Written by Stephen Byrne
Christmas Day saw Rovers propping up all four divisions of the Football League, but Ward re-instilled the self-confidence to succeed.
Swift work on the transfer front saw the arrival of experienced goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall, effectively strong defender Mark McChrystal, tough midfielder John-Joe O’Toole, efficient striker Ryan Brunt, giant central defender Clayton McDonald and youthful front-man Tom Hitchcock.
On New Year’s Day, a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over relegation rivals Plymouth set the tone and was swiftly followed by two excellent away performances.
First, play-off hopefuls Fleetwood were brushed aside 3-0 on their own pitch, Ellis Harrison starting for the first time and Tom Lockyer making his debut from the bench as Rovers won through goals from Woodards, Richards and O’Toole.
“Fleetwood put up little fight as they were rolled over at home by strugglers Bristol Rovers”, reported the Blackpool Gazette.
Then, with Claud Davies sent off before half-time on his Rotherham debut, Rovers won 3-1 at another play-off side. Harrison chipped in with his first League goal; a long mazy run seven minutes after the interval ending with a fierce right-footed shot.
Still bottom of the table on 26th January, Rovers appeared in the top half of the division on 6th April, when Tom Hitchcock’s late winner defeated AFC Wimbledon.
Play-off hopefuls Cheltenham were stung by an astonishing thirty-five yard goal in stoppage time from the ever-improving Norburn, the best goal scored by the club all season, which earned Rovers a welcome if unexpected point away from home. Rovers had regained their self-belief.
As supporters began to understand the club had been transformed, the crowds gradually flocked back. The opening day attendance of 7,451 which had looked like being a seasonal best, was almost broken by the 7,332 for Ward’s first game in charge and fell when 8,527 came to see a third consecutive League victory, as Brunt’s 93rd-minute goal defeated Barnet at The Mem on a freezing Friday evening.
The visitors included their veteran player-manager Edgar Davids, once of Barcelona and both Milan clubs, in their midfield.
Under McGhee, Rovers had averaged 5,479 spectators at home fixtures; under Ward the figure was 7,069, rendering a seasonal average home League crowd of 6,309.
The impressive spring run had included, at one stage, ten consecutive League goals scored by different players, yet Brunt soon emerged as the goal-scoring star of the side. His winning goal at home to Wycombe was followed by a first-half brace as Rovers outplayed second-placed Port Vale at home in mid-March.
An official count of 1,932 Gasheads supported the side at Oxford, a game which was won 2-0, whilst 1,534 saw the final day draw at Torquay, 1416 travelled to the fixture at Cheltenham and 1,147 to Exeter.
By the middle of April, Rovers had lost just four League fixtures out of the twenty played with Ward in charge; this run included four consecutive home victories against strong opposition in the spring and encompassed eight clean sheets.
Rovers won consecutive League fixtures on five separate occasions during the second-half of the season. Defeat at Bradford in mid-April brought the unbelievable outside chance of a play-off appearance to a close, indicating as it did the gulf between those who could press for promotion and those clubs still a step away, yet underlining how far Rovers had come since the start of the calendar year.