Sunday, 17 June 2012

Thanks for the Mem

ALL the talk is about England against Ukraine.
Can we qualify? Will Rooney take us from also-rans to genuine contenders? And where will be the best place to watch the game to get into the spirit of Euro 2012, to really feel the buzz of this major football tournament?
I would have thought you would want to find a lively pub, with St George's Cross flags hanging from the rafters, Football's Coming Home booming out of the speakers, and ales flowing from a well-staffed bar.
Alternatively, operate an open-door policy at home, fill the fridge with cheap booze and invite the neighbours in to share the excitement in front of your new plasma widescreen tv.
But hang on.
There is an alternative venue.
Why not go to a delapidated football ground, in the middle of a built-up housing estate, hand over £5 of your hard-earned cash and sample the true atmosphere of the occasion.
You could pretend you are in a Ukraine slum-clearance area, twinned with Chernobyl and surrounded by poverty-stricken locals and stray dogs.
Welcome to the world of real football, people.
Welcome to the Memorial Stadium.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE my football club. I never fail to promote its cause wherever I am in the world. 
I wore my quarters with pride on the Ashes tour of Australia, and have braved donning them in a Cardiff pub while watching the epic play-off semi-final against Lincoln five years ago.
But sometimes the powers-that-be do make me chuckle.
And the most recent promotion on the Gas website had me laughing out loud:
"Stuck for somewhere to watch England this evening?
"Support Bristol Rovers this summer and enjoy a great night out, by watching England's European Championship games at the Memorial Stadium.
"For just £5 you can watch the game and enjoy a pie and a pint, and soak up the great atmosphere in the Memorial Room bar.
"There will be large flatscreens as well as a number of TVs, and you can bring your own flags to decorate the place."
Oh, can I? Really? Thanks very much!
I shouldn't really take the mick. Anything that raises funds for our manager Mark McGhee and helps keep the creditors from banging on the door is welcome.
But I think maybe they could have put a bit more effort in... say by offering some Polish Kabanos sausages and a shot of Rekty, which is 95 percent alcohol and can really get you into the Eastern Europe mood (my pal drank some at a Polish wedding once and ended up on a saline drip!).
Perhaps pipe in some music from that part of the world, too, by the Ukrainian composer Sergei Prokofiev.
And how about decorating the bar with the flags of each nation or, at least,  provide a St George's flag to wave for everyone who turns up.
Still, knowing my fellow Gasheads, they will still give it a go.
In fact, I expect they will put a certain Premier League winning club to shame.
The Etihad Stadium, the luxurious venue that is home to Manchester City, attempted a similar thing last week.
They had giant screens and all manner of gimmicks to attract supporters to their own Euro 2012 big night out.
I saw the pictures. It looked great.
The only thing missing was people...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Pirates ahoy

WE'RE used to pirates at the Mem.
But it appears some of those ne'er-do-well's of the Somalian variety have turned up in north Bristol.
And, what's worse, they have taken one of our star players hostage.
At least, that's the only thing I can conclude from an item that appeared via the wonderful world of twitter.
This cry for help was posted by our wing magician Mustapha Carayol:
"Being held against your will is the worst thing in the world, particularly when promises are broken..."
I'm sure the Irish journalist Bryan Keenan, while handcuffed to a radiator in Lebanon for years, felt exactly the same way.
As did that poor couple who sailed into treacherous waters in the Indian Ocean during a world tour and were kidnapped by Somalis.
Others tell me different, though. They say that Muzzy is in a tizzy because Bristol Rovers have blocked his move to a Championship club.
Apparently, we don't want him to go unless the price is right for us.
What a bunch of meanies!
After all, it's not as if this hard-put-upon player signed a contract with us, tying him to the club for two years, is it?
Oh, hang on. He did, didn't he?
Mind you, these contracts aren't worth the paper they are written on once one of today's molly-coddled stars want to move on. All they have to do is throw their toys out of the pram, go on "strike" and they eventually get what they want.
Stranger, is the amount of sympathy shown to a player we rescued from non-league oblivion at Lincoln, where all his brilliant skills failed to keep them in the Football League.
Apparently, though, he only turned up there when he felt like it, and spent the rest of the time injured on the sidelines.
For us, he performed now and again, when he felt like it... and admittedly gave a couple of glimpses of his true ability in the later stages of the season.
Don't get me wrong: I am not doubting his ability. But there are no end of players with great skills who have ended up on football's scrapheap because of their attitude.
Rovers will sell Muzzy, probably sooner than later.
He will get his wish.
He may find out that his "dream" move isn't all it's cracked up to be as he languishes in the reserves at Derby... or Sheffield Wednesday... or Middlesbrough.
Some people have told him he will always be a Gashead, though, and that riles me.
To be a true son of the quarters he will have to put in more than half-a-dozen decent performances in a lower-League 2 side.
Like Harold Jarman, Stuart Taylor or, God love him, Ian Holloway did.
As for the comment he's being held against his will... the whole thing makes we weep.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Muzzy stay or Muzzy go

