By Gerry PrewettBristol Rovers almost bookend their season with the toughest game of the entire campaign when the travel to Northampton Town on Saturday.
Rovers opened the season with a home defeat by the East Midlands team and to rub salt into Rovers’ wounds it was John-Joe O’Toole who headed the Cobblers winning goal.
Chris Wilder’s team started as they continued this campaign, hardly putting a foot wrong as they stand majestically at the head of the Division, with hopes of sealing their promotion with a win against the Gas.
A nine game run in which they picked up 25 of the 27 points on offer from mid-October, was followed by another run in which they picked up maximum points in a ten game spell. It is only in recent weeks where they have merely won three and drawn five of their last eight games that they have dropped off the relentless winning form.
The latest of those draws came on Saturday when the Cobblers faced the seemingly easy task of overcoming the underperforming Notts County. On 32 minutes Ricky Holmes put the home team ahead as his volley from 25 yards after a corner had been cleared, gave Loach in the Notts goal no chance at all.
The lead lasted just four minutes as the Cobblers missed a couple of opportunities to clear a ball into the box which found Liam Noble whose header from point blank range was saved by Adam Smith. However the keeper’s efforts counted for naught as Thierry Audel headed over his prone body.
That was the way things stayed until with just 20 minutes left Notts looked to have spoiled the party. John-Joe O’Toole took out Jon Stead as he was about to shoot, but the striker had his revenge as he rammed home the resultant penalty to put the away team 2-1 up.
This time it was the Cobblers striker Holmes who was upended and the fouled player once again stepped up to the 12-yard spot to dispatch the penalty.
Speaking after the game Wilder said, “I always thought today, with the two results having to go for us and us having to win, was a big ask for promotion to happen.
"We’ve talked about it for the last two or three weeks, no one can be disappointed with the amount of effort and commitment this group of players have shown, we just haven’t quite got over the line yet. It’s strange situation to be in, we’re in limbo at the moment, so hopefully it will happen next week.”
“I thought we played well. They were tough opposition shape-wise and have good players who’ve been badly managed this year with the likes of Stead, Izale McLeod and Liam Noble.
They’ve played at a good level and sometimes when you go away from home against a team who’s about to be promoted, you don’t want it to be against you.
“I’ve been in that position as a player and you don’t want to see people partying in front of you.
“It was a tough game and got our noses in front but then conceded not a great goal. I thought it was a foul on Nicky (Adams) leading up to it and I wasn’t too impressed by the referee today.
"They were always dangerous opposition and their shape was a difficult one for us and I didn’t think we were great. We had a go and we possibly should have won the game in the last 10 minutes because we came on strong.”
As members of the old Third Division (South) Rovers have a long tradition of games against the Cobblers. There have been some stirring games but perhaps none bring such painful memories than the Cobblers’ 1997/98 Play-off Semi-Final victory.
In the first meeting between the clubs took place in the Southern League in 1907/08 season Rovers ran out 1-0 winners at the County Ground on 11 January 1908. The first League games took place in one week in 1921.
The first game saw Rovers win 2-1 at the County Ground on 12 March with goals by Sid Leigh and Billy Palmer and Bill Thomas scoring for the home team. On 19 March Rovers doubled the dose with a 4-2 home win, Harry Boxley, Billy Palmer and a double by Ellis Crompton for the Pirates with George Whitworth and a John Bethune own goal for the Cobblers.
In the first four post-World War II meetings between the teams the away team won the lot!
The 1989/90 Championship season probably summed up the difference between a winning and losing team. In the game at Twerton Park on 29th October 1989, Bobby Brown was running the Rovers defence ragged and the undefeated home record looked in danger. Goals by Devon White and Paul Nixon had the game tied at 2-2.
Late in the game Devon White was controversially brought down in the box and Holloway converted the penalty to give the Gas an unlikely lead. Then with the seconds ticking away an unlucky Trevor Quow guided a clearance into his own net to give the final score of 4-2.
It was all 6 points to Rovers largely due to their 'never say die' spirit, after another Ian Holloway penalty secured a 2-1 win at the County Ground.
The previous time Rovers had 'done the double' over the Cobblers was back in 1967/68 season. Two goals in the home game by Stuart Taylor secured the points at Eastville. However it was the game at the County Ground that had been so remarkable.
Rovers’ away record was nothing to shout about, of their first 7 away games they had won 1 drawn 2 and lost 4, the Cobblers had won 5 of their previous 6 games. Converted Left Half Ray Mabbutt had a field day in the County Ground mud.
Frank Large gave the home team an early lead but Rovers were quickly level when a Johnny Williams pile driver was parried by Harvey straight to Mabbutt, who stabbed the ball home. Soon after Large was brought down in the box and Mackin scored from the spot past Ronnie Briggs. It fell to Bobby Jones scoring against his old club to restore Rovers to parity.
A 30-yard shot from Johnny Williams gave Rovers a 3-2 lead but that man Large made sure things were all square by half time. It was some while into the second-half before the goals started to roll in again, Mabbutt accepting a simple tap in past Bryan Harvey before Large scored the Cobblers fourth goal and completed his hat trick. Not to be outdone Mabbutt scored once more to complete the only hat trick of his career and to give Rovers an incredible 5-4 away win
In the 1997/98 Play-Off Semi-Finals, having secured a 3-1 home win many Rovers fans were already booking tickets for Wembley. However the Cobblers thought (quite rightly, as it turned out) that their away goal, scored late in the game, would be crucial. So it turned out, the 3-0 reverse at Sixfields was stunning.
After the results last weekend, the Cobblers now know that victory over Rovers will secure an automatic promotion spot. Wilder said earlier this week, "We know it'll happen, it's just a question of when, so hopefully we can do that this week. I think the Chairman will be made up because he'll be able to sell a few more seats and have a bit more time to sell it out and get a little bit more money into the club."
That Chairman, Kelvin Thomas, who came to the aide of the financially stricken club earlier in the season, noted, "Patience is the key. It's a massive game and it's probably even bigger because Bristol Rovers have been on a fantastic run. You look at our form and it's two points a game, which is championship form. It's almost like we've got ourselves in a position where we're worried the season will fall apart with a couple of draws but the reality is that the lads have put themselves in a fantastic position.”
"Saturday will be an interesting one. I think there was some uncertainty and nervousness last week and it'll be a big crowd again this time so it'll be a good one for the players but we have to be patient. We feel it will come but we feel like the line has been in sight for a long time. It will come."