“Your ground’s too big for you, your ground’s too big for you!” sang the Argyle away fans, or as Caz memorably dubbed them, ‘Green Army bell-ends.’ And the response from the Gas faithful was an awkward clearing of throats and embarrassed downward glances, for as loathsome a bunch as they are, they were right. Despite our surprisingly lofty league position and despite GC’s scarcely credible 44% win ratio, too few people are turning up. Like a tired, middle-aged man, the Memorial Stadium has seemed wistful and disconsolate for some time now, and it’s not down to any of the usual reasons quoted by naysayers on forums.
Firstly, it’s not due to the lack of entertaining football. For many people like myself, daily life is so jam-packed with excitement, adrenalin and thrills that a Saturday afternoon watching players of limited skill hoof the ball aimlessly around comes as a blessed relief. Anyone who is anywhere in the neighbourhood of 40 years old will understand that excitement is a vastly overrated experience, making Rovers coach Joe Dunne’s recent attempt to instigate a bout of Mixed Martial Arts fighting with the Plymouth manager all the more unfortunate. Nor is it the manager- let’s be honest, Graham Coughlan’s brand of charming, if rather nondescript, bonhomie makes for a far less tense and awkward post-match interview spectacle than DC’s increasingly paranoid, wild-eyed run-throughs of meaningless but threatening- sounding catchphrases- (remember that one where he rubbed his left eye constantly for over two minutes? He’s quite possibly still rubbing it to this day.)
There is one reason why the old place just doesn’t feel the same, a reason why the singing is less frequent and less loud. Search deep in your heart and you’ll know it before you read it. Put simply, it’s this: Stuart has gone.
Stuart Sinclair was both a rather ordinary and a truly extraordinary player. The diminutive, massively hirsute midfielder inspired love beyond that which his skill level might have engendered, had he not been who he was. Would we have loved him as much had he not resembled Gimli the dwarf? It’s hard to say, but he brought a tireless energy to his performances on the pitch, during some of which he would run around without once standing still for the full ninety minutes, jog on the spot for the half-time team talk, and then run home after the game. And he brought the same qualities, and is still doing so despite playing for a different team, to his community work and advocacy for mental health issues in Bristol.
And then there were his interviews. Rarely can such a physical player have exuded such zen-like serenity and radiated well-being through a camera lens. If you can picture the Dalai Lama as a combative defensive midfielder, you’ve got Stuart Sinclair. And then there was his voice. He might have been talking about a goalless draw with Scunthorpe but in his soft, quiet, slightly questioning intonation, you could hear the distant sound of waves lapping quietly on a peaceful shore, and the plaintive cry of gulls soaring above a sun-bathed coastline. It mattered little what he was saying- as soon as he opened his mouth, you knew everything was going to be alright.
And then, he was gone. We all understood why, and yet of all Darrell’s players, the heroes of recent times, to leave in the wake of the managerial change – more than Lines, more than Brown, more than Ellis- it was The Beard’s departure that hurt the most. We knew that in many ways, he will always be with us. Maybe one day he will come back. He could do whatever he liked: fitness guru, goalkeeping coach, 50/50 ticket seller on Filton Avenue. But in the meantime, could the player who would go on to fill his size 7’s fill the aching void in our hearts?
After graduating from the Bristol Rovers Academy, or Coventry reserves as they are sometimes known, Abo Ogogo took a little while to grow into his role. Initially, his performances were full of energy but lacked focus, as if oscillating furiously around the pitch might mask the fact that he wasn’t 100% sure what he was supposed to be doing. He would win the ball regularly, and lose the ball in equal measure, rendering himself possession neutral. But with each match it became more and more apparent that he is more than just Sinclair’s match in terms of energy: he has the same tenacity, will to win and good nature. And it has become clear that he is more than Stuart’s equal in terms of skill; he could be described as The Beard Plus, apart from his slightly disappointing beard.
Although the captaincy may be doled out by GC to whichever seething hard-man is most up for a scrap on any given afternoon, the beating heart of this season’s over-achieving Rovers team is Abu Ogogo. His game is simple- he wins the ball, he passes the ball and very occasionally he pops up and scores. He has visibly grown into the quarters, and has won hearts and minds on the terraces and in the tents with his commitment and humour. Even his celebrations are celebrated. Could it be that he is the man to bring back the joy back to our club, to go with the results that are already there? To awaken our enthusiasm and fervour?
The Beard is dead- long live The Beard!