By Stephen Byrne.
The New Year opened with a 5-0 demolition of a Northampton side featuring two former Rovers midfielders in Boateng and John-Joe O’Toole, Ellis Harrison becoming only the 13th Rovers player to score four times in a League match, his tally including a seven minute first half hat trick. It was the first time since before World War Two that three Rovers players had completed a Football League hat trick in the same season.
For many supporters the January transfer window, coming as it did in the midst of some exceptional home form and a terrible run of away results, would give some indication of the intent from manager Clarke and club owner Wael Al Qadi. Defender Joe Partington, Eastleigh’s club captain, Queen’s Park Rangers’ impressive young goalkeeper Joe Lumley and Stoke City’s rock solid teenage defender Ryan Sweeney all joined the Gas at this time. They were followed by the signings of Middlesbrough defender Jonny Burn and Glaswegian Bob Harris, who had played for Queen of the South in the Scottish Cup Final of 2008; Luke James, who had scored twice for Hartlepool United against Rovers in September 2013, played up front.
However, the loss of Taylor on the final day of January threatened to overshadow all of the signings, not just for his departure but because he was moving across the river to Bristol City, this transfer creating an atmosphere of despondency, angst and despair in some circles. On paper, February’s fixtures looked to be the hardest run of the season, but Rovers responded with six consecutive draws, to exceed a club record set in both 1967 and 1975, these games featuring own goals on successive Saturdays from defenders Harris, on his club début, and Lockyer. The sixth draw saw Rovers outplay Bolton Wanderers on their own pitch, all a far cry from trips to places like Braintree and Nuneaton two seasons earlier.
Towards the close of the season, a 2-0 victory at Oxford, remarkably a fourth consecutive League victory at the Kassam, stands out amongst a string of positive results. Rovers’ ongoing successful home form began to suggest that an unprecedented third promotion could be an outside possibility via the play offs.
However, two straight victories were followed by a defeat at Gillingham which effectively ended this outside chance, all mathematical options being extinguished as Peterborough ran in four goals in 51 minutes in the final away fixture. Rovers conceded 11 goals in the final three matches, four each in the final two as the season finished with a seven goal thriller in front of a crowd of 11,750 at The Mem, Millwall securing their play off place with a winner five minutes from time.
Rovers also contrived to score in the first minute of successive home fixtures in March. Just a few weeks later, Moore’s goal at Wimbledon, striking home after Lockyer’s long ball was nodded down by Harrison, came after just 12.5 seconds; this was the fastest goal ever scored by Rovers in a League encounter, beating Alfie Biggs’ 15 second effort against Bury in March 1968. Rory Gaffney’s late brace at Peterborough made him the fifth Rovers substitute to score twice in a League encounter. Lockyer was Rovers’ only ever present, Brown and Lines being the only other two players to feature in 40 or more League matches; behind Taylor’s 16, Bodin was Rovers’ second highest league scorer with 13 goals, ahead of Harrison on eight.
Veteran goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall, at 38 years 99 days when he last appeared in the League for Rovers, at Southend United in August, was the fourth oldest player ever to appear for the club in the Football League.
33 players were used in the Football League, the most since 2012/13. There was a crowd of 17,489 at Bradford in September for a match bizarrely interrupted when the appearance of a drone caused referee Andy Haines to halt proceedings temporarily in the second half. Unusual though it may be for an August fixture not to be completed, the game at Swindon was abandoned during the second half in torrential rain; the replayed game caused some degree of controversy, the Robins not allowing those who attended the first game free admission to the replayed fixture, as convention often suggested.
In the League Cup, Rovers’ dramatic extra time victory over former manager Paul Trollope’s Cardiff City earned a high profile Round Two tie at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea put out a strong side, 12 of their 14 players having international caps to their names; as the second half drew on and Rovers had pulled the score back to 3-2, Eden Hazard, John Terry and Oscar were thrown on to shore things up, an indication as to how well Rovers were performing.
The Football League Trophy saw Rovers in a group with Pompey, Yeovil Town and the Reading Academy side, the format of the competition having controversially been altered, although Rovers’ hierarchy had opposed the change, to include development teams from sides in the top two divisions. The home fixture with Reading, as a result, attracted a miserly crowd of 1,418.
Matt Harrold scored one of two equalisers for Crawley Town in the FA Cup at The Mem, as Rovers eventually defeated their League Two opponents after extra time in a replay to earn the right to host Barrow in round two. Disastrously, Rovers were knocked out of the FA Cup by the Conference side 2-1, Byron Harrison scoring once in each half as Barrow deservedly secured their first away win against a League club in this competition since 1966.
A number of former Rovers players reappeared against the club, notably goalkeepers Luke Daniels at Scunthorpe and Neil Etheridge for Walsall; Adam Barrett played at Southend, John-Joe O’Toole for Northampton Town and Matty Lund with Rochdale; so too did Michael Smith for Peterborough United, Chesterfield’s Dan Jones and Charlie Colkett with Swindon Town, whilst Cian Bolger scored for Fleetwood Town; Lennie Lawrence and Paul Trollope were in charge of the Cardiff City side which played Rovers in the League Cup, Matt Harrold scored for Crawley Town in the FA Cup. Mark Walters’ nephew Reece Wabara played for Bolton Wanderers against Rovers in February.
Qamaruddin Maziar Kouhyar of Walsall was the first player born in Afghanistan to oppose Rovers in the League and indeed the first such player to appear in the Football League, whilst Bradford City fielded Haris Vučkić, the first full Slovenian international to play against The Gas. Eoghan O’Connell, who scored Walsall’s opening goal in January, is a first cousin of the former Irish rugby captain Paul O’Connell. Rovers recorded an average home attendance of 9,302, the highest such figure since 1976, and took an average of 1,074 supporters to away fixtures; the club took 4,069 supporters to Coventry in March.
Muted plans for the new stadium at UWE continued to be acted on behind the scenes, Rovers hoping to move into their projected 21,700 capacity all seater stadium before too long. With Rovers’ first team training since 2012 at The Lawns, a 15 acre site in Henbury, plans were revealed in November 2016 to move to a 28 acre site at Colony Farm on Hortham Lane, Almondsbury. This land was purchased in early February 2017 by Dwane Sports, an umbrella company run by Hani Al Qadi, the eldest brother of Wael Al Qadi, for a proposed development to include medical facilities, a fitness centre and a base for a projected Gas Girls football side, once planning permission was granted. The new chapter appeared ready to begin.