Bristol Rovers (A) Cup
Football is all about opinions, so while some folks struggle to identify a favourite game due to perceived lack of quality, I’ve had to whittle my shortlist down to an even shorter list before deciding on one game. Most of my lack of decision-making in this process is down to the fact that I found last season a breath of fresh air – for the most part. I settled on our second visit to Bristol Rovers in the space of ten days with happy memories of the league game, sunshine, a fairly routine 2-0 win, good company, a good awayday all round. Repeat? Oh yes please.
As Bristol is a fair old hike by coach, I decided on the luxury of a train-ride for the semi-final of the Checkatrade Trophy with dreams of Wembley on my mind. It was a lengthy if uneventful train journey for me, accompanied by what seemed like most of the staff of BBC local radio and Look North, and my phone relaying a constant stream of messages depicting the shenanigans on various other forms of transport heading South West. A combination of football chat, crosswords, and a rather lengthy piece of historical fiction, saw the journey out, and I arrived at Temple Meads with plenty of time to chuck my bag into the hotel room and negotiate the roadworks and puddles to find the “social” area of town. Memories of last season’s visit to Bristol City took me to a couple of good watering holes, where I bumped into some of the Isis regulars, then it was time to head out to nearer the ground. It rained as I jumped on the number 73 bus (an omen, surely), and it laboured its way north. Had it not been so wet, I could have probably walked it faster, but it was wet, so I had time to reminisce…. last time we came to the Memorial Stadium for a night game, it rained, Don Hutch scored his first two Sunderland goals, and we won a cup tie. More good omens.
Having eventually arrived in the vicinity of the ground, I managed to cross the road (no mean feat) to the Drapers Arms, where the most of the rest of my ageing crew were already seated, the landlord remembered us from our previous visit, and Sunderland fans outnumbered the locals by about three to one. Feasting on the house speciality of chicken and chips for £1.50 (pickled egg in a bag of crisps), there was optimistic talk of a trip to the home of football being on the cards. The home fans seemed strangely negative about the whole thing, almost as if defeat was a foregone conclusion, and the fact that the crowd was down by over 3,000 from the league match reflected this. While the precipitation never reached Accy proportions, there were puddles outside and inside the ground, the Portaloos proved, as warned, woefully inadequate (to the benefit of the adjacent hedge) and we took up our places in the marquee.
Tonight, it rained, Grigg defied his combustibility to put us ahead, Morgan capped a fine display by hammering home the second, and we in the Tent End went home happy and dry. Apologies to my marras on the rain-swept terraces, but it was a cracking night under cover – and they didn’t seem that bothered afterwards anyhow. A repeat of the comfortable league win, really, even if it did seem an absolute age between Morgan’s strike and the final whistle. Having resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes, Ross lined us up:
O’Nien Flanagan Dunne Matthews
McGeady Honeyman Morgan
… and the Rovers kicked off, with Big Jon defending the goal just in front of the tent. The negativity of the home fans seemed to permeate onto the pitch, with their players never quite convincing us that they wanted to be there. After a spell skipping about out on the right, McGeady swapped wings with Morgan, then went back again, as the home defence scratched their heads and wondered what to do with the pair of them. As in the recent league game, the “Big Centre Forward” spent most of the game throwing himself to the floor under the slightest of challenges, and the little-ish bloke with the beard and the hair stuck his foot in where it wasn’t allowed. Amongst all of this, Power, his hair uncharacteristically dark with the wet of the weather, picked up what Leadbitter rolled to him, and O’Nien and Matthews bombed down the wings. There were spurts of activity from the home side, but most floundered on the central defence, where Dunne, after a couple of games where he’d struggled ever so slightly, won 99% of the balls in the air and Flanagan flew in with a couple of timely and crucial challenges. We had a couple of chances, but it looked like one of those games where our domination would have to matched with patience as those chances didn’t give their keeper that much trouble – but we in the crowd could sense that at least one would before the end of the game. Just after the half hour, McLaughlin had to be sharp, stopping the initial effort and then repeating the save to keep us in the game, before O’Nien hoofed it away…. and relax. We pressed forward and won a corner, which Leadbitter (of course) put in for Dunne – to head wide.
With five to go to the break, we were sort of settling for going in level when Nichols was booked for a naughty one on Honeyman near half way, which effectively ended George’s evening as he struggled to shake off the knock. McGeady, back on the left, and Matthews got the ball in to Grigg, but he was well covered and it was cleared, but we kept at it down that side, and got our just rewards with a minute to go. We won a throw in on the right, which went to Power, he played in Grigg with a lovely ball that left the defence, and he did what we’d bought him for, swivelling to plant the ball across the keeper with his left peg and into the far side of the net. Madness ensued as the thoughts of cheesy chips on Wembley Way permeated the stands, and we were still bouncing as the added time (I missed it) was announced, and we ran the game down to the break. Leadbitter’s smile was there for all to see, and there was no way he was going to let his team bugger this one up. Honeyman didn’t make the end of the half, making way for Gooch two minutes into added time, but that’s what your squad is for. No point taking risks with George’s fitness when you have someone like Lynden on the bench, so on he came, with the armband going to McGeady.
A quick visit to the bushes, the acquisition of a pasty (top notch, and still hot half an hour later), and a catch up with Enrico from Brescia, and we were off on the final 45 minutes of our quest. There were no more changes to the line-up, and we’d barely had time to settle into the spaces in front of our seats when it got a whole lot better. Some clever play got the ball right into their box, it took a couple of deflections and sat up perfectly for Morgan to blast in – right in front of me, that was it, surely. The remaining 43 minutes seemed to last forever, as they always do in such circumstances, and despite the hosts winning a whole load of corners, everything they threw at us was dealt with. It’s not as it we were really under the cosh, but it only takes a goal to add momentum to a cup tie… and as they threw bodies into the box, we needed Dunne to apply the now customary hoof to get it clear.
With twenty to go, they brought on three subs to bring fresh legs to their fight, but Leadbitter was holding the ball up well and making them do lots of running. Their “Big Centre Forward” was booked for diving under challenge from the far smaller, but far more enthusiastic O’Nien, out on our right, and Morgan had a spell down that side. Five minutes later, Watmore replaced McGeady, who was warmly applauded as he handed the armband over, and Dunc had a couple of runs at the home defence down the inside left channel before McGeouch came on for Morgan, who’d had a fine game. There were six on the clock when that happened, and it sort of signalled the home side’s acceptance of their fate. Three added minutes were announced, we sang about not being home for tea, and the Lads grinned as they saw the game out.
Tin Pot Cup? We didn’t care, we celebrated under the leaky tent, then dispersed into the night. I caught the number 73, which zipped into town thanks to the rush hour traffic not being there and was enjoying a triumphant pint in the Bristol Beer Factory when I got a call asking why I wasn’t in the Kings Head. Five minutes later I was, with a four pint jug between the three of us, and was toasting our victory with a couple of Jameson’s when the barmaid asked if we’d like a pancake. Some were left from pancake day, apparently, so they were heated up in the sandwich toaster, had lemon and sugar added, and went down a treat with the beer and whiskey.
Not a brilliant game of football, but a thoroughly efficient one that got us to Wembley, celebrated with old mates, and in the middle of an interesting two days of travel. A proper awayday, and even time for a pint at the station before the long homeward journey the next morning.