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 8 – Red Shirt Spells Danger *
* Amended Billy Ocean song title because Carl Saunders was signed this month. Geddit? He played for Stoke, the City match was due, and we even played Walsall and Brentford. No? Oh I give up…
January 1990 ended with Rovers in third place in the league table and with manager Gerry Francis looking to strengthen his squad.
Having watched Carl Saunders play for Stoke City reserves in the week leading up to the derby match with Bristol City, Francis finally landed his man when Saunders joined the club the day before the game against City was scheduled to take place.
Saunders wasn’t the only player to arrive at the club, as the manager also brought in David Byrne, on loan from Plymouth Argyle.
However, as he explained, he was still looking to add more players; ‘We still need to strengthen the squad numerically, whether we pay more fees or get free transfers.’
He was delighted with the two players he had managed to sign, though; ‘Saunders is only 25 and has played 144 league games at a higher level, so for £70,000 that’s not bad. He has played in a number of positions and a couple of seasons ago he had a really good season with 18 goals in the Second Division.’
‘As for Byrne’, the manager said; ‘He will provide the cover we need on the flanks and has experience of having played for a number of clubs and gained valuable league experience.’
There was also talk of Rovers signing former striker Paul Randall who was, apparently, in the form of his life at Bath City and he said, when asked; ‘I would be interested if Rovers wanted me back. I still have a great affection for the club and could not rule out playing for them again. But I don’t expect Bath would be prepared to discuss the issue until my contract expires at the end of the season.’
He was right, of course, and never did return to the club for a third spell.
Meanwhile the long awaited league match against local rivals Bristol City, scheduled for Saturday 3rd February, was postponed as torrential rain had left the Twerton Park pitch waterlogged.
The game was called off at 8.15am on the morning of the game, meaning that Rovers were faced with police cots of £2,500 because it hadn’t been called off before 10.00pm the previous night. Club secretary Bob Twyford indicated that the club would appeal against the police decision to bill them for the match.
And so, Rovers first game of the month was a Leyland Daf Cup tie against Brentford at Griffin Park on Tuesday 6th February. A crowd of 4,409 were treated to a 2-2 draw, extra time and a penalty shootout before Rovers progressed to the area semi final.
Brentford had opened the scoring in the 8th minute through Neil Smillie while Ian Holloway equalised for Rovers, from the penalty spot, after 36 minutes. Carl Saunders, on his Rovers debut, gave the Gas the lead ten minutes into extra time and Dean Holdsworth netted for the home side in the dying seconds of the game, thus sending the tie into a penalty shootout.
Holloway, Vaughan Jones, Phil Purnell and Geoff Twentyman all scored from the spot for Rovers while Andy Reece saw his effort saved by Tony Parks. Alan Cockram, Holdsworth and Roger Stanislaus scored for the home side, while Gary Blissett hit his effort over the bar and Brian Parkin saved from John Buttigieg.
‘We deserved to win the game outright,’ said manager Francis, adding ‘but I feel we gave away two silly goals to make it difficult for ourselves. But Brentford are enjoying a good home run in the league and to beat them at Griffin Park is a credit to our side.’
After the game debut boy Saunders said; ‘The legs were a bit stiff after playing for two hours and coupled with the fact that I’ve not been taking penalties I thought it best not to be in the first five to take one.
‘I enjoyed playing up front with Devon White, especially as I’d been playing in midfield for Stoke.’
The result was overshadowed somewhat by an incident on the way back from the match. Police were called to the Post House Hotel at Heathrow where the team bus had stopped, at just after 11.30pm.
Newspaper reports suggested that Paul Nixon claimed he had been assaulted by manager Gerry Francis and both men attended West Drayton police station, of their own volition, where the matter was deemed to be common assault. No one was charged and it was said that no further action would be taken.
Assistant manager Kenny Hibbitt said that Nixon had been disappointed that he had been left out of the side to play Brentford and let the manager know that.
The late night row between manager and player appeared to have been forgotten later in the week as training resumed ahead of the next game, against Preston North End, at Deepdale.
‘Whatever happened off the field this week is over as far as we are concerned,’ said skipper Vaughan Jones, before adding; ‘The only thought on our minds is to get our first league win of the year at Preston. They have a definite advantage with their plastic pitch, but we must go out with a positive approach. We must treat the pitch as if we are playing on grass and not worry about falling over or losing our balance.’
In the build up to the Preston game Carl Saunders revealed that he didn’t take a lot of persuading to move from the Potteries to Bristol; ‘I heard about the interest on the Tuesday afternoon and had decided to join by the evening. I needed a new challenge and fresh ambitions and felt the time was right to leave Stoke as I had been there since I was seventeen.’
Ahead of the game Chairman Denis Dunford warned that the club could fold unless they were able to move to a new ground in the foreseeable future. His comments came after landlords Bath City revealed that they were exploring the possibility of selling Twerton Park and with the possibility of there being new Government legislation following on from the Hillsborough disaster.
Meanwhile Rovers own plans to build a new stadium at Carsons Road Mangotsfield were to be unveiled at a press conference at the Bristol Hilton Hotel.
David Mehew’s 12th goal of the season, scored on the hour mark, gave Rovers victory at Deepdale on an eventful afternoon. He scored on the hour mark following a 44 minute half time interval because 250 Preston fans staged a sit down protest on the pitch.
They were protesting about the lack of a safety certificate for part of the ground where they were watching the game from.
