In August 1999, I watched the total solar eclipse, with an excited crowd of people, from higher ground overlooking St Austell Bay in Cornwall. The chill in the air, the feeling of anticipation and the quiet gasps from my fellow onlookers when it finally happened will always stay with me. I mention this by way of analogy- I will always remember where I was when that once in a lifetime event happened before my very eyes. Similarly, I will always remember exactly where I was when I saw Stefan Payne leave the ground in an attempt to win the ball in the air. I was standing in the Thatcher’s End, behind the goal, slightly to the left as you look at the pitch, and there was that same quiet gasp of awe from all those present as this unique spectacle transpired before us. I can’t imagine that a single person present at that 1-nil home defeat against Wycombe will ever forget it.
Stefan Payne’s solitary season at Bristol Rovers was not, it is safe to say, a successful one. When he signed in August 2018, the initial feeling was of cautious optimism- a player who seemed to have a reasonable goal-scoring record, who promised a bit of up-front muscle, and was maybe even the key that would finally unlock the ephemeral, eternal mystery that is Tom Nicholls. If you peeked behind the curtain, however, you would have caught a glimpse of a sweating Darrell Clarke, with wild panic in his eyes, repeatedly mumbling the words: “Fourth choice, he was my fourth choice…”. Payne’s decision to dub himself ‘Mr 50/50’ seemed initially to be a bold statement of intent, but soon began to look foolhardy, as questions began to be asked about what the ‘50/50’ in his moniker might actually refer to, his performances suggesting it certainly wasn’t anything to do with what happened on the pitch. Clarke’s relentless juggling of three very limited options became increasingly desperate as, in a startling reversal of the usual pattern of events when a new striker isn’t scoring and doesn’t appear to care, Payne began to turn on the crowd.
So it was with little fanfare and a somewhat resigned shrug that Jonson Clarke-Harris, a striker with a neck tattoo considerably more intimidating than his goal-scoring record, was signed by new manager Graham Coughlan in the dying moments of the January transfer window. He had followed that time-honoured route to the Rovers first team from Coventry reserves and so fitted the mould, but soon he did something that absolutely no-one expected- he started scoring goals. Actual goals. All around the Memorial Stadium, Gasheads exchanged confused looks; few people could remember how to react as Rovers began to score actual goals and thereby win actual games. And what goals they were- long range thunderbolts, powerful solo runs and finishes, tap-ins and headers. Even the missed penalty against Portsmouth, which is yet to land, soon became an amusing footnote to Harris’ relentless ability to find the back of the net. And of course the best of the lot was the howitzer against Plymouth, in the build up to which he beat three players and took a punch in the face.
All Rovers’ travails were thrown into perspective: no creativity in midfield? No problem, JCH would drop back to collect it then power into the box. Getting some crosses in but no end product? No problem, JCH would sullenly elbow his way into the 6 yard box and be just where he needed to be. No-one would have been surprised had he made to the byline, sent in a powerful, curling cross, then, knowing that no-one else would be able to make it count, materialised in front of goal to head it home himself- such was the level upon which he was operating.
Clarke-Harris’ chief attribute, even more than his strength, skill and vision, seemed to be an unshakeable self-belief- the real thing this time, without the need for a nickname. The expression on his face each time he scored last season seemed to be one of sheer incredulity that anyone might have the temerity to doubt him. The Thatcher’s End finally had someone to make up a song about, and so pleased were they that they sang it for 25 minutes straight at one point, as he personally laid waste to another set of opponents.
Who knows how long this most purple of purple-patches will last? At the time of writing it’s not absolutely certain he’ll still be at Rovers at all. Whatever happens, however, they can never take those magical few weeks away from us- those weeks when, allied to a rock solid defence built around The Lion of North Bristol, JCH stamped his mono-syllabic authority on the League one relegation battle and saved our bacon.