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 7 – A plethora of pens, but just a hungover two points this month
Rovers finished 1989 in second place in the league and kicked off the New Year with a game against Rotherham United at Millmoor.
There was some good news before the game, though, as goalkeeper Brian Parkin signed a two and a half year deal following a two month loan spell from Crystal Palace.
There was also some bad news, as the club were refused permission by the Football League to make a mid season pay increase to their players
To cap it all, they were beaten 3-2 in a thrilling encounter at Millmoor. Rotherham took a 14th minute lead through Stuart Evans but David Mehew’s 10th goal of the season a minute before half time put Rovers back on level terms.
The second half was just two minutes old when Ian Holloway put Rovers in front from the penalty spot after Christian McLean had been brought down by Billy Russell. However, Rotherham sealed victory with goals from Des Hazel and Bobby Williamson.
It was only their third defeat of the season and manager Gerry Francis felt that his side deserved a share of the spoils; ‘Considering the rain and greasy pitch it was a tremendous game of football. We certainly deserved a point and would have got one had we been given a decent deal.’
The manager was disappointed that the winning goal arrived from the penalty spot after the ball had bounced awkwardly and struck Steve Yates on the arm, hence the award of a spot kick.
Paul Nixon, who missed the game at Rotherham had suffered bruising behind his eye during the game against Tranmere Rovers and, in addition, had been a flu victim and was rated a doubt for the next game, against Mansfield Town.
That game, at Twerton Park, attracted a crowd of 5,339 and they witnessed a 1-1 draw.
Geoff Twentyman opened the scoring for Rovers after 26 minutes, but the Stags took a point after Graham Leishman equalised five minutes from time.
It was a game dominated by Rovers and they managed 19 goal attempts, 11 of which were on target. On the plus side, Phil Purnell made his first appearance of the season, following injury, when he was sent on in the 69th minute in place of Tony Sealy.
Gerry Francis, though, wasn’t a happy bunny and said afterwards; ‘The game should have been over by half time. The keeper made good saves, but we missed so many chances.
‘We started doing things we don’t normally do in the last twenty minutes or so and lost our momentum. It was a real blow because no side can afford to give away two points as we did in this match.’
Just four days after the drawn game against Mansfield Town Rovers hosted Exeter City in the Leyland Daf Cup.
Exeter boss Terry Cooper rested a number of his players and justified his decision by saying; ‘My squad will comprise of 18 professionals and four trainees. Our win at Torquay last Monday means that we are through to the first round of the competition but we need a point against Rovers to qualify for a home match. My players have been involved in a lot of football this season from our good runs in the Littlewoods and FA Cups.’
Rovers, on the other hand, decided to field their strongest side possible and ran out 3-0 winners. The first goal arrived after only ten minutes, from the penalty spot. Ian Holloway converted after the referee judged Lee Rogers’ challenge on Paul Nixon to be an unfair one.
Tony Sealy scored the second on 82 minutes and David Mehew added a third with four minutes remaining.
The manager wasn’t worried about the fact that Exeter fielded a weakened side; ‘It doesn’t concern me what side is put out against us. We just had to go out and win and earn a home tie in the next round.
Marcus Browning, sent on as a 62nd minute substitute, made his senior Rovers debut in this game.
The following Saturday Rovers made the trip to Brentford where they suffered only their fourth defeat in the league. The home side took all three points with a 2-1 win. They took a 51st minute lead through Simon Ratcliffe, only to be pegged back by Christian McClean’s equaliser just two minutes later. Richard Cadette sealed a Brentford win with a goal six minutes from time.
Whilst praising his side’s spirited performance, manager Gerry Francis said; ‘We played well and probably created the best chances of the game but you can’t afford to miss as many as we do and expect to gain points.
‘However the overall play was encouraging; we kept going throughout the match and had tremendous support from our fans.’
Rovers ended the day in third place and with praise from Brentford boss Steve Perryman for their fans. He said; ‘I thought the crowd was doing more for them, but they still created a good atmosphere for us to play in even if the voices were not in our favour. In a funny way they contributed to our victory.’
The games were coming thick and fast and the following Tuesday saw Gillingham arrive at Twerton Park for the next stage of the Leyland Daf journey.
Paul Nixon, on as a 37th minute substitute for Tony Sealy, scored the game’s only goal just four minutes after entering the fray and left him and his team mates just four games away from the club’s first ever appearance at Wembley.
Their opponents in the next round were already known and it was a swift return to Griffin Park, Brentford, for Francis and his players.
The manager was pleased to make cup progress and said; ‘Gillingham are no mugs and only a couple of years ago were in the Third Division promotion play offs. If they had scored first the tie might well have gone the other way. Getting Phil Purnell through a full ninety minutes was pleasing, and a real bonus.’
‘It will be tough at Brentford because it’s only two days after what I expect to be a very hard league game against Bolton.’
Another home game followed the Gillingham cup tie and a crowd of 7,722, the biggest home attendance of the season to date, descended on Twerton Park for the game against Bolton Wanderers.
In a match that was described as a marvelous advertisement for Third Division football between two teams with the credentials to remain among the leading pack, the sides played out a 1-1 draw.
Andy Reece gave Rovers a 38th minute lead, but the visitors equalised through Tony Philliskirk five minutes into the second half.
The result left Rovers still occupying third place in the table just one place above Bolton and both sides locked together on 43 points. Bristol City were top on 47 points, while Notts County were in second place with 46 points.
Manager Francis, though, wasn’t despondent that his side had failed to win and said; ‘You cannot but applaud the opposition when they come away from home and help create entertainment like that. We’ll play a lot worse than that and win, and so will Bolton.’
With the month ebbing away Francis made attempts to sign two new players to bolster his squad; ‘Money is available,’ he said, ‘I’ve been desperately trying to spend it but without much luck so far. A proven scorer is a priority but I am keen to strengthen in other positions too because we are very low on numbers.’
He revealed that one of his transfer targets was former loan player Dennis Bailey but his £100,000 bid to bring the player back to Twerton Park was turned down by Birmingham City who wanted £250,000.
He also said that he had made offers for at least eight players and had made eight attempts to bring in players on loan.
Inevitably there was speculation about who else the manager was trying to sign and the names in the frame were; Steve White (former Gas striker at Swindon Town), John McGinlay (Shrewsbury Town), David Crown (Southend United), Stuart Rimmer (Walsall), Darren Rowbotham (Exeter City), Liam Robinson (Bury) and Carl Saunders (Stoke City).
It was hoped that any new signings would arrive in time to play in the eagerly anticipated derby against Bristol City on the first Saturday in February, but that will have to wait until the next instalment!
V Rotherham United, 1st January
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Hazel (McClean, 46), White, Sealy
V Mansfield Town 13th January
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Nixon, White, Sealy (Purnell, 69)
V Exeter City 17th January
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, McClean, Sealy, Nixon (Browning, 62)
V Brentford 20th January
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Nixon (Purnell, 88), McClean, Sealy
V Gillingham 24th January
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell, White, Sealy (Nixon, 37)
V Bolton Wanderers 28th January
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Purnell, White, Nixon (Browning, 88)