By Mike Jay
On Easter Monday 21st April 2003 Rovers were in serious danger, as they are now, of going out of the Football League.
They travelled to high riding Oxford United to play at the Kassam Stadium backed by 3,500 fans which made up the 8,732 who watched the game.
Two days earlier Rovers had beaten Cambridge United 3-1 at the Mem, their first win in five games, with two vital goals from Andy Rammell and one from Latvian international Vitalijs Astafjevs. As they travelled up the A40 to Oxford they had just three games to save themselves from relegation to the Conference.
The Oxford side included two future Rovers players, James Hunt and Dave Savage, in their midfield and they were in seventh position looking to get into the play offs. They also included striker Jefferson Louis, another future Rovers player, who came off the bench after 67 minutes.
Rovers boss Ray Graydon was, of course, returning to a club he had played for and where he had spent a number of years as a coach, while the Oxford manager was the future Rovers manager Ian Atkins.
The only goal of the game was scored by Andy Rammell, taking his tally for the weekend to three. More importantly, the three points lifted Rovers up the table to 20th place, five points clear of a relegation place.
It was a nail biting 53 minutes for the Rovers fans inside the ground before the goal arrived, and an even more anxious 37 minutes to wait for the final whistle.
Rammell struck after Adam Barrett had nodded Sonny Parker’s free kick back across goal, firing high into the roof of the net from seven yards.
Graydon’s side were under constant pressure for almost the entire ninety minutes and had to dig deep to prevent the home side scoring.
‘The Gas are staying up’ rang out around the Kassam Stadium at the final whistle, as relegation looked to have been avoided. However, Graydon struck a note of caution in his post-match interview.
"While it’s been a great Easter for everyone, we are not safe yet but I think the fans will feel as confident as I do that things are looking better than they were last week.
"We were probably favourites for one of the two relegation spots before that, now we are one of the favourites to get out of it.
"I’m delighted to be in that situation because these have been two very big results for us."
The manager acknowledged that his side had defended exceptionally well during the game.
"Oxford made things very difficult and maybe three or four months ago we would have turned around three or four goals down at half time. Oxford had chances but we defended very well in our box and I’m including everyone in that.
"There were some great blocks, our keeper made some good saves, and we had to continue doing that in the second half."
There was praise for Adam Barrett, and for Rammell.
"Adam doesn’t hold back, he’s in your face as a player and he made some fantastic blocks.
"I’m pleased for Andy, who has come here in the twilight of his career and has taken on the responsibility that I wanted him to."
The loss of points for Oxford meant they would fail to reach the end of season play offs.
Five days later, watched by 9,835 very nervous fans, Rovers beat Darlington 2-1 at The Mem with another goal from Rammell and Wayne Carlisle. The final match of that turbulent season on 3rd May 2003, saw battling a Rovers side grind out a 1-1 draw at Kidderminster Harriers.
Paul Tait equalised after 71 minutes after the home side had taken the lead in the 15th minute through JJ Melligan. Harriers included three future Rovers players in their side Craig Hinton, Danny Williams and Bo Henriksen
Exeter City and Shrewsbury Town were eventually relegated to the Conference having picked up only 48 and 41 points respectively. Rovers, thankfully, finished on 51 points in 20th position.
Rovers: Howie, Parker, Barrett, Austin, Anderson, Astafjevs (Street, 61), Quinn, Hyde, Hodges (Carlisle, 90), Llewellyn, Rammell (Tait, 81).
Substitutes: Grazioli, Boxall