By Stephen ByrneAt ten to five on the third Sunday in May 2015 on a Wembley pitch resembling a bowling green, Lee Richard Samuel Mansell placed the ball on the penalty-spot and calmly drilled it past the despairing dive of Grimsby Town’s James McKeown to restore Bristol Rovers’ Football League status after a one-year absence.
It had been an eventful afternoon beneath the Wembley Arch, as “two evenly matched, tenacious, well-drilled sides slugged it out in a match that gave us a thrilling first half, a slightly below-par second and a surprisingly open last half-hour.” (Tom Davies, The Guardian). Falling behind to Lenell John-Lewis’ scrambled opener after just ninety-nine seconds on his twenty-sixth birthday, Rovers equalised after 29 minutes, when Ellis Harrison fired the ball home, left-footed, after the Mariners had not cleared Jake Gosling’s right-wing corner.
An estimated 30,000 Gasheads waited tensely and nervously in a Conference play-off record 47,029 crowd as extra-time proved goalless and a place in the League hinged on the lottery of penalties.
Well-drilled by manager Darrell Clarke, Rovers scored all five of their attempts, with Jon-Paul Pittman’s missed kick proving critical as Mansell’s strike saw Rovers through 5-3 on spot-kicks.
A below-key Wembley performance had produced the desired result; earlier, two play-off semi-finals against Forest Green had seen Matty Taylor’s stunning sixteenth-minute opener at The New Lawn being followed by Harrison’s late red card, before Rovers eased comfortably home in the second leg with Taylor again on the score-sheet, followed by Chris Lines’ first goal since his return to Rovers.
Manager Clarke was therefore able to cast away the demons of 3rd May 2014 against Mansfield Town, when Rovers had meekly surrendered their League status. Ollie Palmer, who had started for Mansfield Town in Rovers’ final Football League fixture in May 2014, played for Grimsby in the Wembley tie. Rovers had won in quartered shirts at Wembley twice in eight years, Craig Disley, now Grimsby’s captain, appearing in both games.
Rovers were back in the League Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy draws for 2015-16, whilst Rovers and Bristol City, relegated together in 1981, had both experienced promotion in 1990, 2007 and 2015. More than this, the club had somehow emerged from the world of non-league football intact and more alert now to the dangers attached to losing Football League membership.