Heaven must be missing an Angelo

By Martin Bull

In April Darrell Clarke once again made it public that all out of contract senior players would get a new offer at the end of the season… if the small matter of promotion was secured. This is a motivational ploy that seems to have worked well, and has also helped keep a successful squad together.

I for one was ecstatic when Tom Lockyer and Lee Brown, truly players who are first on the team sheet, and have many years left in them, signed new contracts even before the end of the season, and we have already heard that Steve Mildenhall has signed a new one year deal.

These guaranteed offers may not be exactly what the player and their agent may wish for though, and last season a few choose to find their fortune elsewhere, with Andy Monkhouse preferring Grimsby Town, Angelo Balanta upping sticks for a mammoth move up North to Carlisle United, and Neal Trotman giving up a chance to train with the squad to help get his fitness back after injury, and have some prospect of finding a deal elsewhere (he never did…).

Back in January on Geoff Twentyman’s first episode of his new weekly BBC Radio Bristol ‘Life’s A Gas’ programme, there was a telling moment when Lee Mansell humbly described Balanta’s penalty in the 2015 Promotion Play-off Final at Wembley as the pressure penalty rather than his.

It’s a year since that gut wrenching day, and looking back he has a point.

After three spot-kicks each we were 3-2 up as Jon-Paul Pitman had just sent his effort to join the International Space Station. If Angelo’s pen went in we would be 4-2 up and piling mental pressure on Craig Clay, his fishy counterpart. Mansell was modest enough to conclude that although us fans might see his pen as the critical one, and treat him as a hero, he felt he had little to lose; if he scored he had won promotion for us, but if he failed the shoot-out continued and the Mariners would still need to net their fifth just to get back to level pegging and ensure more tension followed.

Andy Monkhouse was sixth in our queue, and Tom Lockyer was just behind him. Both were apparently dreading taking a penalty, which hardly puts faith in them to have converted if it came to them. Even worse was that one of our two strikers on the pitch wasn’t in the line yet and was lower on the list than a 20 year old makeshift right-back who has only scored two career goals in almost 150 appearances, and at the time was being regularly berated for his wayward passing.

At this point I must make a terrible confession. It is dreadful not in its magnitude (I didn’t murder anyone or torture ants with a magnifying glass as a kid) but grave because I am admitting I had so little faith in a Rovers player that I didn’t actually want him to volunteer to take a penalty anyway. Judging from the fact that striker Nathan Blissett wasn’t even on the list of our first seven takers, I’d suggest he also didn’t want to take one and my lack of faith was quite well founded.

Bearing in mind that Ellis Harrison had already been subbed off and Jermaine Easter was out injured, it does make you wonder what terrible conclusion could have transpired if Jon-Paul Pitman hadn’t missed his one.

So, just for that one fleeting moment alone Angelo Balanta deserves a special little place in Rovers folklore, perhaps alongside Sammy Igoe for his keystone cops goal to settle the 2007 promotion play-off, and Andy Rammell for his rambo heroics to avoid the drop in 2003.

Despite being offered a new deal with Rovers (after only 3 starts and 15 sub appearances), Angelo surprisingly moved 275 miles to Scotland (well, almost…) where he managed the grand total of four League starts, three sub appearances, and a trio of Cup starts. He matched his Rovers goal record with a solitary goal, in the only League game the Cumbrians won with him on the grass.

His final appearance of the season was in mid-November against, yes, you guessed it, us. Given that he hadn’t played football since September this unlikely homecoming seemed to be an object lesson in psychology from the eminent Professor K Curle, hopeful that a tasty game against his old team might wake him from his slumber.

The object lesson was an abject failure, as Rovers cruised in third gear to an opportune 2-0 win, our first home League triumph since August, although as both goals came after Angelo had been replaced, maybe he could claim that defeat was nothing to do with him?

As if signalling an end to Rovers’ golden era, that day also saw the final appearance of Mr. Blissett in a blue and white quartered shirt, a two minute cameo where the habitually errant BBC live text update service was given a chance to capture his final fleeting moments for posterity; “A Nathan Blissett pass catches Nathan Blissett offside”. And so it came to pass.

It demonstrates the quality and popularity of our current squad that few fans would be content to see more than one or two turn down their new contract offers this time around.

Angelo was released by Carlisle last week, presumably to take his place in Rovers heaven.

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