Being a Bristol Rovers fan has never been easy. 3rd May 2014 was one of the most distressing, tear-jerking days of my life as a 1-0 home defeat to Mansfield consigned my side to relegation from the Football League for the first time in 94 years.
Non-league football beckoned and, like many other fans, I was livid. How could a club so big, sitting pretty in League One only three short years ago, succumb to such a decline?
Well, exactly that. The ‘big-time Charlie’ attitude got us where we are. ‘We’re the mighty Bristol Rovers, we can’t go down’.
For some fans, though, this presented the opportunity for a fresh start. Darrell Clarke had only been in charge since late March and with 8 games – and no transfer window – to save our league status, he was charged with quite the goliath task.
Clarke was still a relatively new and inexperienced manager at the time we officially started our march for, ineloquently-named, ‘Vanarama Conference’ glory. The squad assembled to take the Gas straight back into the Football League was also fairly new and fans knew it was going to take time for the team to gel.
That time has come, but it is at serious risk of being over-shadowed by off-field issues.
8 games undefeated, with 5 consecutive wins, have seen the pre-season favourites jump comfortably into 4th place in the league and into the play-off mix. However, Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over lowly Dartford was marred by claims from away keeper Jason Brown that he was racially abused by a section of the Rovers supporters.
Brown, who voiced his concerns to referee Adam Hopkins and a nearby steward at the time, took to Twitter to express his disenchantment too.
“I ask any Bristol Rovers fan that knows this idiot and the steward please go and report them don’t let him bring down your fantastic club,” said the former Wales keeper.
“I really and truly appreciate all the support I’m getting not only from my own supporters but from Bristol Rovers.”
The so-called culprit was removed from the ground upon the incident being reported and Rovers said they “operate a zero tolerance approach to abusive behaviour” following the incident in a club statement.
“After all of our efforts to eliminate racial abuse from the Memorial Stadium, we are devastated at last night’s incident.”
This isn’t the first time off-field problems have brought the club into disrepute but the timing was unfortunate, given Eastleigh chairman Stewart Donald’s glowing review of how the travelling Pirates’ supporters handled themselves during a recent match at the tail end of September.
Nonetheless, the latest episode comes a week after six fans were jailed for their part in a pitch invasion – which included a police horse being punched – at the end of last season, ensuing after the Memorial Stadium side’s demotion was confirmed.
In lightly less-recent times, the club were being investigated after tempers flared during Rovers’ 2-0 away loss to Braintree Town, where a fan supposedly struck home striker Jordan Cox after a melee near the touchline.
Prior to relegation in May, the Gas were also reported to the FA after pitch incursions transpired in the 2-1 away victory against Wycombe.
The complications surrounding the club away from the pitch are maiming what-should-be brighter times for Bristol Rovers of late.
Despite the relegation into the non-league abyss, the football side of things are slowly and progressively refining with time. Clarke has instilled a team full of passionate players willing to play their hearts out for the quarters and for that, I cannot be more grateful.
Fans’ favourite Stuart Sinclair, who joined from Salisbury, will run until the pitch gets tired and it’s that admirable work ethic that has helped propel the side into the Conference play-offs.
The Memorial Stadium has become somewhat of a fortress this season, with six wins and two draws from the opening eight fixtures, and a winning mentality is steadily seeping back into the core of a Bristol Rovers side for the first time since 2007.
It’s worth stressing that, from all of these off-field troubles, it is only a small minority bringing the club into opprobrium. The support of the football club, on the whole, is superb and attendances for this level are soaring.
Rovers regularly average a higher match-day crowd than most clubs in League Two and a fair few in League One, as well as the odd Scottish Premier League games – Celtic permitting.
However, the good results and tremendous common support will be marginalised if a trivial minority continue to asphyxiate the club with difficulties.
To the fans’ adamant on triggering a hullabaloo: let our team do it’s talking on the pitch instead.
By Neil Vincent – Manchester United/Bristol Rovers fan – @