Very Bristol Rovers

At 1.17 a.m. on Sunday 15 December sitting in front of my computer in Perth in Western Australia, I get an odd Tweet from the ever informative Keith Brookman. Rovers have just secured that amazing 2-1 victory at Portman Road and to be honest I am buzzing and there is no way I will be getting off to bed for another hour. I’ve just watched the game on iFollow and can hardly believe what I have seen. Whenever Rovers win thrilling games I can hardly sleep straight away there is just too much adrenaline still pumping. My wife, Amanda knows the score and gets off to bed before the game starts. I won’t be joining her until 2.30 at the earliest.

I was like this after the Shrewsbury game. No JCH, a tight defence and we score 4 goals away from home. This time it was the earlyish 2-0 lead, then Norwood brushes aside two players to get the Tractor Boys back into the game before half-time and it was all hands to the pumps. Seeing out that victory against the ‘big club’ in 2nd place, who were going to walk straight back into the Championship (just like Sunderland) was immense.

But then there was THAT Tweet, “If you get a chance make sure you listen to Graham Coughlan post match interview with Richard Hoskin”. I wasn’t able to hear the interview at that time but as Tweets came through I got hints of what was going on until there was confirmation of the bombshell decision by Graham Coughlan. It was a restless night with little sleep.

In the days following I was stuck by a few people commenting about, “Typical Rovers”, “No Ambition”. It got me to pondering, what is it that makes a GasHead? Why do these bombshells always hit us? Having followed the Gas since 1963, or the Pirates as they were known then I thought I would reflect back on some of those bombshell moments and what the fall-out was.

Before I was a regular at Eastville I was made aware of the dramatic leg injury suffered by Geoff Bradford when Rovers were challenging for promotion to Division One in 1953-54 season. Geoff had scored17 goals in 16 games up until a game at Plymouth on 7 November.  Geoff scored but suffered a horrific injury which threatened his career, he was out until the last game of the season, when he came back and scored 3. Rovers finished 9th that season 12 points below the promotion spots (only 2 for a win in those days) but many people wondered why Rovers didn’t seek a replacement for Bradford as the goals dried up.

Two years later and another Geoff Bradford injury was to shape a Rovers season even more dramatically. An 4th Round FA Cup replay at Doncaster in late January was the last time Geoff played that season suffering a second serious injury. Rovers finished 4 points short of the target having lost their last two games and once again a replacement was not sought.

Geoff Bradford

In my early years of following Rovers they achieved national notoriety during the ‘Football Bribes scandal” In April 1964 a national newspaper published a story that Bristol Rovers goalkeeper Esmond Million had accepted a £300 bribe to lose a game at Bradford (Park Avenue). Rovers forward Keith Williams was also party to the scheme in which they tried in involve full-back Gwyn Jones, who to his credit, informed the club. Rovers immediately suspended both players and informed the League

Rovers actually drew the game 2-2 in a season in which they were very nearly relegated to Division Four. Million allowed a back-pass go past him and additionally missed a cross allowing Kevin Hector to score twice.

In debt following his move from Middlesbrough, Million had failed to find a buyer for his bungalow up North and was trying to hold things together when he received a mysterious phone call asking him to throw a game in return for money. Tempted by the offer, Million agreed to the proposal and received £50 in advance. He was eventually charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act, found guilty and fined £50. Three weeks later he was banned from football for life. Ironically, Million found a buyer for his bungalow a week after the Bradford game. He later made a new life for himself in Canada.

Esmond Million

The case first came to light on the morning of April 12th, 1964, when the “Sunday People” published a story under lurid banner headlines exposing the conspiracy. The scandal proved to be much bigger than just the one game. Mansfield’s Brian Phillip’s a former team mate of Million’s at Middlesbrough was revealed as the ‘fixer’ in a scheme in which eventually England International Tony Kaye (then at Everton but formerly a team mate of Swan and Layne at Sheffield Wednesday) and Sheffield Wednesday’s David ‘Bronco’ Layne and Peter Swan were embroiled too. All the players were eventually banned for life.

Swan, Kaye and Layne all played in a Sheffield Wednesday side that went down 2-0 at Ipswich on 1st December 1962 Rumours had abounded for some time about matches being fixed and the story finally broke when retired professional Jimmy Gauld, who was found to be at the centre of the conspiracy, decided to confess all (for which he was paid £7000 by The People). Besides the Wednesday match, Gauld provided proof of two other matches which had been rigged on the same day, Lincoln v Brentford in Division Three and York v Oldham in Division Four. As the story unfolded the number of players accused rose rapidly. These included another Bradford City connection in Peter Wragg, a former York player who had since been transferred to Valley Parade.

The evidence behind the stories was passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions and led to criminal proceedings which were heard at Nottingham Assizes on 26th January, 1965. In all, ten professionals were found guilty and sentenced to various prison terms. Gauld received the heaviest sentence, four years imprisonment and £5,000 costs. The other nine received terms of between four and fifteen months. The following April, all ten convicted players were suspended for life by the FA.

The F.A., deeply embarrassed by the proceedings and the inevitable speculation that the incident was not an isolated one, had been quick to back up the process of law with their own judgement, a life ban on the Wednesday trio. It was a tragedy that three such talented players should have been lost to the game over what was in the circumstances a pitifully small amount.

Fast forward to 1977 and Rovers signed a young striker from Frome Town in the summer, nothing to excite the fans until he scored 4 goals in his first 4 starts. Paul Randall had arrived. The Tote End had a new hero, after Bannister and Warboys, a.k.a Smash & Grab, had departed the previous season. That season he ends up with 22 goals from 32 games. Rovers sign a wily Bobby Gould, who himself notches 10 goals and helps Randall’s development.

After 13 goals in 22 starts the following season Rovers sell him to 2nd Division high-fliers Stoke City for £175,00. The move doesn’t work for either party and two years later he returned for a less prolific spell with the club. Once again a star striker was not replaced and the team was eventually relegated.

Paul Randall

Probably the most serious issue to face the club for over 30 years now has been finding a real home. Once Rovers moved from Eastville at the end of the 1985/86 season there has always been a sense that Rovers have lacked a ‘real’ home. Having said that after the South Stand fire at Eastville, the ground was essentially 3 sided and lost most of its atmosphere. The move to Twerton Park probably saved the club from extinction and the 1989/90 Championship was a remarkable feat. The move back to Bristol and to the Memorial Ground gave GasHeads hope that they were back at their spiritual home but as always the club have had to face Bristol City Council.

Even when Rovers were at Eastville there have always been plans to develop a new Stadium, but the City Council seem hell bent on thwarting any initiative that Rovers put forward. There have probably been seven or eight different sets of plans over those ensuing years to give Rovers the home they deserve but they never seem to come to anything.

Somehow it all seems very, Bristol Rovers.