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 1 – The Awakening
The 1989/90 season kicked off on 19th August, but that’s not where our story begins.
For that, I believe we need to go back to the beginning of June 1989 because my feeling is that the belief and resolve that carried the side through an amazing 1989/90 campaign began with defeat in the previous season’s play off final.
Quite a few members of that side said as much when we invited them to spend an evening with the Bristol Rovers Former Players Association (BRFPA) last December [see below] and they will no doubt recall those memories when they reconvene for a 30th anniversary celebration next May.
However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and go back to June 1989. It was the last season of the play off finals being played on a home and away basis; the following season would see a one off game played at Wembley to determine who would be promoted.
Having beaten Fulham 5-0 on aggregate in the semi final, Rovers faced Port Vale in the final to determine which side would accompany Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United into the Second Division.
The first leg of the final, at Twerton Park on 31st May 1989, ended all square at 1-1 and so there was everything to play for when the sides met again, for the second leg, at Vale Park on 3rd June.
Unfortunately, it was the Vale of Tears as the home side won 1-0 thanks Robbie Earle’s 52nd minute goal and consigned Rovers to another season in the Third Division.
Manager Gerry Francis spoke of his pride in seeing his team go so close to promotion and said; ‘There were quite a few tears in the dressing room afterwards and that is nothing to be ashamed of because it showed how much they wanted promotion for themselves and our marvellous supporters.
‘A lot of our players have grown up since last August and I cannot speak too highly of what they have done through hard work and determination.
‘They are downhearted now but getting so close to succeeding will, hopefully, make them stronger in the future.’
Following an open top bus journey through Rovers’ East Bristol heartland, there were decisions to be made on the future of manager Francis and his assistant Kenny Hibbitt.
Francis was being tipped as the next manager of West Ham United at the time, while Hibbitt’s contract as a player had expired and his future as assistant rested on whether or not Francis would stay.
Whilst there was uncertainty about the future of the management duo though, it was business as usual behind the scenes and the latest batch of YTS recruits were unveiled by the club. They were Marcus Stewart, Lee Jones, Craig Owen, Paul Chenoweth, Lee Archer, Lee Maddison and Mark Hervin.
Thankfully, for all concerned, Francis decided to stay with the club, as did Hibbitt, though it remained to be seen if they could go one better and win automatic promotion in 1989/90. Of his decision to remain, the manager said; ‘I’ve gambled on having another good year at Rovers. I may live to regret the decision and the offers may never come again.
‘I spent two days at West Ham and was very impressed by their Board of Directors. They are a tremendous club and while Rovers couldn’t match their offer I am not motivated by money. This was, without doubt, the toughest decision I have had to make in football.’
One of the manager’s summer decisions was to reluctantly place striker Gary Penrice on the transfer list. Swindon Town were then refused permission to speak to Francis about their managerial vacancy following the departure of Lou Macari.
On the day that Rovers reported back for pre-season training, it was reported that winger Phil Purnell could be out of the side until Christmas following an exploratory operation which revealed extensive damage to ligaments and both cartilages.
Gary Penrice was given permission to speak to Norwich City as the chase for the striker hotted up ahead of the new season.
Francis, meanwhile, was playing down his side’s chances of gaining promotion; ‘We will be lucky to finish in the top half,’ he said. He claimed to have a squad of only eight players, two more on the transfer list and two more with long term injuries.
Pre-season games saw Rovers win the Arundel Cup by beating Brighton & Hove Albion 4-3 in the final after a semi final win against Worthing. There were also games against Barnstaple, Bideford, Yate Town and Bath City ahead of the Gloucestershire Cup Final at Ashton Gate.
They achieved a 2-1 win at the Gate, with David Mehew and Gary Penrice on target in front of a crowd of 6,153.
In spite of the manager’s doubts about making another bid for promotion, the feeling amongst supporters was positive and one local journalist wrote; ‘There is more collective talent in the squad than many would admit to. The side may have cost less than probably any other league club and the players cannot afford new cars or luxurious holidays on their wages.
‘But each one wants to play for the club and under the Francis influence, Rovers have become formidable.’
PART 2 of Thirty Years On is now available HERE