Monsieur Salut writes: when this is published, I shall be thousands of miles away in the UAE, somewhere between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I may be celebrating from afar two great home wins to make up for the stumble versus Blackpool. The resident thorn in our sides, Brian, may be eating some of his anti-Jack Ross words. I may not be celebrating; he may not feel hungry (and the quick update, written from afar, is that one win and two draws was not a great return on such an open goal of a home run).
Jim Chappell*, our Bristol Rovers ‘Who are You?’ volunteer, is the ultimate fan. Chairman of his team’s supporters’ club for nearly 30 years, he hasn’t missed a home game since 1972.
Jim answered our questions before I went on holiday. His replies will cover both of Sunderland’s forthcoming games at the Memorial Stadium, Saturday’s League One tie and the Checkatrade Trophy semi-final on March 5.
I may go back to him for a between-games update on his thoughts. Jim niftily shortened the usual questions and did so in such an effective fashion that there is no need to reinstate them in full …
Salut! Sunderland CHECKATRADE CUP OR LEAGUE?
No doubt in my mind that we must stay up in League 1 and if losing the Cup game against Sunderland would guarentee it then I would accept that without hesitation.
In fact I wrote as much in my last column in the match programme. We have been to Wembley four times in various finals, losing unluckily by the odd goal twice under the twin towers and winning two incredibly tense play-offs in the dying minutes in the new stadium. A great place to win and horrible to lose at! We have always taken around 40,000 fans to Wembley and it’s a great money-spinner for the club but I don’t want division 4 again!
A WEMBLEY DAY OUT
Yes it’s a great day out but for the true supporter who follows the team everywhere and through thick & thin, (mostly the latter in our case), you always have that feeling of many jumping on your bandwagon so to speak when you walk up Wembley Way.
I guess the feeling is different if your team is in a safe place as happened immediately after we won the 3rd Division Championship in 1990 then appeared in the Leyland Daf Final a couple of weeks later. We undeservedly lost to Tranmere but made a good day of it anyway!
THE DECEMBER GAME AT SUNDERLAND
I don’t feel that we raised our game particularly in that match at the Stadium of Light. It was Graham Coughlan’s first game in charge but he had only one training session with the players before the match and the performance summed-up how Rovers had been playing for most of the season.
We took an early lead and played well but for the umpteenth time we conceeded a goal just before half time and another soon after and ended-up chasing the game, hitting the bar in the last minute. I feel the squad lacked real spine and also lacked height – the defence in particular being unable to combat the big men that abound in League 1.
After the Sunderland game Coughlan soon got the lads sorted out and Rovers won the next three matches – the first time we had done that in many a long day.
He has continued to be a success along with his assistant Chris Hargreaves. They were both on the staff with Darrell Clarke so they already knew the good and bad parts that had to be dealt with.
Only two defeats in 13 since and we have signed three decent looking players on transfer deadline day.
Coughlan has tried to keep a settled side where Clarke would happily change a winning team, always choosing his squad to suit the opposition.
I think most supporters got fed up with the changes DC made but they still loved him for how he had changed the club around from the dark days when we fell out of the League. Most Gasheads have lost faith with the owners who promised a new stadium, training ground and investment in the team and none of that has happened and my personal view is that those things affected DC greatly and he sort of lost his way as a result – very sad!
Hopefully Graham Coughlan can continue how he has started and he can get Rovers out of the mess we are in.
I have been to every game since our opener at Peterborough (my son’s wedding can you believe!) and that has included all the Trophy games, home & away.
We were lucky to have two home ties in the opening round robin which we won so we could afford a really poor performance with a much weakened team in the final one of the trio at Exeter.
We performed well to win at an almost empty Liberty Stadium against Swansea Under-21s and put away League 2 Port Vale at the Mem quite comfortably once they had got themselves reduced to 10 men!
Sunderland are bound to be a very stiff test though. Home advantage should help but we have a terrible league record where Rovers were always so strong in front of our own fans – only three wins and eight defeats in League 1.
BEST PLAYERS THIS CAMPAIGN
A real hard one this as nobody has really stood out apart from on-loan goalkeeper Jack Bonham who made a big difference when he came in from Brentford where he was 3rd or 4th choice!
