By Keith Brookman
During this season we are going on a journey back in time, thirty years back in time to be precise, to a season that ended in a historic Championship and Rovers’ first ever trip to Wembley!
Part 10 – Ten in a month but the future is now in our hands
The first game of April 1990 saw Rovers attempt to make history and reach a Wembley Cup Final as they took on Notts County in the second leg of the Southern Area Leyland Daf Trophy Semi Final.
Leading 1-0 from the first leg at Twerton Park, Rovers knew that a draw would be enough to see them through to the final and some 2,500 Gasheads left Bristol on the afternoon of 2nd April to see if their side could make it.
Manager Gerry Francis faced selection problems for the match. Ian Alexander was due to take a late fitness test to determine his availability and Christian McLean, Vaughan Jones, Paul Nixon and Andy Reece were all receiving treatment for minor injuries.
Reece, who had become the fifth Rovers player to collect a red card in the previous weekend’s game against Northampton Town, was facing a three match ban but was eligible for this game.
Ahead of the game manager Francis said; ‘There will be a lot of tension this evening and we are taking nothing for granted. Meadow Lane can be quite an intimidating ground but I’m sure our supporters will be there in force. I hope we can give them something to cheer.’
In a tense game, Rovers and County played out a goalless draw, a result that guaranteed Rovers a date at Wembley on 20th May. They had just one shot on target all night and survived a scare at the end of the first half when a shot by County’s Tommy Johnson struck the underside of the crossbar.
Rovers’ only goal attempt came from Carl Saunders, but his 62nd minute shot was well saved by home goalkeeper Steve Cherry. At the other end Brian Parkin saved well from David Norton and Craig Short before County had a goal disallowed in the 89th minute.
Phil Stant’s header beat Parkin, but was chalked off for a foul on Geoff Twentyman, much to the relief of the Gasheads inside Meadow Lane.
These are just a few lines from one report of the match; ‘Tearful Rovers fans lifted their heroes shoulder high on a night of drama and high emotion at Meadow Lane. This was Rovers’ moment of glory and nothing was going to spoil it.’
Manager Francis said; ‘We haven’t won anything yet. I’ve played at Wembley and I know what a fantastic occasion it will be for them. The team performed well in the first half and thoroughly deserved their success. They have been the most consistent side over the last two seasons, and I am very proud of them.’
Twenty year old Steve Yates, Rovers Man of the Match on the night, said; ‘Ever since I knew I wanted to be a professional footballer, it’s been my ambition to play at Wembley, but I never thought it would happen so soon into my career. I can’t believe we’ve actually done it and it’s a brilliant feeling. This was as much for the supporters as for us. They have been fantastic and now we can give them a day out to remember.’
County manager Neil Warnock was gracious in defeat, saying; ‘Rovers deserve credit for the way they battled, Good luck to them.’
Reaching the final was, according to Director Geoff Dunford, worth in the region of £500,000 to the club and he said; ‘This is a great day for everyone connected with the club, especially the fans who stuck with us when we were at our lowest ebb.’
The night after the Rovers of Bristol made it through to the final, the Rovers of Tranmere went through with a 3-1 aggregate win against the Rovers of Doncaster – Wembley was to play host to two clubs who played in blue and white and what a day was in prospect.
However, there were still league games to play and those two sides were both chasing an automatic promotion place and were scheduled to meet at Prenton Park before April was out.
Gerry Francis reminded his troops that promotion was, indeed, their priority and warned them against complacency as they travelled north to face Wigan Athletic just two days after winning through to Wembley.
A 2-1 win at Springfield Park (this was before Wigan moved into their purpose built new stadium) saw Rovers leapfrog Tranmere into second place and move to within four points of leaders Bristol City with a game in hand.
Trailing after ten minutes, to an Ian Baraclough goal, they equalised through David Mehew (his 17th goal of the season) and clinched victory ten minutes from time thanks to Christian McClean. Victory meant it was a fifth consecutive 2-1 win in the league.
Manager Francis said; ‘I am proud of each and every one of the team. That’s the fourth game in a row they have battled back from a goal down and that shows tremendous character and fitness.’
Skipper Vaughan Jones said ahead of the side’s home game against Chester, their fourth game in eight days; ‘We could play every night if necessary, judging by the mood we’re in. We felt physically and mentally relaxed after the game at Wigan, which I felt was our best display since we beat them 6-1 the previous month. Tiredness is all in the mind. The boys will be well prepared to run themselves into the ground as we attempt to pick up another three points.’
His manager’s remedy for the exhausting schedule was this short, sharp, comment; ‘Train the players harder’ . Meanwhile the boss was also named Manager of the Month for March.
Ahead of the Chester game Lee Archer (2), Paul Nixon and Marcus Browning scored for the reserves in a 4-0 South West Counties League match against Swansea City at Keynsham.
Rovers also revealed that they had asked the government to open up the green belt for sporting development, citing their plans for a new stadium at Mangotsfield as one that might be turned down based on the fact that it was in a green belt area.
