Bristol Rovers (A)
Like (I presume) the majority of football fans, the day the fixtures come out is always one I look forward to enormously. Last summer was no different. There are always certain games that catch my attention more than others. Apart from the obvious ones of course; first and last home games, Boxing Day, New Years’ Day and Easter Weekend, as well as other games I look out for for a few different reasons, but recently they haven’t always met expectations.
The first away game after the cricket season finishes. Last season it was Coventry, which definitely doesn’t make the cut, despite a Cattermole goal. The one that sticks in my head for all the wrong reasons is an awful 0-0 draw at Burnley when the kids having a kickabout on the outfield of Burnley Cricket Club was more entertaining than the match.
The nearest away game to my birthday is another one I look for straight away. It was Rochdale last season, a hard-fought win, with what turned out to be hugely misled optimism on the way home. Level on points with Barnsley with two games in hand; “Here, I reckon we’ll win the league”. I was critically hungover from my Birthday night out the previous evening, so it doesn’t make the cut either. Still, seeing a birthday win was a bit of a rarity. I once endured a 5-1 defeat, with another Cattermole goal, at Tottenham on a Monday night in April 2014.
So, Bristol Rovers away jumped off the screen. I’m not totally sure why, but there’s something about the club that’s always interested me. I always like an underdog. They’re the unfashionable club in a fashionable city. Perhaps it was an indication of how far we’d fallen, and how quickly. We were playing Man City in the League Cup final in the same season that Rovers were relegated out of the Football League.
I really don’t miss the Premier League. Honest. Year after year of getting hammered in soulless, identikit modern stadiums had taken its toll. I was disillusioned, exasperated, and more than ready for a change, so something that really appealed to me about league one was all the new grounds I could go to. “Proper Grounds” that you wouldn’t know were there unless you were actually looking for them, with floodlights you can’t even spot from the main road, terracing, bad views, rough-and-ready facilities, and a bit of personality.
So, Bristol Rovers it is.
The plan was to fly down, but cost and work commitments got in the way; so instead, four of us got in the car and left Boldon at 6am on the Saturday. Progress was serene, we were in a service station in Worcester by 9am and were in Clifton (think Bristol’s equivalent of Jesmond) by 11.
From there we had a little jaunt through the city centre on route to The Wellington, conveniently the nearest bar both to the ground, and the Travelodge we were staying at that night. The place was packed. Mainly Sunderland fans, with the odd little sprinkle of blue-and-white quarters and accents that you can scarcely believe belong to people that actually live in a big city.
The ground was probably the quirkiest I’ve ever been to for a Sunderland league game. A cricket pavilion faces a rugby stand with open terracing at each side, which you enter from ground level. The home end was a proper, old-fashioned covered terrace, while the rest of the stands can only be described as temporary seating covered with a marquee roof. It was a Rugby ground first – but they don’t play there anymore, having recently moved to Ashton Gate on the posher side of town.
The Rugby “configuration” meant that you couldn’t get a beer in the away section – there was nowhere to drink it where you weren’t in view of the pitch. We were pretty well served before the match anyway, and were going out on the night, so the break definitely helped.
Anyway, the match. The view from the corner of the terrace was poor, to the extent that we couldn’t properly see the first goal. The second more than made up for it, but we were relying on the reaction of those behind the goal and nearer the halfway line. They started celebrating, so we did too. Almost like a Mexican wave towards the corner when people realised what had happened.
The benefit of terracing, of course, is that you can move. So, for the second half, we did. McGeady scored an absolute dream of a free kick and everyone went mad. Lewis Morgan was excellent, setting up a number of gilt-edged chances for Wyke, who missed them all. Bear in mind that this was before he started playing well and most people still thought he was crap. I reckon it was Jimmy Dunne’s best game for us, and all in all it was a comfortable victory.
The subs were warming up in front of us for most of the second half. A lady shouted her congratulations to Max Power, who apparently had just had another bairn. He heard her, looked up, waved, and said thank you. Can you imagine many players from the previous regime doing that?
After the final whistle it was back to the hotel to put our ganny out gear on and jump in a taxi to the city centre. Bristol is a brilliant night out, there’s literally something for everyone, and completely by accident we managed to see most of it all in one night. A very lively bar near the river full of hen parties and rugby types was followed by a place on Park Street where all the young’uns seemed to go before, they went somewhere even darker, noisier and more expensive. We then went to a pub claiming to be Bristol’s oldest, accidentally stumbled upon a gig by a heavy metal band, found our way to a Wetherspoon’s that did Jagerbombs for £2, and walked into a bar where everyone was doing salsa dancing. Obviously, we joined in. We dined at Baldwin’s Kebab House (yes, really) before finding our way back to the hotel via a method I’ll admit I can’t remember.
All in all, a brilliant couple of days. A comfortable win in exactly the sort of ground I hoped league one would bring, followed by an excellent night out in a great city. Definitely want to go back this season.