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 5 – Sad Farwells and Three Times a Reading
Rovers ended October in second place, a point behind league leaders Bury, though on 1st November they were back in pole position by virtue of the point gained from a 2-2 draw against Huddersfield Town at Twerton Park.
Paul Nixon had given them the lead after only two minutes and David Mehew added a second after the visitors had equalised through Mike Cecere. Just when it looked as though Rovers would take all three points they conceded a second Huddersfield equaliser with a minute to go; the goal coming from Craig Maskell.
Once again, though, Rovers finished the game with ten men as Tony Sealy, making his first home start, saw red for taking out Dudley Lewis in the 62nd minute.
‘That’s got to be two points thrown away,’ said manager Gerry Francis, before adding; ‘Huddersfield are a good footballing side and prepared to take chances by keeping four players forward. They were unlucky not to be level after an excellent first half. We contained them better after the interval but then the sending off completely changed the game.’
Sealy was in hot water with his manager for the red card as it emerged that he was involved in a free for all after Devon White had clashed with Huddersfield’s Robert Wilson and Sealy apparently felled central defender Dudley Lewis with a punch. He became the fourth Rovers player to be sent off in six weeks; ‘I was disappointed with his actions,’ said Francis, ‘he is experienced and old enough to know better than to get involved in that sort of situation.’
Next up, the following Saturday, was another home game as Blackpool were the visitors to Twerton Park and it was another game that ended all square and saw another red card. On this occasion it was brandished in the direction of Blackpool’s Dave Burgess, in the 73rd minute, after he had thrown a punch at Steve Yates.
In spite of being down to ten men the visitors took an 80th minute lead, but they were pegged back when Tony Sealy equalised two minutes from time.
The goal ruined any hopes that Nigel Martyn had of keeping a clean sheet in his 100th league game for Rovers.
For what it’s worth, the Francis viewpoint was along the lines of; ‘I’m not saying the players lacked effort but the whole atmosphere was subdued and that was reflected by a quiet crowd. It seems we are missing at least one important player every game and when we lost Ian Holloway for the second half it became even more of a struggle.’
Over that weekend goalkeeper Nigel Martyn was named in the England ‘B’ squad and on the Monday it was reported that First Division Crystal Palace were ready to accept Rovers £1m valuation of the keeper and were keen to take him to Selhurst Park.
On the same day the club received a bid of £500,000 from Watford for the services of Gary Penrice and a board meeting was hastily called for the Tuesday evening, ahead of the Leyland DAF cup tie against Torquay United, to discuss both bids.
‘Whatever the offers,’ said Chairman Denis Dunford, we would be very reluctant at this stage to lose both Nigel and Gary.’
Rovers had to travel to Plainmoor for their First Round Leyland DAF tie for a game against the previous season’s beaten finalists, and the side that had dumped Rovers out of the competition in the last two seasons. They were likely to face former Rovers player Ian Weston though another former Gas man, Paul Smith, would miss the tie because of a knee ligament injury.
The game ended 1-1, with Devon White equalising for Rovers in the 64th minute, three minutes after Mark Loram had given Torquay the lead.
Manager Gerry Francis declared himself pleased with the outcome; ‘It was an enjoyable game, played in a good spirit and credit is due to Torquay for the part they played. I was particularly pleased with Tony Sealy’s performance. He’s getting fitter and more used to our style of play and it’s beginning to show. The one disappointment was seeing Paul Nixon’s excellent goal disallowed because of offside against David Mehew, who wasn’t interfering with play.’
Incredibly, Rovers would not play another game in that particular competition until January 1990!
However, the early season form which had promised so much looked as though it might come to an abrupt end as Gary Penrice decided he wanted to join Watford and there was a strong possibility that he and Nigel Martyn would be leaving the club before the next game, against Shrewsbury Town.
The Penrice deal was done and dusted quite quickly and he was soon on his way to Vicarage Road, and said; ‘I am keen to go to Watford. It’s a friendly club with a nice manager (Steve Harrison) and an impressive set up. It’s important to play first team football and the Second Division is a very strong league with teams like Leeds, Newcastle and West Ham.
To his credit, Penrice also paid tribute to his manager, Gerry Francis, saying; ‘I owe a lot to Gerry and so do most people at the club.’
His move meant that, along with Keith Curle, he shared the distinction of being Bristol’s most expensive home produced footballer (Curle had joined Wimbledon from Reading for £500,000) so the fee for Penrice was the largest received by either Bristol club.
Rovers’ Board were not, initially, all in favour of accepting the bid from Palace for Martyn, and he hadn’t left the club before they travelled to Gay Meadow to take on Shrewsbury with Rovers saying that the deal had not been finalised and Palace saying that in addition to offering Rovers £1m they were prepared to allow reserve team keeper Brian Parkin to move to Rovers as part of the deal.
Ahead of his move, Martyn took his place in the Rovers side that beat Shrewsbury 3-2 at Gay Meadow.
Tony Sealy, the man originally signed to replace Gary Penrice, scored two of Rovers’ goals – only problem was that because of his red card received in the Huddersfield game, he would miss the next three games due to suspension!
Ian Holloway scored Rovers’ third goal while goalscorers for Shrewsbury were John McGinlay and Carl Griffiths.
Manager Gerry Francis was positively purring after the game and said; ‘There was some brilliant football played and Shrewsbury deserve credit for the way they played. We should have been two or three goals ahead by half time. We were going so well I didn’t want the break to come in case we lost our momentum.