The game against Chester saw Rovers register their sixth successive 2-1 league win and, once again, David Mehew and Christian McClean were the goalscorers. This time, though, they didn’t have to come from behind to claim the points as they were 2-0 ahead before their visitors pulled a goal back.
McClean, who had asked for a transfer just two months earlier, was Man of the Match and said that he was glad that the manager had refused his request to leave; ‘He had faith in me and I’m glad he insisted I stay. Now I’ve got my chance I’m doing better than most people thought possible. As long as I keep playing like this, I’m sure I can keep my place. It was a good day for me and for Bristol Rovers.’
On the same day as the win against Chester, Richard Bourne and Paul Tovey scored the goals to give the youth team a 2-1 South East Counties win against Colchester United.
The following day, there was a testimonial match for Vaughan Jones at Yate Town’s Lodge Road ground and a crowd of 2,500 turned up to see the current Rovers side win 2-1 against the promotion team of 1974. Alan Warboys scored for the ‘Old Boys’ while Ian Holloway and Steve Yates scored for the current side.
Ahead of their next game, a Tuesday evening match against Huddersfield Town at Leeds Road, Rovers announced plans to supporters wishing to purchase tickets for their Wembley date against Tranmere. They had been allocated 30,000 and fans could buy up to a maximum of ten.
The game against Huddersfield was to be the last for Andy Reece before he began his three match ban for that red card against Northampton and he signed off in style as he scored the goal that earned his side a 1-1 draw.
However, his manager was far from pleased with the side’s first half performance, saying; ‘We performed magnificently for 37 games this season, but if we play many more like we did in the first 45 minutes, it will all be wasted. You couldn’t tell we were on the field. I could have brought eight players off and told them so, in no uncertain terms, at half time.
‘We were the luckiest team in the world to be level at the break but, that said, Huddersfield were lucky to be level for, after my half time chat, we were a different team and showed what we could do and Brian Parkin didn’t have a shot to save.’
The result left second placed Rovers six points behind Bristol City with a game in hand, and three points clear of third placed Tranmere Rovers who had also played a game more.
The next fixture saw Rotherham United visit Twerton Park and they were duly beaten 2-0 with David Mehew and Vaughan Jones on target.
Manager Francis was less than impressed with first year referee Mike Pierce, after Carl Saunders was flattened in the area the first half; ‘That was a blatant penalty, but the ref told us he played an advantage. In addition to that Rotherham tried to spoil the game by wasting as much time as they could.’
A win is a win, though, and there was no time to dwell on whether or not the performance was good enough because two days later Rovers were on their way to St Andrews for their next game, against Birmingham City.
There, in front of a crowd of 12,438, they recovered a two goal deficit to take a point from a 2-2 draw. Devon White and Carl Saunders scored in the 58th and 83rd minute respectively and left their former goalkeeper, Birmingham’s Martin Thomas, tipping them for promotion.
He said; ‘Rovers have proved themselves to be such a consistent side, I can’t see them failing now.’
It was a mixed bag of comments from manager Gerry Francis, who said; ‘I was pleased we got a point. Birmingham could have scored more goals in the first half. It was obviously going to be a game of two halves because of the phenomenal wind but doesn’t excuse our very poor defending. You couldn’t recognize us as a team that has the best defensive record in the country and has lost only four games.’
The manager also expressed his disappointment with the Football League, who were refusing to extend their season because they still had six games to play in a short space of time before the designated end to the campaign.
Meanwhile newspaper reports suggested that Tottenham Hotspur would visit Twerton Park on 7th May to play in a benefit match for skipper Vaughan Jones. It was also confirmed that Rovers would wear their traditional blue and white quartered shirts in their Wembley Final against Tranmere, though they would have to wear blue shorts instead of their usual white ones. In addition, they would use the home dressing rooms following the toss of a coin which saw Gerry Francis win the right to use that one.
Incredibly Rovers still had four games to play in April but before the next one, at home against Crewe Alexandra, there was the small matter of being measured up for their Cup Final suits at Debenhams in Bristol.
Midfielder Andy Reece, who had lost a stone in weight since joining the club three years before, revealed he was still referred to as ‘Fatty’ by his team mates and admitted that eating was one of his favourite hobbies. He had a simple cure for over indulging in the summer, though; ‘In the first few training sessions back I wear a black plastic bin liner . It acts as a mobile sauna and helps me lose any extra pounds. It looks pretty silly, but I’m prepared to take the jokes of the other players.’
Goalkeeper Brian Parkin was looking forward to the game against Crewe as it was the club where he began his career, but said that joining Rovers from Crystal Palace was the best move of his career.
He and his team mates had to be content with a share of the spoils, though. Devon White gave Rovers a 70th minute lead but the visitors equalised nine minutes later though Rovers felt they should have had a penalty three minutes from the end for an alleged foul on Carl Saunders who said; ‘Their defender, Aaron Callaghan, ran in front of me and then pushed me so it was clearly a penalty and not simply obstruction.’
His manager, Gerry Francis said; ‘We missed a great chance to put pressure on the three other teams at the top. We had a lot of the ball in dangerous areas and once we had scored that should have been enough to win the game.
