By Gary Prewett.
Players come, players go but on Saturday, when Bristol Rovers entertain Gillingham in their last League One game of the season a legend will be making his final appearance for the club. Lee Brown, as has now been well documented, has decided that he needs to get back closer to his London roots. There is without doubt that the game will have something like a carnival atmosphere but there is a little matter of overcoming the opposition from Kent.
There should be the incentive to Rovers of proving that the 4-1 thrashing handed out to them by the Gills was not a true reflection of their respective abilities, especially as the Gills had previously not won a home game for 3 months. After an end-to-end start to the game, the home team took the lead on 28 minutes. Scott Wagstaff was tripped in the box by Joe Partington and Mark Byrne put the Gills ahead, scoring on the follow-up after his spot-kick was turned onto the post by Adam Smith.
Defender Alex Lacey doubled the hosts' advantage eight minutes before half-time, capping a surging forward run with a curled finish from 15 yards. Tom Eaves should have made it three before the break but Smith made a point-blank save from his header off Luke O'Neill's cross.
The interval interrupted Gills' impressive play momentarily and the third goal wasn't long in coming. Josh Parker chased a deep free-kick from keeper Tom Holy and got a toe-poke on the ball to beat Smith with 48 minutes gone.
Byrne sealed their victory with his second after 53 minutes with the goal of the game, hitting a sensational first-time volley into the top corner from Lee Martin's corner. However, the Irish midfielder missed the chance to score his first career hat-trick in the 65th minute, shooting wide from the penalty spot following Smith's clumsy foul on Wagstaff.
Liam Sercombe scored a stoppage-time consolation for Rovers, curling into the roof of the net from the edge of the box.
The Gills, who had a strong middle season, have found themselves sucked back towards the bottom of the table, having failed to win in 8 games. On Saturday they went down to a heavy home loss, 3-0, to a mid-table Blackpool team. Kyle Vassell who had already hit the bar with a powerful header, fired home the opener after debutant goalkeeper Tom Hadler spilled Jimmy Ryan's 25-yard shot.
Scorer turned provider for the visitors after 33 minutes, as Vassell's drilled cross was met by the onrushing Nathan Delfouneso, who guided the ball past the luckless Hadler. Midfielder Jay Spearing missed the chance to add to the Seasiders' lead three minutes after the break, as he hit the post from the penalty spot after Tom Eaves had needlessly fouled Curtis Tilt.
The Gills misery was complete when substitute Kelvin Mellor tapped in Armand Gnanduillet's cross to seal the win for Gary Bowyer's side seven minutes from time.
Gills Manager Steve Lovell was critical of the team after that performance, "The first half was non-existent as far as I am concerned. I have stood up for them all through the season, quite rightly as they've given everything, but today there was nothing. I'm a positive person but there's nothing I can take as a positive from the first half."
"The second half we had a go but it was too late. We didn't look like we had a goal in us. It was very, very poor. It wasn't very nice to watch today and the supporters are quite right in their comments, I'm with them. I'm a supporter and I'd be disgusted watching that."
Lovell is wary of the relegation threat, "I still think that we are two points from being certain of being in this league next year. We will see the character of the boys this week and hopefully go down to Bristol and put things right."
"They owe the Club a performance; they owe me a performance because I feel really let down by them. Especially in the circumstances where three points would have made us safe. We've got to do better."
Looking back over the history of meetings between the Gas and the Gills there has been a total of 105 games, with Rovers just having the better record with 46 victories to the Gills 40. They majority of Rovers success has come in the West of England with 32 of those victories, 10 draws and just eight defeats.
The very first meeting took place at Priestfield on 29 Jan 1921 in the old Division Three with the home team winning the match 1-0, with a goal by George Needham followed by a 2-0 Rovers' victory in the return fixture at Eastville a week later with Sid Leigh scoring twice for the Pirates.
On 21 November 2009 the Gas took all three points with a 2-1 victory, Chris Lines gave the home team a 17th minute lead side-footing home from 10 yards. Andy Barcham equalised on 40 minutes when he reached the edge of the area unchallenged and lashed the ball into the top corner of the net. A Jeff Hughes penalty on 81 minutes secured the points for Rovers. In the away game Gills won 1-0 through a last minute goal from Simeon Jackson.
Last season Rovers repeated the score-line but in a different way! Gillingham had taken a 62nd-minute lead when Rovers failed to defend a long throw from the right and Josh Wright popped up unmarked at the far post to fire low past Kelle Roos.
Man of the match Chris Lines grabbed an 82nd-minute equaliser, exchanging passes with Matty Taylor and breaking through the middle before coolly shooting past Bond. Then substitute Ellis Harrison volleyed a 90th-minute winner meeting a left-wing cross from fellow replacement Cristian Montano at the far post and hammering a right-footed shot in off goalkeeper Jonathan Bond from the corner of the six-yard box.
On 23 August 1995 Rovers ran out 4-2 winners over the Gills in a League Cup encounter at Twerton Park. A Stewart hat-trick and a goal from Miller completed Rovers score with Bailey and Fortune-West scoring for the Kent team, after the game had been tied 1-1 at half-time.
Back on 19 October 1968 Rovers ran riot under the Eastville lights beating the Gills by 5-1 with goals by Ray Mabbutt (2), Ray Graydon, Harold Jarman and Johnny Brown with Gordon Riddick scoring the Gills consolation. Carl Gilbert was in the away team's lineup that night. You have to go back to 12 April 1952 to find a bigger victory, 5-0. In Kent Rovers' struggled in the 1980's in 1984/85 and in 1986/87 they went down 4-1. Conversely, in 1970/71 they won 4-1 at Priestfield with Robin Stubbs memorably scoring all 4 goals.
Gills Boss Steve Lovell said ahead of this weekend's game, "We have two massive games coming up now. The next two games have to be must results for us. We owe the supporters two very good performances. It is not a matter of 'I hope we do' we must do it, for me to be satisfied with the work that we have done and to finish it off."
A run that now extends to eight games without a win has left the Gills looking over their shoulder and the pressure is now on. Lovell will be looking to see which of the players can cope. He said: "It is a shame that it has come to this after the middle part of the season but it has to be done now, the players have to show me if they are big enough and strong enough to put up with it. Only time will tell that. When they cross that line they have to show the character and fight, which they have shown for most of the season."
"Going forward we are going to be in a lot of situations hopefully at the other end of the table where you are under pressure, but it's the same principle and that is something we have got to look at, whether people's mental approach is strong enough. It starts on Saturday."
"It is a massive couple of weeks coming up for us. Two wins from the next two games would be a nice way to finish off the season and would go some way to putting right what has gone wrong in the last three or four weeks."