The new season has finally arrived and as fans up and down the country travel to see their beloved teams after so long, club football in packed stadiums is finally back.
The Coronavirus pandemic has meant only a handful of supporters at a selection of the 92 clubs have been able to see the team they support on the odd occasion over the past 17 months and in the case of Bristol Rovers, it has felt like a lifetime.
The Gas were a mid table League One side having an outside chance of a play off run before the 2019/20 season was curtailed and as 1200 Gasheads travel to Mansfield this Saturday, they will have a new manager, nigh on new squad and new League to watch their team compete in after a torrid 18 months.
Ben Garner was in charge as the season was suspended in March 2020 and started last season as manager, but he didn’t last long, being sacked in November. He was replaced by Paul Tisdale, who endured an even less successful tenure, sacked in February with his replacement Joey Barton still in charge today after Rovers went down from League One without a whimper.
A summer of rebuild has since passed and with a host of new faces in the building, there are reasons for Gasheads to be optimistic. 13 new signings including attackers Luke Thomas and Aaron Collins, accompanied by veteran striker Brett Pitman looks like very shrewd business on paper. With goals being a major issue last term, a fresh outlook up top is what many supporters will have craved.
Pitman, a proven goalscorer wherever he has been, has spoken of his confidence to continue to be a threat in front of goal this coming season and is not afraid of taking on the responsibility his new side may need.
“Hopefully it will suit me,” he told BristolLive.
“I’ve always seemed to do well at clubs when I’ve been the main threat, the main goalscorer, the one people look to.
“I enjoy shouldering that pressure to score goals and hopefully it will work out the same here.
“It’s going to take time, not just for me to learn how people play, but I think it’s a relatively new squad on the whole, so it’s going to take time and we’ll work hard on the training pitch at it and create relationships and hopefully we’ll go from strength to strength.
“Obviously it will be nice to play in front of fans again. It’s been too long, really. It’s not been enjoyable, if player say they’ve enjoyed it they’re lying, in my opinion.
“It’s been an awful experience, to be honest, and I’m sure it’s been the same for fans who follow their team up and down the country.
Rovers go into the new season with a few injury and fitness concerns. Aaron Collins missed the final game of pre season with a muscle complaint. Fellow new signings Paul Coutts and Sam Finley are continuing to recover from COVID and may feature.
Mansfield go into the new season also full of optimism, having finished last term in a stronger position than first feared.
A tough start last year cost former Rovers boss Graham Coughlan his job but current boss Nigel Clough came in to steady the ship and the Stags are once again fancied for promotion to the third tier.
A summer of strengthening certain areas has occurred at One Call Stadium, with cultured midfielder Stephen Quinn coming in alongside exciting forwards Danny Johnson and Rhys Oates in what Clough hopes can be a season where the Stags really do kick on.
However, the former Derby and Burton boss has admitted that they need to get off to a good start in order to ensure the troubles of last season do not repeat themselves.
“It’s important to get off to a good start,” Clough told the Mansfield Chad.
“We were up against it last season and we could never realistically challenge the top seven over a long enough period.
“You can’t win it in the first few months but you can give yourself too much to do. If you get off to a good start the crowd gets behind you.
“We want to carry on where we left off last season. We played some great football and scored some great goals.
“We want our play to be of the same standard. We are looking forward to the whole season and are all excited.
“There’s plenty to be excited about. We have been encouraged by how we have played in the last two week.
“We got what we wanted out of pre-season.”
Mansfield boss Clough has confirmed just one of his side is definitely sidelined, that being midfielder Harry Charsley. The rest of the group he hopes to have at his disposal on Saturday.
Mansfield Predicted XI (4-3-3): Bishop (GK), Hewitt, Rawson, Perch. McLaughlin, O.Clarke, Maris, Quinn, Johnson, Hawkins, Oates.
Bristol Rovers Predicted XI (3-4-2-1):
Simon: Mansfield 2-2 The Gas
Jack: Mansfield 0-1 The Gas
Harley: Mansfield 2-0 The Gas
Max and Mets: Mansfield 2-1 The Gas