I think we deserved to win. That will be borne out by the statistics, because we had far more attempts on goal than Wimbledon.’
Next scheduled game for Rovers was a Carling Cup tie against Watford at the Memorial Stadium. Ahead of that game skipper Matt Gill said; ‘Watford will be a physical and competitive side. I’ve played against their manager Sean Dyche before and I know he will get them going.’
Meanwhile the manager said; ‘Watford are a Championship team with good players and a good manager, and it is going to be very difficult for us. But we can go out and play with freedom. We are not expected to win the game, but deep down we will feel that we can.’
As it turned out, the game wasn’t played on the date it was meant to be, Wednesday 10th August, as it was called off by police who feared there would be more rioting in the city following trouble two days earlier.
And so it was on to the next match, a home game against Buckle’s former club, Torquay United. Their skipper, Lee Mansell, still a few years away from becoming a Rovers player, said in the build up; ‘It’s a game that all the supporters and the boys who were here last year are looking forward to. It’s going to be good but it’s also going to be weird in a way because there’s a lot of us who were with Buckle for the best part of four years. It’s going to be strange to see him in the opposite dugout.’
Goalkeeper Scott Bevan was again expecting some stick from the opposition supporters as he had been Buckle’s first signing, following his manager from Plainmoor to the Mem.
He said; ‘I had two and a half very good seasons at Torquay and have some good memories, though it’s going to be strange playing against lads that I know so well.’
Buckle himself said, about the prospect of facing his former club so early in the season, that it was all about three points for his new club; ‘I’m proud to be Bristol Rovers manager and I’m setting a team up ready to go and win on Saturday. It’s all about getting three points and staying at the right end of the table. It’s other people’s prerogative what they shout or sing, I’m just trying to make sure we win the game.’
One player left the Mem prior to the game against Torquay. Chris Lines joined Sheffield Wednesday, on a three year deal, in a £50,000 move.
Torquay made it uncomfortable for their former boss as they left the Mem with a 2-1 win under their belts in front of a crowd of 8,427.
Taiwo Atieno, after ten minutes, and former Rovers player Rene Howe, from the penalty spot, saw the visitors 2-0 ahead after only 13 minutes. Byron Anthony reduced the arrears in the second half but Torquay held out for all three points.
‘We have a lot to work on, but we only lost by the odd goal and the players have shown great spirit to nearly come back to get a point. We had a flow to our game in the second half and put Torquay under severe pressure,’ was the response from the Rovers boss.
Northampton Town, managed by former Bristol City boss Lee Johnson were next up at the Mem, just three days after that defeat. Paul Buckle said of this encounter; ‘They will be dangerous but if we play to our best, which we only did in patches on Saturday, then I think we can do well.’
Goals from Jo Kuffour, in the first half and Matt Harrold after Adebayo Akinfenwa’s goal for the visitors, gave Rovers a 2-1 win which delighted their manager who said; ‘I thought we were outstanding. I was disappointed that we weren’t three goals up at half time, because we were dominant. We had good tempo and fight and were physically strong all over the pitch.’
Matt Gill said that workrate was the key to the win; ‘We knew we would have to work hard after what happened to us in the first 15 minutes against Torquay, when we found ourselves two goals down.
‘We came out of the blocks brilliantly against Northampton. The lads were really at it and we should have gone in at least a couple of goals up at half time.’
Buckle challenged his side to keep their first clean sheet of the season in their next game, away at Macclesfield Town, saying; ‘Six points is a good return so far and now it’s time for a clean sheet. That has to be the next target for us, and we have to steer clear of conceding silly goals and the challenge is to become really solid as a unit.’
Midfielder Craig Stanley said, ahead of the game; ‘So far, so good. The lads are getting to know how the gaffer wants to play as the season goes on, and I think you will see us getting more and more used to it. I think you could see, against Northampton, that the lads were taking on board the things he wants from us. If we can carry on improving and cut out some of the silly little mistakes we’ve been making, then we will do well.’
Buckle and his side got the clean sheet they craved at the Moss Rose where, in front of a crowd of just 1,855 Rovers played out a goalless draw with their hosts.
The manager declared himself satisfied with a point, saying; ‘It was a hard fought game and we spent the majority of the second half defending long throws. We probably played better in the first half. After that we got the ball down, moved it quickly and created a couple of really good openings.’
Next up was the Carling Cup tie against Watford at the Memorial Stadium and, on a Tuesday night in late August Rovers went through to the second round by virtue of a 4-2 penalty shootout victory against their Championship opponents.
The visitors took a second minute lead, through Marvin Sordell, but Matt Harrold equalised for Rovers three minutes later and that’s how it stayed even after a half hour’s extra time.
Scott Bevan saved spot kicks from John Eustace and Carl Dickinson while Rovers scored through Jo Kuffour, Adam Virgo, Wayne Brown and Mustapha Carayol, though Scott McGleish rolled his penalty wide of the upright.
Carayol’s spot kick proved to be the decisive one and he said afterwards; ‘When we practiced penalties, I was walking up to the ball when I took mine. The manager told me not to do it, but I wasn’t going to change. I’m just glad it went in!
‘I’m naturally a confident player and I don’t really let things get to me. I’ve always tried to stick to the things that I know I’m good at and it’s always worked for me.’
It was back to league action on the following Saturday when Hereford United were the visitors to the Memorial Stadium and striker Matt Harrold was urging his team mates not to take a result against the Bulls, who had just one point from four league games, for granted.
‘It’s games like this that are dangerous,’ said Harrold, adding ‘everyone will expect us to win. I’m sure it was like that when we played Torquay a couple of weeks ago, even though they had done well last season. People turned up thinking we would win and, as we found out, it doesn’t happen just like that.’
On the day of the game against Hereford it was reported that Rovers had signed defender Danny Woodards on a one year deal after he had turned down a new contract with MK Dons.
The game ended in another goalless draw in what was described as a largely forgettable contest. Manager Paul Buckle blamed the pitch for that!
He said; ‘It sounds like an excuse, but I couldn’t believe how dry parts of the pitch were. That was the reason we failed to get good crosses in from the right in the first half. The ball kept bobbling up and hitting players on the shins.
‘When I was at Torquay I always demanded a slick surface. There is nothing visiting teams like to see more than a dry pitch, which slows up the game. It is a lesson learned for the future. We want our own pitch to help our players and the passing football we like to play. That wasn’t the case today.’
There was no rest for Buckle and his players as, just a week after dumping Watford out of the Carling Cup they travelled to face Leyton Orient in the second round of the competition just three days after the draw against Hereford United.
However, hopes of an extended run in the competition were dashed as Orient ran out 3-2 winners. Trailing 2-0 at half time Rovers hit back to level after the break thanks to strikes from Chris Zebroski and Eliot Richards only for Orient’s Stephen Dawson to net the winner with virtually the last kick of the game.
After the match Buckle, who saw Danny Woodards make his Rovers senior debut when replacing Adam Virgo in the first half, said; ‘Football can be a cruel game sometimes, and we will have to take this on the chin and move on, but there are plenty of plus points we can take from it.
‘Every single player worked their socks off and, despite the result, I’m delighted with the performance because we played some good controlled football to open a League One side up.’
I think it’s fair to say that the month of August 2011 was as good as it got for Paul Buckle. He certainly didn’t endear himself to Rovers’ supporters and lasted only until 2nd January 2012 when he was dismissed after a 2-0 defeat at Barnet, just days before a home FA Cup tie against Aston Villa.