Whenever we play a team, I try to recall happy times against them, and often those memories have come in the last few years.
League One throws up a few different clubs though, but Bristol Rovers are not one of them. In my lifetime (as a fan), we’ve played the Gas 19 times and I racked my brain to think of wins. There were a few in the Keith era, but overall we have beaten them six times in 19 meetings. They have taken the spoils nine times, but it feels like many, many more.
My overriding memories of them come from being sat in the family stand in May 2007 as the most promising season for years collapsed into calamity. The Imps had been swashbuckling pioneers of free-flowing football in the early part of the campaign, beating the Gas 1-0 at Sincil Bank in December 2006, but that 5-3 play-off final defeat broke me. It was our last appearance in the play-offs until 2017/18, and the disappointing culmination of five years of promise. As their three first-half goals hit the net, I sank in my seat and could have cried. At one point, we led the table and should have been good for automatic promotion, but Rovers were the physical manifestation of six months decline. They delivered the final blow, but it had been a brutal gang attack in which no fewer than eight sides lunged a blow post-Christmas.
I remember their trip to us in 2014/15, when Gary Simpson’s impressive-looking Imps surrendered in the final minute thanks to an Ellis Harrison goal. There was the home clash in 2005 when Junior Agogo got sent off after equalising for making an obscene gesture, but we couldn’t break the ten men down, or the long trip there in 2004 when Lee Thorpe added to a Paul Tait brace to send us into a game against Huddersfield in the play-offs, instead of one against Northampton or Mansfield whom we were unbeaten against. Even losing 2-0 there in 2002/03 still stings, an own goal and a penalty giving them the victory.
One memory does stand out though, from a time when both sides were, frankly, rubbish. It came in 2001/02, or last season before Keith’s amazing run. The problems that season are well documented and we ended up in administration, but the sole aim was not to end up in the Conference as well. For a while, it was touch and go and on February 23rd, 2002.
We travelled to The Gas fourth from bottom of the table, nine points clear of struggling Halifax, but still a little relegation-haunted. The Gas were three points above us, having played a game more, with a four-goal advantage too. It’s fair to say we were at a low ebb, and defeat would have seen us cut adrift as York were hitting form one place above us.
We went into the game with three wins in 17 matches, one of which was an exciting 3-2 December victory against Scunthorpe. Those days were few and far between though, with a 4-1 defeat by Mansfield our last home game before the trip down south. I remember that well, we were 3-0 down at half time as a protest, I sat in the centre circle for the entire half, mimicking something Neville Southall had done for Everton. I was the mascot, for those who don’t know, not just an errant pitch invader.
I did travel to the game, I have no idea why as I was always skint and we had little hope of getting anything. I suppose, given that they had only won three in 11 and had conceded five in two matches prior to us going there, I felt we might get a point. Yes, I’m an eternal pessimist, but there’s an optimist deep inside me when things are going badly.
I’d by lying if I said I remember much about the game, some of my lifestyle choices affect my memory of that period. I know this much, the Imps team was Alan Marriott, Grant Brown, Paul Morgan, Mark Bailey, Stuart Bimson, Peter Gain, Ian Hamilton, Justin Walker, Ben Sedgemore, Dave Cameron and Lee Thorpe. Aside from the two in italics, it’s actually a decent Imps side, featuring eight players that fans have voted for as we hunt our top 100 players of a generation. Still, we were playing a brand of football under Alan Buckley that didn’t suit the playing staff and it showed.
Again, I can’t say I recall the game too much. Peter Gain gave us an early lead, the joy of which was cancelled out eight minutes later by Sergio Ommel. I would say I imagine our goals would be scrappy, but we actually scored some belters that season; Steve Holmes against Bury and Rochdale spring immediately to mind.
The game looked likely to result in a draw, a decent result I suppose, but joy ensued right at the death in a moment I will remember for as long as my memory holds up. The clock had ticked down to the final minute when we picked up a free-kick in a dangerous position. Justin Walker, a real Rolls Royce of a player, hadn’t scored a league goal since April 2001 when we surprisingly beat Chesterfield. However, his curling effort was wonderful, beating Scott Howie and giving us what was arguably our best win against the Gas for many years. Cue delirium in the away end, one of those small victories in a long line of defeats that perhaps means as much to those there as a title win.
That sparked something of a run for us; after losing narrowly to promotion hopefuls Luton, we turned Carlisle over 3-1 at the Bank a week later, Walker against scoring a peach of a goal to put the game beyond doubt. After the Carlisle game, Buckley aid it was nice to see Walker score but that it was ‘two goals in a year, so we won’t get carried away with that, will we?’. Walker did, he bagged again as we drew with Hartlepool to give us seven points from four games and on-field safety.
The final ten games brought four points and although we were safe on the field, the battle raged off it. We got another victory in the High Court that summer and the nucleus of the side remained together and showed what the right coach can do with the right players. History will always remember 2002/03 as the start of the renaissance, but without that win against Rovers were would have finished second bottom. Instead, they did, by one point, but we were both well clear of Halifax, nine points adrift.
Recalling that game made me think about the real beauty of football, how even the very worst sides can give supporter something to remember, like a rose growing in a bed of thistles. Justin Walker’s free-kick was a rose alright, a moment of uplifting joy in a season of worry and fear.