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Rough guide to... Bristol Rovers
25 May 2004
In a nutshell
Three promotions and four relegations in 100 years. A continuing battle for financial survival, not helped by having two grounds burned down. They see themselves as a decent club; I tend to agree.
Their finest hour
Bristol Rovers have spent their entire Football League career in the lower divisions. Their proudest boast seems to be that they never played in Division Four (as so named). They have never played in the top division either. Here are their 'finest hours' in toto:
The Gasheads have made it to the FA Cup quarter-final stages twice, in 1951 and 1958, and to a home fourth-round tie against Liverpool in the '92-93 season. In the early seventies they got to the League Cup fifth round in successive seasons, losing to Villa one year and Stoke the next. Another exultant moment must have been when they got their hands on that £2m cheque for Barry Hayles with Mohamed Al Fayed's moniker on it. However, the really fine hours are when they put one over on Bristol City. Which leads me neatly to the next category.
- Champions, Division Three (south), 1952-53
- Champions, Division Three, 1989-90
- Watney Cup winners 1972
- Runners-up, Division Three, 1973-74
- Runners-up, Leyland DAF Cup, 1989-90
Rovers fans really despise Bristol "Shitty". They vehemently believe that BRFC have been honourable when going bust, whereas City did the dirty on their creditors in the 1982 bankruptcy fiasco (see my rough guide to Bristol City). The mutual extent of the hatred can be measured by the fact that four City fans arrived at the (then) Rovers ground in Bath one Sunday morning in a white Transit and tried to burn down the stadium. They got twelve months for arson.
The Gasheads (as the fans prefer over the official 'Pirates' nickname - for laudable reasons explained later) are also not keen on Swindon. But that enmity is a pale shadow of their disgust for all things City. Quite what it must have been like when Rovers were forced to play a handful of their games at Ashton Gate (after another fire, this time at Eastville in 1980) I really can't imagine. Rovers fans remain highly relieved that the Wurzels chose City to support - although they have similarly weighted crosses to bear in terms of celebrity supporters, as is explained in the trivia section below.
The Gasheads had a season of three thirds: two thirds utter crap, and one third playing like promotion contenders. Five managers and (a mere) thirty-three players helped them to finish in fifteenth place. Rovers had a manager, then a temporary manager, swiftly followed by two joint managers. Now they have another manager. I think that's it, anyway. There is an excellently detailed, but chronologically confused, season review on their official website (see Links, below) if you want all the ups and downs.
The crux of the matter, though, seems to be that Rovers got rid of their goalscorer early on and his replacement, one Junior Agogo, failed to do the business. Russell Osman arrived in March, got Agogo a-go-going, and signed Lee Thorpe. In a flurry of deadline transfers, Osman and his co-manager Kevan Broadhurst signed a load of players from Kidderminster, Hull, Stockport and the like. From third from bottom at the end of March, the Pirates found themselves in the upper half of the table (briefly) in April, as they won a few games and the teams around them imploded gently.
While all these miracles were under way, the Rovers chairman was busy making an alleged illegal approach to Ian Atkins at Oxford. Notwithstanding the initial huff 'n' puff from their board, Oxford decided they'd rather have Graham Rix anyway, and Atkins arrived in time for the last two games of the season. Meanwhile the Rovers chairman seems to have forgotten to say anything to Russell Osman, who just carried on to the end of the season. In fact he's still hanging around, apparently, asking anyone who will listen whether he still has a job.
Who's the Dadi?
With yet another new manager, who has released all his out-of-contract players and told several others that they can go on a free if anyone wants them, Rovers fans have relatively little to go on with regard to next season's heroes. So far Atkins has signed defender Ali Gibb on a two-year contract following his successful loan spell last season, and also brought in midfielder James Hunt from his former club Oxford. The up-front trio of Thorpe, Agogo, and Paul Tait have the potential to represent a tricky, hard-working strikeforce, as this extract from the Bristol Green 'Un enthusiastically explains:
"The 'Thorpedo' has worked tirelessly since his arrival from Leyton Orient in mid-March and deserved to net the third near the end to open his account for us against his old club. He has been a super signing and his goal return of just one from nine games does not reflect the huge effect he has on the team, not least on his fellow strike partners and in particular Junior Agogo.
"In just a few weeks, Agogo has been transformed from a wasteful underachiever with no confidence into a prolific nightmare for opponents, and virtually unstoppable. When he picks up the ball these days, there is an electrifying buzz around the Mem because he can beat defences all on his own if he chooses, as we saw with that wonder-goal against Swansea."
The Gasheads have an experienced keeper in Kevin Miller (ex-Birmingham, Watford, Palace), and a reportedly promising deputy in young Ryan Clarke, who has just signed a two-year contract extension. Former Scunny favourite Lee Hodges is also expected to be offered a new deal, but nothing has been reported at the time of writing. Whether Tait will be offered a new contract remains to be seen, but Thorpe and Agogo are there to stay.
Lee Thorpe was a cracking signing. Of that there is no doubt. If the errant wizardry of Junior Agogo can be reliably harnessed then Rovers will have a Division Three front line to be proud of. And if your team has potent scorers then they definitely have a chance of making the play-offs in Division Three. I think they can make the top six next season, assuming some stability is introduced in terms of players, coach, and manager.
Fans the Gasheads probably wish they didn't have include Jeffrey Archer. I don't think he's been to any home games lately though. Other celebrity followers were Rod Hull, who made an unspeakably bad record called 'Bristol Rovers All The Way', and, surprisingly, Eddie Large. Eddie is well known for his devotion to Man City, but lives in Portishead, I'm told, and does a sort of Dave Boylen act at half time for his adopted 'second' team.
This is probably the right moment to explain why the fans call themselves the Gasheads - and why they sing 'Goodnight Irene' so mellifluously. They've played on about seven grounds or summat over the years, and the old stadium at Eastville was next to a large gasometer. I can vouch for the fact that it bloody stunk of gas, as I was a polytechnic student in Bristol in the seventies, although I spent a lot more time in St Pauls, listening to reggae and scoring dope, than at Coldharbour Lane. Anyroad, they reckon the smell (of the gas, not the spliffs) won them many a home game. Just like Town, they make a positive out of adverse conditions.
As for the strange choice of club anthem, fans of Leadbelly and/or Ken Kesey, or even Alex Harvey, will know that 'Goodnight Irene' contains the following glorious verse:
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump in the river and drown
The Gasheads really identify with this lyric, as the river runs alongside Eastville and, as we all know too well, losing at home makes you feel suicidal sometimes. It's a nice song to sing, and may they always do it.
To finish, if you find yourselves watching Shrewsbury at home to Bristol Rovers then watch out for Weetabix. Apparently it's the done thing for travelling Gasheads to take it to Gay Meadow - birds for the feeding of.
On an even more final note, Andy Tillson represents the club's largest ever purchase. Did they get value for that £375,000? I doubt it, somehow.
The official site is OK for signings, squad profile, et cetera, but is very thin on historical club stuff (it's all "coming soon", apparently). There is a Footymad site which has a very quiet message board and an editor called Rob Hepworth whose email address bounces. [I told you! - Ed.] BRFC 1883, though, has the club history and good information about the ground for away fans. Start there.