Fixture Focus

by Martin Bull

The Football League fixtures are out, the players will be back next week from a well deserved break, friendly games are just a fortnight away, and football fans all over Britain can smell the start of a new season.

Hope and optimism floods out at this time of year, unless you are a Leeds United or Notts County fan of course.

The expectation is often crushed by September, especially when you’re a Rovers fan, but I still somehow commence every game with grains of conviction that this game will be where it gets better. Evidently it often doesn’t but if we didn’t have some blind faith we wouldn’t be proper football fans would we? Anyone can ‘support’ a team that wins nearly all the time, whereas time and time again Gasheads slap adversity in the face and call it a weasel.

League One is a real step up for us, and although this time last year I could confidently predict that the fixtures had most probably gifted us a nice run-in at the end of the season, there don’t seem to be many teams you can pick out from our new league and call them Minstermen.

 

I’ll personally be looking forward to a couple of decent derby matches on 27th August and 28th January. Maybe I’m biased as a moonraker (just – the village of my birth is a few hundred metres over the Somerset border into Wiltshire) but to me Swindon Town is a tasty derby, especially when we haven’t played City in the League since 2001. Although four cup ties have provided some respite from that desertion, the lack of meetings has resulted in a lamentably over-the-top experience when a Bristol derby actually transpires.

The only problem is that the Robins (the Wiltshire ones, not the south Bristol ones) will be meeting Oxford United in the League for first time in five seasons, and quite rightly that rivalry is their big one. We’ll be renewing our regular hostility with The U’s at our first home game of the season (13th August), hoping to drastically improve on recent results – our last win at the Mem was in 2004, and Mark McGhee‘s tame 2-0 loss to the Yellows on the opening day of the 2012/13 season was the first nail in his coffin. The ‘Stadium with no name’ has proved to be a happier hunting ground and on the 4th of March several thousand Gasheads will travel in the hope of continuing our three away wins on the trot there.

Our only other trips of less than 100 miles from Bristol are Walsall (21st January) and Coventry City (25th March) for our first ever visit to the Ricoh Arena. A special effort on a Tuesday night may be needed for the only other stadium we’ve never played at, Bolton Wanderers’ Macron Stadium.

We were blessed last season with a Southern dominated League Two, but this season local trips are very few and far between in League One, and if it weren’t for Northampton Town (1st October) and Oxford United coming up with us, and MK Dons (another Tuesday match) and Charlton Athletic (the day after New Year‘s Day) joining League One from the wrong direction it would be even worse.
Although I don’t want to fall into the ‘inferiority complex’ trap of picking out games against ‘bigger’ clubs as the ones to look forward to, I do feel there are a couple of fascinating fixtures due to the time elapsed since our last meetings.

If a Gashead (or more likely a Pirate) was aspiring to witness their beloved team play a League game against all of the 92 clubs, there would not only be one immoveable sticking point, but also a rather unexpected name that crops up when looking for opponents we haven’t played in the League since before many of us were even born.

Statistically minded Rovers fans may well know that Arsenal are the only club of the current 92 who we have never played in the League but I doubt many would guess that simply playing the Sky Blues is a real sign of how the once mighty have fallen. Three seasons after our last League meeting in January 1964, Coventry City reached the top division and stayed there uninterrupted for 34 seasons until relegation in 2001. 11 seasons in the Championship followed before a shock tumble into League One, where they have floundered amidst stadium wrangling and falling crowds.

Our last league meeting with Sheffield United near the middle of the 1988/89 season came just months before I attended my first proper Rovers game. Expectations are of course high with their fanbase, and that could well work in our favour come the low profile Tuesday evening match on 27th September, and the return on Valentine‘s Day evening; I can already visualize ‘romantic‘ husband‘s booking two pasty meal deals for that passionate evening. As play-off losers for three seasons out of five in League One they clearly can‘t handle the pressure, and their 11th place showing last season was their worst League position since 1983 and was enough to see Nigel Adkins sacked. This season will see us renew our acquaintance with the steely Chris Wilder, who won promotion with the Cobblers but then leathered up the M1 to join the Blades.

Supporters of a certain age may scratch our heads when wondering what all the fuss is about over Bolton Wanderers. We remember their decade in the wilderness and the decaying Burnden Park. But look beyond that era, and their recent tame fall from grace, and you will find an honours list that includes four FA Cup wins, and five runners-up medals from League Cup and FA Cup finals. They have also spent more seasons in the top division (73) than any other club outside the current Premier League.

Our most recent meeting was in Gerry Francis’s 1989/90 promotion season. When Rovers were relegated in 1993 from what is now called the Championship, the Trotters were taking our place and our paths have never crossed since. I for one was aiming to make my way ‘up North to chip away at my slow pursue of joining the 92 Club, but a Tuesday night in February possibly proves the fixture computer had too much to drink last night. Double Tuesdays seem to the ZX Spectrum’s fixation this season, with all four of the Bolton and Sheffield United fixtures afflicted, plus Charlton Athletic on a Tuesday night and Monday Bank Holiday.

Hope and optimism still flows with Rovers fans at the moment. Bring it on…

 

Martin Bull became a Gashead in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar. Three of his seven books have been about Bristol Rovers. ‘Away The Gas’ is packed full of over 50 years of ‘I was there’ away game moments, all written by fans, ‘Print That Season! – One man’s weekly meanderings throughout Bristol Rovers’ promotion campaign of 2014-15’ is the antidote to obedient season reviews, with none of the hindsight that most writers rely on, and ‘Double Darrell’ is similar, but chronicles the 2015-16 promotion, and is even better.

Full details of all are available at www.awaythegas.org.uk

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