As I clicked on the ‘pay now’ button on the insanely complicated Bristol Rovers season ticket purchasing web page, I reflected on how it had come to this: I had just bought season tickets for two seats in the Family Stand.
How many times have you heard a Manager in an early season interview, having been asked, “Where do you think you will finish this season?” answer, “I’ll tell you after 10 games”. Those early season games are a terrible indication of where teams are going to finish aren’t they. Or are they?
At Rovers, most of the focus from our fans is of course on what happens on the pitch and how we can keep improving the playing side. However for me, excluding Graham of course, the three most important men at our club (who don’t always get as much credit as they deserve) are Wael Al-Qadi, Martyn Starnes and Tom Gorringe. These men work wonders off the pitch and without these three I feel we’d be nowhere near where we are.
After a turbulent season which saw Rovers dangerously close to dropping back down the basement league of the EFL, a bland but comfortable midtable season would surely be welcomed by most Gasheads, you would think. However, as the crowd filtered out of the Thatchers End following a typical 1-1 draw at home with Gillingham, I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming sense of apathy emanating from the blue and white faithful. Almost routinely I pulled out my phone and started typing a message to my Dad, who watches the game from the East Enclosure.
Nothing can beat a matchday at the Mem. Leaving the house in the freezing cold (or pouring rain, but never it seems, bright sunshine!) and knowing straight away that you haven’t put anywhere near enough layers on to last you through the match. Walking towards the pub to get your weekly football pint (or three). The buzz inside the place gets your blood racing straight away. Whispers about the latest player joining, what is the line up going to look like? Or even where we going to get our kicks now the Chicken Balti pie has gone? (well maybe the last one not quite so much!).
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.
So, what’s June normally like for Rovers fans? A month of continuously scrolling through the Facebook groups and Twitter pages getting excited about which new ‘big name’ signing we are looking to bring in this time. In previous years June has only been as exciting as bringing in Liam Sercombe or the even more exciting arrival of Ed Upson! So this year we were all expecting more of the same from Graham Coughlan, especially considering that it’s his first summer transfer window as a manager. Then, on the morning of June 4th, some good news came out that we’d signed ex-Bolton right-back Mark Little on a free transfer. A player who most fans have viewed as a good, competent signing for our level of football this coming season. A ‘Little’ step in the right direction you might even say, especially considering the number of trophies that he has won at this level with his previous clubs.
Since about the age of about seven, Bristol Rovers has had a place in my heart. I can still remember the first game I ever saw at the Mem, a 1-0 win over Shrewsbury where Lewis Haldane scored the only goal. In my first season watching, we went up and spent the best £300,000 anyone’s ever spent, on a striker by the name of Rickie Lambert. Little seven year old me thought the good times would never end (of course, this being Rovers, I was wrong.) Yet I kept on going through the turnstiles most Saturdays, moving from the stand to the terrace, going to buy a pasty or a sausage roll at half time, and hoping that each game would mark the start of the inevitable rise to world domination (I believe this fits the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results). And I carried on doing this, up until last September.
Late-era Darrell Clarke was partially characterised by the wildly inconsistent results of his forays into the transfer market. For every Billy Bodin there was a Tom Nicholls, for every Liam Sercombe there was a Stefan Payne. But a much less-heralded purchase has ended up providing a much more lasting legacy for the club. Step forward Tony Craig.
One big thing which has always been needed at Rovers is the use of loan players, both in and out the door. In the summer it was all about who we were able to bring in on loan, which turned out to be two notable additions to the squad in both Jack Bonham and Alex Jakubiak. Alongside this was Joe Martin, however the less said about him the better. Yet when it got to the January transfer window, it was all about who we could get out on loan to allow us to bring players in on permanent transfers. The players then sent out on loan were Kyle Bennett, Sam Matthews, Stefan Payne, Bernard Mensah and Rollin Menayase.