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 9 – Goals, Wins, Sitters and Chocolate
Going into March 1990 Rovers were in fourth place in the Third Division league table, three points behind joint leaders Bristol City and Notts County and one point behind Tranmere Rovers.
The first game of the month was at home against Wigan Athletic and a win could take them top of the table. They were the only side in the top five playing at home so a win for them and defeats for their rivals would mean top spot come the end of the day.
Manager Gerry Francis had this to say ahead of the game; ‘It’s going to be difficult and an early goal will be very important.’
The manager also spoke, in glowing terms, about recent signing Carl Saunders, who had already scored three goals in four games; ‘He is exciting to watch. He is quick, he tries things and makes things happen. We’re working on him, but I see him as a 20 goal a season man.’
Saunders didn’t disappoint in the Wigan game and left Twerton Park with the match ball under his arm after scoring a hat trick in a 6-1 win. David Mehew and the two Ian’s, Alexander and Holloway, were also on the scoresheet in a game watched by a crowd of 5,169.
The man himself had this to say afterwards; ‘I know what a defender fears because I’ve played there myself. It gives me a psychological advantage and it’s easy for me to make it hard for them. But up front is where I prefer and where I’m best at.’
Francis described the overall team performance as one of the best he’d seen since his appointment; ‘You can say what you like about the opposition, but anybody in the division would have had a problem with us today.
‘Although Carl Saunders scored a hat trick, you must give Devon White credit. He’s going to make Carl with the service he can provide. The only thing I was unhappy about was the sloppy goal we gave away.’
The win wasn’t enough to send Rovers to the top of the table but there was another chance to claim three more points just a few days later.
Although he had limped out of the Wigan game with a thigh strain just ten minutes from time, Saunders was thought to be fit enough to face Reading in the next match on the following Tuesday. It would be the fifth meeting between the sides that season.
Rovers were also hoping to register their first win against the Berkshire side in 11 meetings stretching back to 1984 (is that an Orwellian fact?!).
As it turned out, they managed a win at Elm Park (this was pre-Madejski days) and returned home with all three points thanks to David Mehew, who scored the only goal of the game after 32 minutes.
Manager Francis was a happy man after the game, saying; ‘The only difference between Reading and Wigan is that we didn’t score the goals we deserved at Elm Park. Our organisation, pattern of play and possession was brilliant.
‘We could have done with an extra goal because Reading have been our bogey side for so long and I won’t forget their last kick equaliser in the Cup when we thought we had the tie won.’
Rovers players were also happy after this one, because the three points meant that they had broken through the club’s bonus barrier and they knew that the value of every point gained from then until the end of the season would be worth £30 and could even increase to £45 if they carried on picking up points.
Prior to their next game, against Leyton Orient at Twerton Park, midfielder Ian Holloway said that he thought Rovers could win promotion if the weather stayed fine. Explaining his theory, he said; We are a far more effective team on dry grounds and just want the sun to keep shining for the next couple of months.
‘I’m better at running on top of the ground rather than ploughing through the mud. Andy Reece, Phil Purnell and David Mehew are others who like firmer pitches where we can play football.’
In a break from training some of the players sampled the chocolate being made at the Cadbury’s factory just a few yards from their training ground and some of them were pictured tasting some of what was on offer!
The Leyton Orient game was played on a Sunday, in an attempt to bolster the crowd and it appears to have paid off as 7,018 made their way to Azteca Twerton for this one which was the second highest gate of the season at that point. They were left disappointed, though, as Rovers and Orient played out a goalless draw.
The best chance of the game fell to Phil Purnell who shot wide from close range, with the goal at his mercy, in the 73rd minute. ‘When you miss a chance like that you really feel as though you have let the lads down,’ he said afterwards.
Gerry Francis wasn’t best pleased with his side; ‘A few of the players were complacent in training on Thursday and we played like that in the first half. We played well enough afterwards to have won the game easily but dropped points through a combination of missed chances, bad luck and some very poor refereeing decisions.’
His Orient counterpart, Frank Clark, thought that Rovers would win promotion; ‘They are a good side who are well organised and play to their strengths. They will be up there when it matters most, at the end of the campaign.’
David Byrne, who had returned to his parent club Plymouth Argyle following a month’s loan spell at Rovers, also predicted a promotion was on the cards and he said he thought that they would go up as champions.
