A look back at the first half of the season by Stephen Byrne
Shortly before five o’clock on the first Saturday of May 2014 Rovers’ ninety-four year tenure of Football League status came to a dismal and sudden close.
Needing simply a draw at home to mid-table Mansfield Town, Rovers fell behind to Colin Daniel’s low volley off a post nine minutes before half-time and, despite producing eighteen shots to the Stags’ four, disappeared off the League radar.
Yet, just a week earlier, there had been jubilation as, with sixteen minutes left on the clock at Adams Park in the penultimate match of a turbulent season, David Clarkson had swept a loose ball home from close range.
As the weeks had gone by, Rovers had slipped from a poor position into a precarious one but had not quite slipped into the two relegation places.
Lee Brown’s eleventh-minute free-kick had put the Pirates ahead away to Wycombe Wanderers, who were just above Rovers on goal difference, only for the Chairboys to equalise nine minutes later through Matt McClure’s back-flicked volley.
Results elsewhere indicated that the other five clubs in the bottom seven places were all winning; the Gas had temporarily dropped to second from bottom and ultimately Football League survival appeared to hinge on securing victory in Buckinghamshire.
With time ticking away Clarkson, the villain of the piece when the sides had met in Horfield earlier in the season, was on the spot with the goal which rescued Rovers’ spirit and relegated Torquay United to Conference football.
Just a week later, Rovers joined the Gulls in fifth-tier football, finishing in twenty-third place with fifty points and just forty-three League goals to their collective name.
Manager John Ward had made just two summer signings, but what signings they were! Reinforcing the spine of the side, he acquired on a permanent basis goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall and influential midfielder, top scorer John-Joe O’Toole, who had both featured in the side the previous campaign.
In addition, Mark McChrystal’s contract was extended and he was to play a key role in Rovers’ defensive formation.
Therefore, in stark contrast to August 2011, when Rovers had fielded ten débutants on the opening day at Wimbledon, the only player making his first appearance in the side at Exeter in August 2013 was young substitute Shaquille Hunter.
He was one of a handful from Rovers’ successful youth side to break into League reckoning. Mitch Harding started on the opening day, Rovers’ squad opening the new campaign with twelve players out of action through injury.
Alefe Santos and Young Player of the Year Tom Lockyer very quickly established themselves as integral cogs in the Rovers machine, whilst Pat Keary and Jamie Lucas also broke into the side.
Salisbury City manager Darrell Clarke, a former Hartlepool United midfielder, joined the club, working alongside Development Coach Marcus Stewart as Ward’s assistant manager.
A youthful Rovers side picked up just one point from the opening three League fixtures, perhaps an ominous sign of the struggles ahead through the campaign, before kick-starting the season with back-to-back wins at home to York City and Northampton Town.
Clarkson scored twice in the opening 32 minutes in the former, Lockyer after just 96 seconds, from Lee Brown’s cross, in the latter. Both York and Northampton had a man dismissed, York’s Ryan Bowman, sent off only five minutes after his arrival, becoming the first substitute ever in a Rovers match to receive a red card before half-time.
An early-season addition to the side was the arrival of midfielder Andy Bond, who had previously opposed Rovers in the FA Cup with Barrow and in League fixtures whilst with Colchester United.
In September, Rovers avoided a home defeat against hapless Hartlepool, thanks to John-Joe O’Toole’s last-gasp equaliser, after eighteen-year-old Luke James had scored twice for the visitors in nine first-half minutes.
Keary’s first League appearance, as a substitute at Mansfield Town in October, saw Rovers field their youngest back four since the 1967-68 season, with a combined age of 85 years 216 days, including club captain Tom Parkes.
Thereafter, as the anticipated victories failed to materialise, Ward dipped into the loan market and signed Will Packwood from Birmingham City, the first United States-born player to don a Rovers shirt, and Manchester City’s left-sided midfielder Alex Henshall.
However, the pair made their Rovers bow in the depressing home defeat against Wycombe Wanderers, Rovers playing the final 65 minutes a man short after Clarkson received a straight red card for a foul on the Chairboys’ Josh Scowen, the first Rovers player dismissed in any game since December 2012 and the Scottish player’s only card of the campaign.
Much appeared to hinge on the Tuesday night trip to winless, bottom-placed Accrington Stanley; a goal up in four minutes, Rovers lost 2-1 to be drawn apparently inextricably into a relegation struggle.
As the season progressed, Rovers never quite stumbled into the relegation zone, yet also never appeared immune from the dangers posed by the drop-zone yawning cavernously beneath them.
A revival of sorts was kick-started when O’Toole’s penalty nineteen minutes from time earned Rovers an unexpected 1-0 victory at top-of-the-table Oxford United just before Guy Fawkes’ Night.
However, both on-loan Chris Beardsley and O’Toole were then sent off as Rovers crashed to defeat at Burton Albion and moved to within a point of the relegation zone; the Brewers’ Jimmy Phillips was also sent off in a game Albion won through Robbie Weir’s 58th-minute strike.
It was the eleventh time that two Rovers men had received red cards in the same League fixture. Burton had fifty-year-old Kevin Poole, a reserve goalkeeper, unused on their bench.
With these two key figures missing, Rovers conjured up their largest victory of the season, defeating Wimbledon 3-0 before a Memorial Stadium crowd of 5,860, the visitors having Sammy Moore dismissed eight minutes from time.