Firstly, I should really apologise for using a footballing cliché in the title of this piece. However I can’t really think of a better way to put this season into perspective. It was dire for the first four months and has been a joy since Christmas. Perhaps I could have entitled it ‘A Story of Two Managers’ or something wittier. Mark McGhee and John Ward spent half a season each, dragging Rovers in completely opposite directions.
One might think that I have an issue with Mark McGhee given how little praise I have for him, well you’d be right, I didn’t like him or his management style, the football we played under him or his always sour demeanour. I never saw him crack a smile, celebrate a goal, show any passion on the touchline or in interviews (Google image search him and you will be greeted by a gallery of a thousand furrowed brows, who knew there were so many different ways to frown). The fans never took to him and when he was sacked at Christmas not many Rovers fans were too bothered to see him leave. (He is now assistant coach of the Scotland National team and has taken his losing football with him) A record of P22 W4 D6 L12 GD -20, and Rovers 23rd in the league paints the story of the first half of the season under McGhee, it was awful. It should be said that we had some dreadful injuries early in the season, with a number of key players ruled out long term. The potential of relegation loomed large, surely we couldn’t find ourselves out of the Football League altogether? Dark clouds were gathering over North Bristol.
But what’s this? A glorious ray of Lincolnshire born sunshine breaking through the cloud. Put down your pasties and take up your Stuffed Chine (a traditional Lincolnshire Pork dish according to Wiki) and hail the arrival of Lincoln’s own John Ward. Sometimes referred to as a journeyman of the lower leagues, Ward has been in the management game for 8 stints across 22 years, all but 2 months of it in the 3rd & 4th tiers. Ward made some astute signings and turned the season around. Across his 24 games at the helm Rovers’ stats read like this – P24 W12 D5 L6 GD +11. Rovers were a different side and ended up surviving comfortably, recording impressive wins against some of the best sides League Two has to offer. Beating high-flying Rotherham, Port Vale & Burton Albion gave a hint of what we might be in for next year.
The last home game of the year on Saturday drew a good crowd and there was a jovial almost celebratory atmosphere around the ground. A poor display and 1-0 defeat meant that any celebrations were rather muted until John Ward was named to ‘Man of the Season’ winner for his outstanding service to the club. The reward he was likely more satisfied with was the shiny new contract he signed in the week to stay on as manager for next season. Good news for Rovers I think all agree. Ever-present Michael Smith deservedly bagged player of the season while Captain Tom Parkes took Young Player of the season, capping a great year for the 21 year old centre back.
Further good news for Rovers this year has come in the shape of the go-ahead for a new stadium development in North Bristol. The ‘UWE Stadium’ will be built roughly 1 mile from Rovers current home and will be a 21,700 all seater. Due to be completed in time for the 2014/15 season, Rovers will hope that it can help us take strides forward on and off the pitch. I for one will be sad to leave the Memorial Stadium which has been home since I started watching Rovers 16 years ago. I love the terraced ‘Blackthorn End’ and the pasty van. Watching footy from a terrace is brilliant; there is something special about the atmosphere at old lower league grounds which you just don’t get at the big premier league stadiums filled with tourists. That said, a new stadium will be a great step forward for the club and I look forward to claiming my seat.
With a strong season next year and a potential promotion chase we could be starting the 2014/15 season in League One in a brand new stadium, exciting times lie ahead. Although I do seem to remember that a promotion push was widely discussed 12 months ago, perhaps one should reign in those expectations? But as football fans across the leagues and across the world, I am hopelessly optimistic about my team. Singing “we are going up” as we bid farewell to the terraces of the Memorial Ground in 12 months time? …That’ll work.
Written by Rob Skeldon, We Are Going Up’s Bristol Rovers Blogger
Rob tweets @cicero1986