In spite of all the plaudits, there were still games to be won and next up was Walsall at Twerton Park on the Tuesday after Orient match. It wasn’t just any match, though, it was the Southern Area semi final of the Leyland Daf Trophy and David Mehew was looking ahead to getting through to the Wembley final at the end of the season; ‘A trip to Wembley would be a great reward for our fans. I know how much it means to them.’
A Twerton Park crowd of 4,740 saw another goalless draw and that was after 30 minutes of extra time, so the game went to a penalty shootout and Rovers, thanks in no small part to goalkeeper Brian Parkin, went through to the semi final winning the shootout 3-2. Parkin saved three Walsall penalties. Ian Holloway, Vaughan Jones and Andy Reece scored from the spot for Rovers while Phil Purnell’s effort was saved by Fred Barber. Geoff Twentyman, who would have been the fifth Rovers penalty taker, wasn’t required on this occasion.
Parkin, the hero of the hour, said; “Obviously I am delighted but you’re just hoping for a break, really as saving penalties is basically guesswork. The first save was the best of the three as it took the pressure off, but I needed to save another as well to make sure as most goalkeepers will always make one save in a shootout.”
Francis said; ‘Brian did superbly well. It’s a shame games have to end that way, but he showed great character.’
In the aftermath of that game Paul Nixon, who hadn’t featured since his bust up with Francis, asked to go on the transfer list. The manager said he wanted to keep him at the club and was more interested in bringing in two new players, with Nottingham Forest’s Darren Wassall allegedly being one of his targets.
While victory against Walsall left the club just two games away from a Wembley final, it also left them with a fixture backlog. The next game was at Craven Cottage, home of Fulham.
They came away from the Cottage with all three points as two Devon White goals secured a 2-1 win, his first goals since 2nd December, and they came as a relief for him and his manager; ‘I was frustrated, of course, but Gerry has kept reassuring me that I’ve been playing well and creating goals for others in a winning team,’ said the striker.
His manager said; ‘Devon’s two goals were tremendous. The winner was a brilliant strike and the first came from a great ball by Carl Saunders.’
There was little time to rest as Bury were next on the agenda, visiting Twerton Park on the Tuesday following the win at Fulham.
There was still time ahead of that game, though, for the club to reveal plans for a futuristic new stadium which included a pitch eight metres below ground level. The plans for the Mangotsfield Ground, at Siston Hill, were unveiled to Kingswood Borough Council.
Against Bury, Rovers conceded after 23 minutes and didn’t equalise until Devon White struck on 70 minutes. Phil Purnell then wrapped up victory with seven minutes of the game remaining.
In spite of picking up three more points, Rovers remained in third place in the table, still three points behind the other team in Bristol and the other side named Rovers in the division.
Francis said, afterwards; ‘In the first 45 minutes we were outplayed and out thought. In the second period we changed tactics and things started going our way. Bury are a quality side and the game was every bit as tough as we expected.’
The manager was a busy man, as he recruited two more players in defender Bob Bloomer, from Chesterfield, and goalkeeper Gavin Kelly on loan from Hull City.
Bloomer said; ‘I was delighted to sign for Rovers. Watching the game against Bury showed me just how determined they are for Second Division football.’
Kelly said; ‘Although I’ve only joined Rovers as a reserve, it should be a good experience for me. Even second team football is better than what I’ve been used to recently.’
Following the win against Bury, Rovers recorded a third successive 2-1 win the following Saturday when they defeated Cardiff City at Twerton Park in a midday kick off. Trailing to a 15th minute goal, it was the 87th minute before the equaliser arrived when Paul Nixon bundled the ball home after Devon White appeared to foul Cardiff goalkeeper Roger Hansbury as they both challenged for a Vaughan Jones throw in. Both players were grounded in the incident and Nixon, back in the squad and on as a half time substitute, was presented with an easy goalscoring opportunity.
Hansbury wasn’t a happy man; ‘I can’t comment because I might bring the game into disrepute,’ was all he would say on the perceived foul on him by White. Matters got worse for the shot stopper and his teammates though as David Mehew scored his 15th goal of the season deep into stoppage time to complete a famous victory.
Goalscorer Nixon wasn’t shy about claiming credit for inspiring the win; ‘A goal is a goal, however they go in. It was nice to return to the action after nearly eight weeks out and even better to score.’ He also announced that he had patched up his differences with the manager and had come off the transfer list; ‘I’ve had a long talk with Gerry and everything has been resolved,’ he said.
