By Nathan BeesGasheads, we are less than 24 hours away from the first match day of the 2015-2016 season.
That’s right, the close-season is over and we no longer have to try, in vain, to keep ourselves busy on a Saturday afternoon. We are all set for another 9 months of sporting drama, so strap yourselves in… Football is back!
I definitely have that Friday feeling, and I cannot wait for tomorrow to roll around. It isn’t just because football is returning, though; it is because our beloved Rovers are as well - to the Football League! If that isn’t worthy of a celebration tonight, I don’t know what is.
Surprisingly, however, given the euphoria of our Wembley triumph in May after that Mansell penalty, it has been a difficult summer for supporters. The annual boredom that every close-season brings is bad enough, but we have also had to deal with bitterly disappointing off-field news as well.
It has threatened to drain all the positivity that was built up last year, and whilst it is obviously of huge importance, I am mightily relieved that we can now turn our attention to what really matters week in and week out: the football.
And, thankfully, we could not be in better hands as far as that boes. The work that manager Darrell Clarke has completed in the last year has been nothing short of outstanding, as not only did he achieve what looked like an impossible promotion last pre-season, but he has also given us a team that we can be proud of once again.
Long-time readers of my blog will know I have backed DC from the beginning, saying he deserved the opportunity to rebuild and prove that he could get us back to where we want to be. Never in a month of Sundays, however, did I think he would be able to transform things as quickly as he has done. We are in a much better place than we ever have been going into a League Two season, and that bodes well for another successful campaign.
Clarke is not content with just consolidating in League Two; the gaffer is challenging his squad to prove they are good enough to finish in the top seven.
That is music to my ears, because for oh so long we as a football club have been content with underachieving. Just treading water in the fourth tier is not acceptable, and when you dice with death as many times as we did in the past, it was inevitable that we would succumb to relegation at some stage.
I do not live with that fear of failing any more, though. Clarke has completely changed the mindset of the football club in line with what he expects of both himself and his team. If he does not get the improvement he demands, the lads know that it is ‘adios, down the road’ (which is one of my favourite ever DC quotes - and there have been a few!).
It is incredibly ruthless, but that is the nature of modern-day football. Every player has to be at their best all the time to meet the manager’s high standards, and if they don’t, they know they will be shipped out. It is precisely the right message to send out as we prepare to embark on the new season, as it means everybody will be on their toes and ready to impress.
A number of clubs have spent big in a bid to win promotion to League One next May, and that will result in one of the most competitive League Two campaigns of all time. Portsmouth have really pushed the boat out to support new manager Paul Cook, as you would expect, and the likes of Luton Town and Cambridge United have also made some very impressive signings. You then have a host of other sides who will fancy their chances given the business they have completed as well, including tomorrow’s opponents Northampton Town.
That is why our opening day showdown with the Cobblers is the perfect start. We go toe-to-toe with a genuine promotion hopeful and it will be a good indicator as to how far, or how close, we are to being able to mount a challenge of our own.
There are a couple of Rovers connections within their talented squad, although it is safe to say the two will receive very different welcomes should they appear tomorrow afternoon.
Goalkeeper Ryan Clarke came through the ranks here and was well-liked by Gasheads during his 6 year spell, so he is likely to receive a warm welcome before kick off. John-Joe O’Toole, on the other hand, will not.
The reason why is obvious, because whilst the relegation is now firmly in the past, we have not forgotten what happened that year and who was responsible for it. The midfielder was part of our worst ever squad and his lack of effort when the going got tough was clear for all to see. He will be left in no doubt as to how he is viewed by Rovers fans.
I am so glad we do not have players like that at the club any more. We have the right type of characters here now and tomorrow is all about them. I genuinely cannot wait to get to The Mem and support the lads at the start of what will hopefully be another memorable season.
Yes, it will be a tough game, but I am confident we can claim a big 3 points on our return to the Football League. Bring it on.
Come on Rovers, come on you blues!