It’s been 98 days since me and my brother wiped away the tears as we left the Memorial Stadium, having watched our beloved Bristol Rovers succumb to a humbling 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Mansfield Town, ending the club’s 94 year stay in the Football League.
Relegation is hard for any football fan take; especially when you witness it happen to your boyhood club, your pride and joy, twice in three seasons.
Many fans’ across the country would have been surprised to see Rovers finish 91st in the Football League last term but the “sleeping giant at this level” notion has hung over the club for far too long to be justified.
Simply put, we are not as big a club as we seem to think. Even worse, we can’t even remotely compete with our cross-city rivals Bristol City any more. Painful to admit, that.
The promise has always been there. The club was fighting in the second tier of English football, the higher echelons of the Football League less than 25 years ago, while the club sat pretty in 3rd in League One as early as October 2009. A potential move to the brand-spanking new 21,000 all-seater UWE Stadium is also on the horizon.
The rambunctious and affectionately-known “Gasheads” have proved their admirable support throughout the years too, with over 35,000 following the side to the 2007 League Two play-off final at Wembley, so it’s a real shame that their passion hasn’t been rewarded on the pitch.
The demise of the Pirates has been like drowning – stuck in the deep end for far too long when we barely know how to swim. Slowly, we sink. The pressure has wrapped about the club like the water would. Every now and then you manage to grab a quick gasp of air to extend your life but ultimately you can’t save yourself.
Rovers gasp for survival was on 26th April, when a 2-1 victory away at fellow-strugglers Wycombe Wanderers looked to have saved the Gas. However, results did not favour Rovers the following weekend as relegation was consigned.
Many fans’ have their own views on how the clubs’ fall from grace (well, English football’s mediocrity…) has unravelled – poor football and results on-field, a lack of significant investment off-field, boardroom issues, scanty managerial appointments and choosing to focus on building a new stadium.
Ultimately I look straight to the moment in May 2010 when the board looked to reduce operating costs at the expense of running a successful football team on the pitch. Director of Football Lennie Lawrence had his contract terminated to leave first-team coach Paul Trollope in sole charge of the Pirates.
Trollope was a promising coach, and still is now having notably worked alongside Chris Hughton at Birmingham and Norwich, but he wasn’t ready to babysit alone. He was hung out to dry and left to take a lot of the flak himself – similarly to current boss Darrell Clarke, who was thrown into the deep end in March this year in the midst of an uncompromising relegation battle as John Ward moved upstairs.
Ideally, the new experience in the Football Conference will be a blessing in disguise. As mentioned, the interpretation that Bristol Rovers are actually a bigger club than we are is misguided and foolish. Hopefully playing the likes of Welling, Southport and Braintree (no disrespect!) will bring us back down to earth.
The work starts today. Darrell Clarke has been busy pre-season finalising his squad and beginning the rebuilding process. So far eight new signings have walked through the Memorial Stadium doors; Stuart Sinclair, Andy Monkhouse, Matty Taylor, Jake Gosling, Daniel Leadbitter, Neal Trotman, Lee Mansell and Jamie White – a mixture of youth, promise and experience.
The losses of last season’s top scorer John-Joe O’Toole and Player of the Year Michael Smith, among others, could be detrimental but this is effectively a new team, with a new boss and new ideas.
Darrell Clarke admits he “didn’t see eye to eye” with John Ward on many things last season when he was his assistant. Now, in charge himself, the former Salisbury boss is keen to inflict a new philosophy on the side, opting for three at the back regularly in pre-season.
Saturday's match-up with Grimsby Town will provide unyielding competition and a glaring reality of where the current side are at. Many betting companies, pundits and journalists alike are tipping the Gas for an immediate return to League Two, but Luton Town had to endure, suffer and tolerate five long years in the abyss before finally returning, proving the task at hand will be daunting and challenging.
Fans’ themselves are completely torn with their expectations; some hoping to bounce back imminently, others like myself striving to be in the play-off mix come May, whereas others are wary of a second straight drop through the league trapdoors.
Barnet, Gateshead, Kidderminster and Saturday's opponents will probably be up there or thereabouts in terms of the promotion push, and local rivals Forest Green and recently-promoted Eastleigh have strong financial backings to likewise put them in contention.
I will be watching on from the Memorial Stadium terraces at 12.45 with a keen sense of intrigue about how my beloved Rovers will fare. Gasheads will be in full voice echoing the beautiful football hymn “Goodnight Irene” in front of the BT Sport cameras and buoyancy will be among us.
The team dubbed “the Manchester United of the Conference” are eager to play down the relative comparison but, like the Red Devils, the Blue and White Quarters cannot harvest another pedestrian, under-achieving season. I’m certain we won’t see it in the Premier League and I hope we don’t see it in the Conference.
Once again, I begin another season supporting the Mighty Gas with enthusiasm, optimism and hope.
For the first time in 8 years, I don’t want to be let down.
By Neil Vincent - Manchester United/Bristol Rovers fan - @