Of the game against Cardiff the manager said; ‘We were far from our best, but the players showed a lot of character to come back from a goal down, just as they did in midweek against Bury. Although they didn’t show a lot going forward, Cardiff defended well, and their keeper made some great saves.’
The games just kept on coming and two days after the Cardiff victory, Notts County were the guests at Twerton Park in the first leg of the Southern Area Leyland Daf Trophy Final. Goalkeeper Brian Parkin said, ahead of that game; ‘I’m preparing myself for another close match. Wembley is obviously in the back of the players’ minds, but we’ll have to dispel those thoughts if we are to reach the final.’
Rovers just about came out on top in the game, winning 1-0 thanks to David Mehew’s 78th minute goal in front of a crowd of 6,480.
‘We didn’t play at all in the first half,’ said the manager, adding ‘I felt some of the players froze and allowed the occasion to get to them. These sorts of games are never going to be classics, but it shouldn’t be necessary for me to liven things up in the interval. Notts County will make it very tough for us in the second leg next week, but we have given ourselves a fighting chance.’
County manager Neil Warnock warned of a hostile reception for Rovers in the second leg at Meadow Lane; ‘We have a good home record and our supporters will give us all the encouragement we need. Rovers can expect a very intimidating atmosphere and a very tough game. I would say this to Bristol Rovers – don’t book your Wembley tickets yet.’
Tony Sealy, who had missed the game against Notts, having limped out of the game against Cardiff at half time, was to have an x-ray to determine if he would play any further part in Rovers’ season. The striker was thought to have possibly fractured his leg which would necessitate at least three weeks in plaster.
He was definitely ruled out for the visit to Northampton Town as Rovers resumed their league programme following the Notts County game, as was fellow striker Devon White, suspended for the third time that season having exceeded 30 disciplinary points.
Incredibly, Rovers won 2-1 for a fourth successive game and once again they had to come from behind to claim all three points. Christian McClean’s 75th minute goal put them on level terms after Northampton had scored on 62 minutes and Ian Holloway scored the winner in the 89th minute.
Both sides finished the game with ten men as Northampton’s Warren Donald and Andy Reece were sent off for fighting in the 63rd minute.
Manager Francis said; ‘These late wins aren’t doing my health a lot of good, but we’re getting there in the end. My players deserve credit for a determined effort and I think their superior fitness told in the end.’
A contrite Andy Reece said; ‘I think the decision was a bit harsh as I hadn’t committed a foul in the game up until then. The referee didn’t give me a reason why he was sending me off but hopefully it won’t be for violent conduct because that would mean missing three games.
‘It’s just a shame that I have let people down in a moment of madness but there’s nothing I can do about it now.’
Final word of the month goes to the final goalscorer of the month, Ian Holloway who said; ‘Our destiny is in our own hands now. This win has surely sealed us a play off place, but we want to go up automatically by finishing in the top two.’
It should be noted that Holloway left the pitch in the 29th minute of this game with blood streaming down his face after a clash of heads with Northampton’s Steve Berry. He returned to the fray after 13 minutes with four stitches in the wound.
Rovers played nine games in March thirty years ago and, remarkably, won eight and drew one of them. It could be argued that their success was based/built on consistency as nine players started every one of those games. Sealy, McClean, Nixon and Willmott all played bit parts, though we should, perhaps, spare a thought for the last named of that quartet as Ian Willmott was named in every squad that month yet made just two appearances from the bench, and managed just 48 minutes of game time.
V Wigan Athletic 3rd March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece, Holloway, Purnell (Willmott, 83), Saunders (Sealy, 80), White
V Reading 6th March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece, Holloway, Purnell, Saunders, White.
Substitutes: Willmott, Sealy
V Leyton Orient 11th March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece, Holloway, Purnell, Saunders, White.
Substitutes: Willmott, Sealy
V Walsall 14th March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew (Sealy 113), Reece, Holloway, Purnell, Saunders, White
V Fulham 17th March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew (Sealy, 78), Reece, Holloway, Purnell, Saunders, White
V Bury 21st March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece, Holloway, Purnell, Saunders (Sealy, 68), White
V Cardiff City 24th March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece, Holloway, Purnell, White, Sealy (Nixon, 46)
V Notts County 28th March
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece (McClean, 76), Holloway, Purnell, White, Nixon
V Northampton Town 31st March
Parkin, Alexander (Willmott, 49), Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Reece, Holloway, Purnell, McClean, Nixon (Saunders, 58)