“She’ll be right mate”, is an Aussie expression when faced with adversity, it’s the equivalent of Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life”. At the moment GasHeads are fiercely divided (haven’t we always been?) between the Garner believers and those who feel he is out of his depth.
Most incoming Managers are brought in after their predecessor has been sacked and they have a firefighting job. In rarer instances, like Ben Garner’s, the incumbent has been poached because they have been successful and someone else is brought in to fill the void. The advantage that Garner has, is that whilst Rovers were in fourth spot when Coughlan left, most fans realised that the team was punching above its weight and realistically finishing somewhere in the top half of the table would be par for the course.
Currently it is obvious that there is a major overhaul in Rovers’ playing style. The concern is that whilst this overhaul has been going on results have been disappointing to say the very least. Having accumulated an impressive number of points by the time Coughlan departed, Garner has that as a buffer whilst his change in style is underway. If this was the start of the season there would be alarm bells ringing by now.
After the draw with Tranmere on Tuesday 11 February Rovers have just equalled their worst winless streak of 14 games. They have previously hit this mark 3 times, in 1965/66 when 1980/81 and again in 2001/02. Let us take look back at those runs, put some context around them and see what happened once they had ended.
Firstly 1965/66. The season started off in a mixed fashion, 5 wins, 3 draws and 5 defeats. Having beaten Oldham 4-0 on 19 October 1965 there were to be 14 more League games before a victory was gained, there was also a 3-2 FA Cup defeat at Elm park, against Reading. That winless streak amounted to 7 draws and 7 defeats. The biggest of those defeats was a 6-1 thrashing at Boothferry Park against a rampant Hull City team (one of the three 6 goal hauls they had that season) on their way to the Championship.
The game that broke that drought was quite remarkable and I was actually in the ground to see it. On 29 January Rovers entertained Grimsby Town at Eastville, a team containing future England Boss Graham Taylor. The Mariners took the lead after just seven minutes through Bobby Ross with a ferocious first time shot from the edge of the area into the top corner of the Tote End net.
The Humberside team had the better of the play but just as they thought they’d secured maximum points, four minutes from the end Roger Frude hit a savage shot from the edge of the area after Dave Stone’s free-kick was headed back by Dick Plumb. Two minutes later Frude was the goalscoring hero again as he slipped the ball past Charlie Wight. Cue pandemonium as the drought was lifted, and how.
The following game was an away tie at Brentford, it was my first ever away trip. Alfie Biggs, who had missed the Grimsby game, was restored to the team. With an end to end first half Rovers were given a massive boost as Biggs scored in the 43rd and 44th minutes. Five minutes into the second half Mel Scott headed past his own keeper, Chic Brodie and Rovers were cantering home. Biggs completed his hat-trick with 10 minutes to go and Harold Jarman chipped in 5 minutes later to complete an impressive 5-0 away victory.
After that Grimsby victory Rovers recorded 8 more wins (including a 6-0 victory over Mansfield), 4 draws and 6 losses. The overall record for the season was Won 14, Draw 14, Lost 18. What was remarkable was Rovers conceded just 15 goals at home, a record beaten only by promoted Millwall. They finished in 16th place 6 points (3 wins) away from relegation.
The 1980/81 season was a whole different story. Terry Cooper had taken over the Manager’s position at the end of the previous season as Harold Jarman, in a temporary capacity, had saved Rovers from relegation. Rovers had ended that season with 6 games without a win. 1980/81 opened with a 1-1 draw to Orient but the real damage happened overnight as a fire at Eastville completely gutted the old wooden South Stand. The next 3 League games were played at Ashton Gate and Rovers drew all 3 of them.
It wasn’t until 4 November that Rovers won their first game, a 3-1 win over Watford. Chic Bates and Aiden McCaffrey put Rovers 2-0 up after 27 minutes and Gary Mabbutt added a third on 54 minutes. However despite breaking the winless run, Rovers went on to repeat 14 more winless League games before beating Bolton 2-1 on Valentine’s Day 1981.
What was ironic during this second spell Rovers featured in a remarkable FA Cup tie at Deepdale. Having not won away all season Rovers found themselves 4-0 up at half-time with Gary Mabbutt and Stuart Barrowclough scoring in the first 6 minutes. Mickey Barrett (38 minutes) and Geraint Williams (45 mins) ensured Rovers had a comfortable lead. Graham Houston, Alex Bruce and Paul McGee goals for Preston ensured there was a tight finish.
Rovers only won 4 games that season and comfortably finished bottom the Division Two with Bristol City one place ahead of them, also being relegated.
2001/02 was Rovers first ever season in the bottom of the four divisions of the League pyramid. Having gone down by just a single point Rovers were hopeful of bouncing straight back especially with returning hero Gerry Francis in the Manager’s seat. After their 3 opening League wins over Torquay, Scunthorpe and Luton it looked as though an automatic return was on the cards. After a 2-1 victory over Southend on 18 September it was going to be another 14 League games before they secured another victory when they beat Leyton Orient 5-3 on Boxing Day. That run consisted of 5 draws and 9 defeats, none of the defeats was by more than 2 goals but Rovers scored just 6 goals in that period.
Once into the new year Rovers won 4 drew 2 and lost just 1 of the next 7 games before going on another poor run. This time it was an 11 game spell without a League victory. Much like the 1980/81 season there the irony of a strong FA Cup run that included a record setting 3-1 victory over Derby County at Pride Park, the first time a 4th tier side had ever won at a top tier’s home ground.
Rovers finished one place above Halifax, who were relegated. The following season was the first that two teams went down and Rovers only missed that humiliation in the penultimate game of the season.