‘But in the last ten minutes we were caught out by not thinking. The game was won but a lack of concentration when we left only three at the back cost us a goal. It was a blatant penalty when Carl Saunders was fouled and I saw the referee about it. He said it was obstruction, but we beg to differ.’
The result left Rovers six points behind arch rivals City, with a game in hand, three points clear of third placed Tranmere Rovers and five points clear of fourth placed Notts County.
Two days after sharing the spoils with Crewe, Rovers were on their way to Prenton Park where they faced Tranmere Rovers, their opponents in the following month’s Leyland Daf Cup Final and the side just below them in the league table.
A crowd of 12,723 saw Rovers take a huge step towards automatic promotion with a 2-1 win. Trailing to an 11th minute Ian Muir goal, they equalised through Geoff Twentyman on 63 minutes. Ian Holloway, who had to take pain killers before the game because of a knee injury, won the game with a calmly taken 86th minute penalty awarded after Carl Saunders had been brought down in the area.
‘It was disappointing to be behind at half time after playing so well,’ said Gerry Francis, ‘I don’t know if Carl Saunders was fouled inside or outside the area for the penalty, but he’s been so unlucky not to get one in previous matches, the luck has evened itself out.’
Matchwinner Holloway said; ‘Geoff Twentyman says I am the best penalty taker he has ever seen, provided I make my mind up which side to hit the ball and don’t change it. That was my only thought and I simply hit the ball to my favourite side.’
Thursday night saw Rovers on the road again and it was back to Meadow Lane, to face Notts County for the third time in just over a month.
County, though, exacted revenge for their recent Leyland Daf cup defeat and ran out 3-1 winners in front of a crowd of 10,142. It was only Rovers’ fifth defeat of the season and couldn’t have come at a worse time and ended a 23 match unbeaten run. Tommy Johnson, scored twice (his second from the penalty spot) for the home side and Phil Turner scored their other goal while David Mehew was on target for The Gas.
‘After such a good win at Tranmere on Monday, I was surprised by the transformation in our performance,’ said Francis. ‘It was very disappointing. The first two goals were poor ones to concede but Notts County deserved to win.
‘In spite of the defeat, though, I can’t remember enjoying such a magnificent sequence of results with any of the clubs I have been associated with in my career.’
Skipper Vaughan Jones said; ‘We are just happy that we have a game so soon after this defeat. We trained today (Friday) so we’ve not even had time to think about the game. If we’d had a few days to dwell on it then it might have been different. But now we need three points to get back on the right road.’
The final game of April came on Saturday April 28th against Shrewsbury Town at Twerton Park and they took all three points thanks to a fortuitous penalty award. As Carl Saunders ran to meet a cross from the right he stumbled and fell as Shrewsbury defender Graeme Worsley attempted to challenge him. Referee Peter Tyldesley immediately pointed to the spot.
Ian Holloway, who converted the 35th minute spot kick, said this; ‘It wasn’t a penalty. The referee put his hands to his head when he saw the incident again on video afterwards. But things have a great habit of levelling out in football. I didn’t agree with the penalty given against me at Notts County, for example, and Carl should have had one the previous week against Crewe.’
‘We showed a lot of bottle and shut Shrewsbury out in a very professional way,’ said Gerry Francis, adding ‘We haven’t stopped playing now for a month. Some of the results have been tremendous but, whatever the final outcome, we’ll be able to say we’ve done it the hard way.’
While Rovers were taming the Shrews, Bristol City lost, and Notts County drew. This meant that there was a huge emphasis on the Bristol derby the following Wednesday at Twerton Park. The winners would be guaranteed promotion. If City won, they would take the title, while a Rovers victory would see them top the table for the first time since December. A draw would see City promoted but Rovers would need another point, assuming that Notts County won their last two games.
After ten games in April, there were just two league games left in the first week of May as well as a first appearance at Wembley to follow. Bring on City, Blackpool and Tranmere!
V Notts County, 2nd April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell (Nixon, 89), Saunders, McClean. Unused Substitute: Willmott
V Wigan Athletic, 4th April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece (White, 57), Purnell, McClean, Saunders. Unused Substitute: Willmott
V Chester City, 7th April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece (White, 65), Purnell, McClean, Saunders. Unused Substitute: Willmott
V Huddersfield Town, 10th April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell (White, 90), McClean, Saunders. Unused Substitute: Willmott
V Rotherham United, 14th April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Nixon (Purnell, 76), White, McClean, Saunders. Unused Substitute: Willmott
V Birmingham City, 16th April
Parkin, Willmott (Hazel, 88) Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Nixon (Purnell, 88), White, McClean, Saunders
V Crewe Alexandra 21st April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Holloway, Mehew, Nixon (Purnell, 60), White, McClean (Hazel, 60), Saunders
V Tranmere Rovers, 23rd April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Nixon (McClean, 61), White, Saunders (Hazel, 89)
V Notts County, 26th April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece (Nixon, 55), McClean, White, Saunders. Unused Substitute: Hazel
V Shrewsbury Town, 28th April
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell (Nixon, 80), White (McClean, 80), Saunders.