Jack has stayed consistent since, not making spectacular saves but just seeming to be in the right place at the right time and generally looking unflappable.
Most Gasheads would pick him as best player I guess and we were all worried that he was going to be taken away during the January window when many clubs better placed than Rovers were said to be watching him. So we are relieved he is a “Pirate” at least for the rest of the season.
As far as outfield players are concerned my best man has been James Clarke who usually performs at right-back but was one of many who suffered from DC’s constant team changes.
Home-grown Ollie Clarke has probably been the best of the midfield and only has 12 bookings to date so you can see what he is all about! Up front we have simply not scored enough goals and most that we have came from midfielders.
I am hoping that new signing Johnson Clarke-Harris (he just has to be a Clarke!) will prove big and strong enough in his hold-up play to provide opportunities for our other small forwards to take advantage of. A couple of wins against the Black Cats would be nice!
ALL-TIME STANDOUT PLAYERS
I am so old that there are dozens of players that have graced the blue & white quarters over six decades!
Naturally it is the strikers who always catch the eye and in my case the first was almost certainly the best. He being Geoff Bradford, the only man to have played for England whilst with Rovers – a local boy like all the first team I watched and a true gentleman who I got to know in his later life when we were both employed in the shipping industry.
A one-club man, brilliant with both feet and with his head who would have had many more caps had he not suffered two serious knee injuries.
Lots more strikers too numerous to mention but in later years under the management of Bobby Gould, (of whom more later), we signed three consecutive England captains in Alan Ball, Mick Channon and Gerry Francis (later our championsip-winning Manager), who finished their playing careers gracing a truly awful pitch at Twerton Park during our exile in Bath.
Another great midfielder whose career was cut short at the age of only 23 was Welsh International Wayne Jones who was probably my personal favourite.
Again too many to mention but I have always tried to support any player who has signed for my club and have never slagged any of them off.
They only signed because somebody wanted them in the first place and there are many reasons why they may have failed. Bobby Gould signed a striker who was serving time in prison and who was naturally carrying a little extra weight but he had a good strike rate in Div 3 before falling foul of the law!
HIGHS & LOWS AS A GASHEAD
The latter first and of course all the relegations have been terrible but the last one was the worst when Rovers fell, almost unbelievably, into the Conference in front of a sell-out home crowd when we only needed a goalless draw to stay up!
You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife but there was hardly any booing, just ten thousand people in total shock. It was a massive blow to the club and we suffered of course from our “friends” south of the river.
I have to say though that in the end we enjoyed our one and only non-League season – all the host clubs were friendly and gave a warm welcome, often treating Rovers like royalty! Some of the facilities were poor and the teams played like men possessed to turn us over. A few succeeded too and it’s no place for any longstanding League club to be so I feel for those that are down in the National League now.
The highs have to be the promotions and undoubtedly the best was in 1990 when “Ragbag Rovers”, as we were known then locally, shocked our nearest and dearest neighbours by snatching the 3rd Division Championship from their grasp.
The penultimate match of the season was a rearranged all-ticket night game at Twerton where City needed only a point to clinch promotion and win the Championship whilst Rovers required a win to gain promotion and overtake them.
The atmosphere was electric, City were terrified and we ripped them apart to win 3-0. That set up the final day’s trip to the seaside where we brushed aside already relegated Blackpool by the same scoreline to take the Championship whilst City were winning 4-0, to no avail, at Ashton.
There was a similar highlight with our final match of the 2006/7 season – a very long trip to Hartlepool who were already promoted but needed a win to clinch the League 2 championship.
Rovers were as low as 17th at the start of March but a brilliant run got us into the final playoff spot a point above Stockport who won their last home game 5-0 but Rickie Lambert, (later of Liverpool and England), thundered home an injury time winner in front of 1,100 ecstatic Gas-heads in the away end and we had a nice trip home!
Rovers won both play-off semi-finals against Lincoln and beat Shrewsbury with a desperate last-gasp winner at Wembley. Happy days!
Rovers have had enough failures of our own in recent years not to make comment on Sunderland’s fall from grace except to say how sad it is that such a big club with a great fan base and fantastic stadium is having to play host to some of the sides currently in League 1.