‘I was delighted with Tony Sealy and Chris McClean and also thought Ian Holloway had an outstanding game.’
Nigel Martyn, almost certainly playing his final Gas game, admitted he was to blame for the second Shrewsbury goal; ‘I was definitely to blame and should have punched the cross away instead of just poking at it.’
Two days after the game it was revealed that Rovers had agreed terms with Crystal Palace for the transfer of Martyn to Selhurst Park. Brian Parkin had already made the journey in the opposite direction and had joined Rovers in a three month loan deal.
Director Geoff Dunford said of the proposed transfer; ‘It has not been an easy decision. You could say it was with great reluctance that we accepted the offer, but we had to think of the future of Bristol Rovers. This money is going to be a tremendous help to us. It can help to substantiate a new home back in Bristol.’
Before he signed for Palace, to become Britain’s first £1m goalkeeper, Martyn played for the England ‘B’ side against Italy at Brighton. The game ended 1-1 and newspaper reports suggested that he was at fault for the Italian goal.
Meanwhile Billy Clark came through his first game for five months when he played in a South West Counties 1-0 defeat against Exeter City, a match played at Keynsham.
The league leaders, now without the services of both Martyn and Gary Penrice, then took a break from league action as they prepared to welcome Reading to Twerton Park in the First Round of the FA Cup.
Brian Parkin was set to make his Rovers debut in that game and said, after his first training session with his new team mates; ‘Obviously Rovers are going well and the defensive record is superb. I hope the fans will get behind me and we get a good rapport going. Then I’ll get the chance to prove myself. With Nigel being one of the best young keepers around the fans are going to miss him, but I hope to come in and do a good job.’
It was the second time The Royals had visited Twerton that season as they had played out a goalless draw against Rovers at the end of September.
Once again the teams couldn’t be separated and the game finished 1-1 which meant a replay at Elm Park the following Tuesday.
At least Parkin fared better than Martyn, whose Palace debut ended in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur! Even so, he must have wondered if he was going to end up on the losing side as Reading drew first blood, Mike Conroy the goalscorer. Andy Reece, with his first goal of the season, equalised for Rovers a minute before half time and that was the end of the scoring.
Of his goal, Reece said; ‘I’d gone close so many times without getting any luck and it was a great relief to see this one go in especially as it was badly needed at the time.’
Four days later the sides met again in the replay and Rovers came within two minutes of going through to round two. The game remained goalless at 90 minutes, but David Mehew broke the deadlock when he put Rovers ahead five minutes into extra time. Trevor Senior was the man who equalised for Reading, thus forcing a second replay. Rovers won the toss to determine the venue for that game and it was agreed it would take place at Twerton Park on the following Monday.
Gerry Francis described his side’s performance as ‘fantastic’ and said; ‘It was a great cup tie and both sides played their part in the non stop thrills and spills. Steve Yates was outstanding, and I was pleased with the performance of Brian Parkin, who did not make a mistake.
[As a complete aside this was the first Gas away match for BRFPA Committee Member Martin Bull. 30 years later Martin has followed Rovers peripatetically to almost 60 grounds and hopes to complete the ‘Slowest Ever Journey to the 92’ – his words not mine – within about a decade]
Before the second replay, though, Rovers had to return to league action with Swansea City due at Twerton Park just two days before Reading.
Goalkeeper Parkin kept his first Rovers clean sheet on his Rovers league debut and Rovers retained top spot in the league with a 2-0 win against the Welsh side, thanks to goals from David Mehew and Devon White.
The modest keeper barely had a shot to save and said; ‘That’s all down to the defence. They are so well organised, nobody is going to score many goals against us.’
There was a rebuke for Paul Nixon from manager Gerry Francis, though; ‘Paul has to learn that there are no stars in this team. There were times out there he should have knocked the ball off when other players had made runs into dangerous positions.
‘But because he’s had a couple of good games recently he wanted to go it alone. He was greedy and I won’t tolerate it If he didn’t already know that, he does now.’ A hint of trouble to come between the two, perhaps?
The third FA Cup clash with Reading was eventually settled and it ended in defeat for Rovers as Trevor Senior, the man who always seemed to score against the Gas, notched the only goal of the game in the 71st minute, just after goalkeeper Brian Parkin had saved a penalty from Stuart Beavon.
‘Reading didn’t create anything,’ said manager Gerry Francis, adding ‘we even gave them the penalty. My overall reaction is one of disappointment as we had so much of the game.’
Spare a thought for defender Geoff Twentyman, who was facing Reading for the ninth time in his career. He had played against them for Preston North End and Rovers and never been on the winning side!
V Huddersfield Town, 1st November
Martyn, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Nixon, Sealy, White
Substitutes: Cawley, Willmott
V Blackpool, 4th November
Martyn, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway (Willmott, 46), Reece, Nixon, White, Sealy
V Torquay United, 7th November
Martyn, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Nixon, Sealy, White
Substitutes: McClean, Cawley
V Shrewsbury Town, 11th November
Martyn, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Nixon, Sealy, McClean
Substitutes: Cawley, Willmott
V Reading, 17th November
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Willmott (Hazel, 82), McClean, Nixon
V Swansea City, 25th November
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece, Hazel (McClean, 87), White, Nixon
V Reading, 27th November
Parkin, Alexander, Twentyman, Yates, Jones, Mehew, Holloway, Reece (McClean, 81), Nixon, Sealy, White