By Nathan Bees
It doesn’t seem just over 8 months ago that we were gearing up for the start of the 2012-2013 football season with a Capital One Cup game away at Ipswich Town.
An awful lot has changed since then and the journey from last summer to now has been bumpy to say the least.
We’ve had some unenviable low points, arguably the lowest any Gashead can remember, but we’ve also enjoyed some happy moments in 2013 too. We’ve gone from rock bottom at the halfway stage to a solid 13th place by the end of the season, a position that seemed unreachable as recently as the new year.
The miraculous turn in fortunes since December has come courtesy of John Ward and his army of inspired January signings, all of whom have impressed us massively.
Their introduction and subsequent performances in the quarters has prompted a sense of optimism for our on the field prospects next season and with the UWE Stadium just 2 years away it feels like Bristol Rovers could just be about to take off.
The change that John Ward has implemented with his arrival has been well documented and I’m very pleased he decided to jump off the train at Temple Meads instead of Plymouth last December.
He’s rescued us from a position that seemed so perilous we had a very real chance of losing our Football League status for the first time in our history. I look back on those dark days of winter with nothing but despair but it’s fair to say I don’t think we’d be where we are now if we hadn’t gone through it.
Our 4-1 humbling at York City in mid-December was the point at which we hit rock bottom and it gave us all chilling nightmares of the Blue Square Premier. As far as lowlights go it’s up there (or down there) with the worst that we have ever endured but that day in York was a poignant one.
It proved to be the catalyst for our much needed change at the heart of the club. Mark McGhee was relieved of his duties and replaced by a man who not only had a vast knowledge of the lower leagues but an affinity with this football club that very few others possess.
Despite not being a Bristolian, John Ward just gets Bristol Rovers and everything that it represents. This understanding was precisely what he translated to the players upon his arrival and it was the single most important thing he did.
It helped them to realise what this club means and what part the supporters can play if they show us they’re proud to be wearing our shirt. It’s an honour they didn’t show previously and that’s not a complaint aimed specifically at anybody in particular because it’s something that has been desperately lacking for many years.
It’s a culture that has evaporated as a result of the modern game and was only ever likely to be reignited by someone who experienced it before. John Ward had and was therefore the perfect candidate.
The new-found appreciation for what could be achieved if we worked together was significant in creating a harmonious club and it felt from the first minute of John’s first game that we were all striving for the same thing.
Alongside bringing organisation to the team and a focus on how to defend simply yet effectively, John re-energised what was a flailing group of professionals who had become disillusioned with playing football in to 11 men who had a will to win.
I truly dread to think where we’d be if John had decided to honour his word to Plymouth Argyle and join them as Director of Football. I’d wager that we’d be in a similar position to Torquay United in fearing relegation on the final weekend of the season.
Whilst we’ve all paid homage to the genius of our Clubman of the Year and his backroom team, we mustn’t forget that the players themselves have walked the walk out on the pitch.
The group who were already at the club bought in to the new ideas and started to show the sorts of performances we’d expected from them from the start of the season. They were aided, magnificently, by the signings of some top players from higher divisions that went on to form the spine of our team.
Goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall headed the list after arriving on loan from Millwall, with defender Mark McChrystal joining him following his release from Tranmere Rovers. They strengthened our back-line whilst the industrious John-Joe O’Toole joined on loan from Colchester United, initially for a month, to support our lacklustre midfield.
They all proved to have the impact we’d hoped for as we began to win games of football.
They were accompanied by the signing of striker Ryan Brunt on a permanent basis from Stoke City towards the end of January and at that point we finally began to look confident.
The unity shown between the club and the supporters helped to create a tremendous atmosphere and that had a lasting effect on the players, who began to speak post-match of the ‘incredible’ noise we were generating for them.
It enticed the popular O’Toole to commit himself to the club for another two months so he could help finish what he started and ensure Rovers remained in the division.
We had become a force to be reckoned with and teams were no longer licking their lips at the prospect of playing an underachieving group of players.
Further wins ensued right through until March when we achieved mathematical safety, much to the delight of all concerned. The unbelievable turnaround was complete. Since then we haven’t quite managed to maintain our level of form but it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Bristol Rovers are still a league club. We have one final game in order to break the 60-point barrier and cap what has been a rollercoaster season with a victory.
Whilst this weekend will be a celebration of what has been achieved in the new year, the club won’t be taking their foot off the gas. Nick Higgs and John Ward will be working tirelessly between now and pre-season training in late June to re-sign members of the team and recruit new players for next season’s promotion push.
They have been proactive in tying players to new deals already and the chairman has admitted he has made an offer to O’Toole to bring him to Rovers permanently this summer.
It may prove difficult to persuade him to drop a division full-time but hopefully the lure of being a Gas hero will prove too much for him to turn down.
No overhaul is needed this time around, the plan of action is to add to what we already have and that should stand us in good stead. With the right recruitment and a good pre-season under the guidance of John Ward and his staff, I can see no reason why we can’t enjoy the kind of experiences we’ve had in 2013 over the entirety of the next campaign.
I’ve never been someone who enjoys the long summer break without competitive football and this year will be no different. I’m already excited for what next year may bring!
However, good things come to those who wait and that’s what we’ve all got to believe over the next couple of months. Until then we just have to sit patiently and wait... after enjoying our end of season party down in Torquay of course! Here’s to sunshine and 1500 Gasheads making themselves heard down in Devon.
Have a good summer one and all.