No disrespect to them because they are achieving miracles but the likes of Burton, Fleetwood and Accrington are small fry even to Rovers and their away support must be unheard in the Stadium of Light!
Being so far away we don’t hear much in this neck of the woods apart from the results and league placings so don’t have much of a view on Jack Ross. I guess it is quite a task to turn round such a big club with all the expectations because it is bad enough here with a new man taking over.
I suppose that only promotion will do for you people this season but having a great stadium and massive support can sometimes act against you as it gives the minnows a rare chance to impress. Sunderland have to do it every time!
I have only visited the town twice and both times just to watch Rovers so have spent virtually no time to view the place. The only time before this season’s visit in the snow was for an FA Cup tie in 1978.
We had recently been thrashed in the Division 2 (now Championship) game 5-1 at Roker Park and were struggling to stay up but appointed coach Bobby Campbell into the managerial seat to replace Don Megson and beat Sunderland 3-1 in the return at Eastville.
That evening the two sides were drawn against each other again in the 3rd round and Bobby Gould scored a shock winner with a long-range lob.
At home there was an extraordinary 3rd Division game at Twerton Park when Gerry Francis’s low-cost “ragbag” team came of age, thrashing table-topping Sunderland, (promoted that season 1987/8), 4-0 and the Rokerites then famously trashed the away dressing room.
Our landlords, Bath City, were uninsured and not impressed but I believe Sunderland did pay for the damage! Worse things happened to Trumpton – as Bristol City wits called it – later thanks to those neighbours whose “fans” set fire to the stand – six felons imprisoned as a result!
IMPROVING THE MATCHDAY EXPERIENCE FOR FANS
I think most supporters would like to know as much as the armchair TV viewers who have instant replays and expert analysis of controversial incidents. VAR. is coming in but it will be some time before the lower leagues get it.
I reckon that more could be done by officials being able to explain why a decision has or has not been given. They do it in rugby, admittedly a slower-moving game.
Ground facilities have improved greatly with fine new stadiums such as yours but I am constantly amazed how few outlets and toilets are provided for away fans, even in new grounds. I suppose it depends on the numbers travelling. The Memorial Stadium facilities are hopeless in an old rugby stadium so I have no grounds to complain and the best of luck to Sunderland’s supporters after such a long trip – you are in for a culture shock!
This needs to be cut out and again I think we could learn from rugby union where offences are explained and players accept decisions without question.
TWO FORTHCOMING MATCHES
Two very difficult games for Rovers as we have struggled at home all season. We have been better in the cups although knocked out the FA Cup by non-League Barnet at the Mem.
The league game is all important and I guess the Checkatrade Trophy match will very much depend on how the first encounter goes.
Will the two clubs put out full strength sides second time round? I think we need to be inside the heads of both managers for that one! A draw in the League game would be a decent result for Rovers but probably not acceptable to Wearsiders.
Sunderland should go up but I think maybe only via the play-offs as you are not dominating the division as I thought you would on day 1.
For Rovers I think it’s 50/50 because although we are just above the drop zone at present we have a string of very difficult games coming up. Fratton Park next week – no win since 1975!, Sunderland twice, Gillingham – never seen us win there, Charlton, Blackpool and Luton etc. It would be nice to do each other some favours after the 23rd!
MYSELF* : I’m Jim Chappell. started watching Rovers from the last match of the 1958/9 season when we achieved our highest-ever League finish – 6th in then Division 2, now the Championship.
With a fully fit Geoff Bradford we could have made the top flight but it’s been mostly downhill all the way since! I was a ball-boy for four seasons at dear old Eastville, a proper big ground then, before I got involved in volunteering for the ‘Pirates’ – a teenage supporters’ group who later seconded me onto the main Supporters’ Club Committee on which I have served for about 50 years now.
I was vice chairman before becoming chairman in 1990 and nobody else has wanted the job since!
That means I am working every matchday including presenting the 50/50 Draw winners on the pitch at half time. I last missed a home game in 1972 but got control of my shipping company’s duty rota thereafter to preserve my attendance record! I therefore love travelling away with the team since retiring eleven years ago because I miss the first half of every home game working on the draw. So look out for me!
Interview: Colin Randall