After the game the manager revealed he had been worried that the protest might have caused the game to be called off; ‘The referee warned me he might have to call it off and that was the last thing I wanted.
‘We did well in the first half, and I was looking forward to the second because I felt it was a game we would win. The hold up didn’t help but the goal came at the right time and we could have had a couple more. I was very pleased with the contributions from both our new players.’
While the game at Deepdale was played to a conclusion, there was no joy the following Tuesday when the scheduled league game at Meadow Lane, against Notts County, was called off just 50 minutes before kick off by referee Vic Callow, an official we would come across again in May!
Some 600 Gasheads had travelled to Nottingham for the game and to say they were angry and frustrated at the decision to postpone the game would be something of an understatement. Director Geoff Dunford confirmed that the club would be sending a letter of complaint to the league and that Notts County would be doing the same.
He said; ‘Compared to Twerton Park the pitch looked like Wembley. Both sides wanted to play and were very disappointed at the lack of consultation by the referee. As usual in these circumstances, the paying customers were the ones to suffer most.’
Referee Callow simply said; ‘In my judgement the pitch was unfit. There’s nothing to discuss.’
And so the next game would be against Walsall, on Sunday 18th February, at Twerton Park, but before then Gerry Francis admitted that trying to strengthen his squad had given him some of his worst times in management; ‘The stress and problems of trying to find someone and seeing the two or three players that you wanted turn you down was more frustrating than not having had any money for two or three years.
‘Then you hear comments made about certain players and you know full well you’ve already tried to sign them. The couple of signings that I have made were the important ones.
He also admitted that he might lose a couple of players as he felt that it was likely that Plymouth would recall David Byrne once his loan expired and he knew that Christian McClean could be moving on even though his transfer request had been turned down.
‘Plymouth have a new manager, John Gregory, and I think he will want David back. As far as Christian is concerned, I can understand that he wants to be in the first team but you have got to have a strong squad and the six or seven not selected are equally as important as those in the side.’
Carl Saunders made his home debut in the game against Walsall and delighted home supporters in the crowd of 6,223 by scoring both goals. Rovers were in third place in the league following this win, a point behind second placed Notts County with a game in hand, and four points behind leaders Bristol City who had played a game less.
Of the game against the Saddlers, Francis enthused over the performance of new signing Saunders, saying; ‘Carl Saunders is still learning the role of striker after being often picked in midfield and even in defence at Stoke.
‘He has pace, exciting talent and makes space for himself in the way Gary Penrice does. I’m thrilled to have got as good a replacement for Gary for the price we paid.’
Meanwhile there were reports that West Ham United wanted Francis to be their next manager following the resignation of Lou Macari though Rovers were insisting that he had to see out his contract which expired in May.
In the build up to their next match, away against Swansea City, it was revealed that the match between Rovers and City had been rescheduled for Wednesday 2nd May.
Young midfielder Marcus Browning, who had made his league debut against Bolton Wanderers, spoke of his determination to become a professional footballer, even though he had been offered a job in banking; ‘A local branch had given me some work experience and offered me a job when I finished school. It was a difficult decision, whether to go for the security of the bank or risk my future in football.’
The 18 year old revealed that he spent a great deal of his free time working on his mini convertible and socialising with his friends.
The game against Swansea at The Vetch ended goalless, although had Ian Holloway’s fourth minute penalty not been saved by goalkeeper Lee Bracey they might have taken all three points instead of one.
Once again Francis was full of praise for new signing Carl Saunders and said; ‘Every time he got the ball, he looked likely to set something up. He was tripped for the penalty and laid on the ball for Phil Purnell who was only stopped from scoring by an excellent save.’
When interviewed afterwards Holloway said; ‘Before the game we would have settled for a draw as long as Bristol City lost. As for the spot kick, I was aiming for the keeper’s right, but I slipped and nearly fell over.’
Rovers, though, ended the day in fourth place, a point behind third placed Tranmere Rovers, three points behind second placed Notts County and top of the table Bristol City but with games in hand on the second and third placed teams and yet to play City.
It was the club’s last game of the month and they were left with a fixture list that would tax their squad for, as well as a heavy schedule of league games there was the possibility of another three games in the Leyland Daf Trophy.
Ahead of the first game in March, which would see Wigan Athletic visit Twerton Park, it was announced that central defender Geoff Twentyman was to sign a new contract that would keep him at the club until the end of the 1991/92 season.
Twentyman said; ‘I am more than happy with the outcome of my negotiations because the club have come up with a good contract. Although I have always had a deep affection for the club, I couldn’t see my future here after the rift last May.’ (when he attended his brother’s wedding on the eve of a play off match and was subsequently dropped for all play off games).
‘I never really wanted to leave the Bristol area and everything that happened is now in the past. The club had just moved to Bath and were struggling when I came. Hopefully, the next two years will be exciting provided we get success this season.
‘If we can stay in the leading group in the Third Division for the next ten games, we must fancy our chances of going up. But it’s going to be a fight right to the end because there are still six or seven teams in contention.’
Time to bring on Wigan…
V Brentford, 6th February
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew (Byrne, 111), Holloway, Reece, Purnell, Saunders, White
V Preston North End, 10th February
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell (Byrne, 73), White, Saunders
V Walsall, 18th February
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew (Byrne, 82), Holloway, Reece, Purnell, Saunders, White
V Swansea City, 24th February
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell, Saunders, White
Substitutes: Sealy, Willmott