By Stephen Byrne
Once Cody McDonald’s injury time brace at Gillingham had effectively ended any outside hope of The Gas securing a play off berth, Rovers’ supporters could reflect on a positive season.
The side had gained maximum League points at home to each of the bottom nine teams in the division and completed a League double over the other three promoted sides. On their return to League One after a six-year absence, Rovers finished in tenth place, the highest since 1999/2000.
However, poor away form could be surmised from the fact that three or more goals had been conceded in ten separate away League fixtures. Top scorer Matty Taylor had scored 16 League goals, 19 in all competitions, before his controversial transfer across the city on deadline day in January.
There had been the bonus of a rare trip in the League Cup to Stamford Bridge, but Rovers had been knocked out of the FA Cup at home to a non-league side for the second successive season.
Of the victorious promotion side, central defender Tom Parkes joined Orient, who were to lose their League status in April 2017, whilst the remainder of the squad remained, despite Taylor’s drawn out contract proceedings.
As a result, the backbone of the side was in place, with the dependable Lee Brown, Tom Lockyer and Stuart Sinclair contributing continuity to the team and Chris Lines a force in midfield alongside the ever improving Ollie Clarke, the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year.
The former Torquay United manager Chris Hargreaves arrived as manager of Rovers’ U-21 side, whilst Keith Graham, a chartered physiotherapist, headed up a newly formed medical department.
The season opened with Rovers boasting two new signings with extensive lower league experience in defender Peter Hartley and winger Byron Moore, as well as three long-term loan signings in Luke James, Kelle Roos and Connor Roberts. Having had two games called off, one postponed and one abandoned, by halfway through the home fixture with Rochdale the Gas stood bottom in League One.
However, manager Darrell Clarke had by then strengthened with the loan signing of combative midfielder Hiram Boateng, whilst the young Chelsea pair of Charlie Colkett and Jake Clarke-Salter also arrived on loan.
One feature of Rovers’ early season form was that, whilst an ever changing side struggled to find form, Taylor continued where he had left off in 2015/16. The Football League’s top scorer that campaign had five goals to his name by the middle of September. His penalty against Walsall during that run was the first Rovers had been awarded at The Mem in the Football League since the game against Exeter City in January 2014, although it only earned one of four consecutive autumnal draws which preceded victory at Swindon through two very late goals in the space of a minute.
Victories soon followed at home to Port Vale and, impressively, at high-flying Northampton Town, where Colkett’s stoppage time winner imposed the Cobblers’ first home defeat in 17 League matches stretching back ten months. Through the autumn, Rovers conceded the first goal of nine successive League fixtures, but incredibly only lost one of these games. This astonishing never say die team spirit was perhaps best epitomised at MK Dons, where Rovers twice trailed by two goals before two very late goals earned a 3-3 draw, Taylor scoring a second-half hat-trick.
Red cards followed for Jermaine Easter at Sheffield United and Daniel Leadbitter at Millwall, where ten-man Rovers crashed to a 4-0 defeat, the heaviest setback since March 2014.
As the wheels appeared to fall off Rovers’ season, Charlton scored five times at The Mem as Rovers’ formation was dismantled, Clarke-Salter leaving the field with a fractured elbow, and four more times in the return fixture, Northern Irish international striker Josh Magennis scoring a hat trick. In reality, though, on only one occasion, the defeat at bottom of the table Shrewsbury Town in December, were Rovers actually very poor. There were six consecutive away defeats across New Year.
However, Rovers regrouped and, with the aid of some exceptional home form, secured their mid-table standing.
Billy Bodin overcame some early season loss of form to strike an emphatic left-footed second half hat-trick as Rovers defeated Coventry City 4-1 on Boxing Day, having put four goals past Bury in the previous home fixture. In some respects, the 2-0 win over a strong Wimbledon side on New Year’s Eve was the best of these performances, victory assured through Taylor’s second half brace.
Of 24 League matches played at The Mem in the calendar year of 2016, Rovers had astonishingly won 17, even taking into account a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Charlton Athletic and only Liverpool, of clubs in the top four national leagues, had scored more League goals during the year.