THE name Mustapha Carayol is on every Gasheads lips at the moment.
Muzzy as we affectionately call him.
Let's be honest, we football fans struggle over names with more than one syllable.
This 22-year-old wonder on the wing gave Rovers fans a bit to shout about towards the end of a season that, thankfully, petered out.
 I say thankfully because before the Buckle burst, we looked hell-bent on a flirt with non-league football.
Then, thanks to the common-sense coaching of Shaun North and the wide-eyed experience of new manager Mark McGhee, we pulled ourselves out of the nose-dive and to the safety of mid-table. During the closing stages Rovers fans even had the delights of celebrating a 7-1 win at home to Burton and a 5-1 conquest of Accrington Stanley. And Muzzy was well to the fore in those games, setting up plenty of chances with his intricate skills.
Now, apparently, Championship clubs are knocking at our door, trying to prize him away from us.
Despite some strong comments to the contrary, I don't think the magical Mr McGhee is too concerned really.
He built up Carayol massively from the time he stepped through the Memorial Gates, insisting he was key to our future and an indispensable member of the team.
He did this in public. In the press.
It helped build up Carayol's confidence after a far-from-impressive start in a Rovers shirt, turning him into a matchwinner.
And it helped expand his reputation throughout the Football League.
What was McGhee really thinking as he looked ahead to building a squad for next season?
Was he determined to hold on to Carayol, or trying to bump his price up for the inevitable transfer scramble which would come at the end of the season?
Let's be honest: We have a very shrewd man at the helm now. Someone who has masterminded a number of promotion campaigns in his years in the managerial game.
He knows that one or two brilliant individuals won't make you a team capable of challenging for promotion.
He also knows that for all his praising of the side towards the end of a disappointing campaign, they finished in the bottom half of the table and showed a weaknesses in character exploited by other teams regularly on their travels.
No sooner had they produced the big result against Accrington than they capitulated woefully at Dagenham and Redbridge.
Their top show against Burton was immediately wiped off by a poor display at Port Vale.
Consistency is the key to promotion, plus a team mentality hopefully supplemented by one or two individuals with a bit of star quality.
I think McGhee realised as soon as he saw the pace and skills of Muzzy that he was an asset who, sold wisely, could get him nearer the team he REALLY wants at Rovers.
His assertion he would like most of the players he had last season back for the next campaign was good management, because it kept confidence high at the time.
I'm not sure he really meant it, though, and I think it will be fascinating to see how he constructs a team for next season, with or without Carayol.

A word for the good Lord. Byron Anthony was the biggest name out of the door when McGhee announced his retained list.
Not always the most popular player, I could never fault Anthony for effort.
This is a man who took the field one weekend even after doctors advised him not to play.
He was a star in our promotion season and even at the start of our relegation campaign showed some impressive form.
 Unfortunately, I think some less committed people let the team down and Byron, for one, lost his form and confidence.
I suggested in an earlier entry that he might earn legendary status as a Gashead. It may not seem likely after our last two seasons, but in years to come I think people will recall him with affection and welcome him back if he finds another club with which to extend his career.
What Byron really needed was a leader alongside him, a Steve Elliot character. Well, Steve Elliot, to be honest.
Everything went downhill after we decided to let him go.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Stadium Fever

I'VE seen a sign of the future today - and it scares me a bit.
Bristol Rovers have unveiled plans for a 21,000-seater stadium just around the corner from where I live at the University for the West of England site.
Wow! It looks all-singing, all-dancing and there is no doubt it is something the club needs to move with the times.
But when I think of what it means to be a Gashead a small part of me fears that some of our identity will be stripped away.
For so long we have been football's nomads, moving from one rented ground to another before settling in at what, to be honest, is a down-at-heel rugby arena.
Through it all we've stood shoulder to shoulder on pretty dilapidated terraces, shouting on our team in the face of adversity.
It's the things that have gone wrong that have bound us together as Gasheads, always the poor relation compared with football's money-grabbing, soul-destroying headline grabbers.
I realise it is adapt or die.
But the Gashead spirit must go on.
And I think I've a couple of suggestions that would help.
A few years ago, working and living in London, I used to get along to White Hart Lane on the odd weekend off.
Not because I had any particular affinity to Spurs, it was mainly because it was the only ground for which I could get tickets at short notice.
I quickly noticed, though, how they quickly reminded fans of the club's history - thanks to a big TV screen which constantly played footage of action from their past to the refrain of Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur.
Imagine a similar thing at the new UWE stadium. Before the players run out a looping piece of film portraying some of the great moments featuring the Gas: The crowds outside Eastville for that famous FA Cup tie against Newcastle in the 60s, the eight goals at Brighton, Paul Randall's two goals in the FA Cup win over Southampton in 78, the 2nd May 1990, Sammy Igoe's last minute charge against Shrewsbury at Wembley, the list is pretty endless.
You could play the footage with Goodnight Irene or Tote End boys playing in the background - reminding people that this is Bristol Rovers, this is what we are all about.
As has been mentioned before, we could also use poignant names for each part of the ground.
Wouldn't it be great to have the Tote End back, for starters.
Yes, let's move with the times.
But let's also remember the long, long road that got us there.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Fat Boy sings

I WAS sorely tempted to make the trip to Sixfields on Tuesday.
Then I thought about it.
The last time I went there was when Bristol Rovers were playing their first-ever season in the bottom division.
It was a wet, cold, miserable night and we lost 3-0.
Driving to and from London every week for work, it seemed a bit beyond the call of duty to do that soul-destroying M4, M25, M1 trek, particularly as for some reason I didn't fancy us getting anything from the game.
Still, there was another option - the game was live on Radio Bristol.
Admittedly, I've had some pretty bad times listening to the Gas on there, too, but at least it has evened out. The last time I tuned in on a Tuesday night we won at Hereford 2-1; Even though from the commentary available I must admit I had no idea what was happening in the match.
Still, I was quite excited.. a feeling that lasted less than a minute.
For it was then that Adebayo Akinfenwa found himself clear in our penalty area to open the scoring.
For Goodness sake, the guy is built like a giant Marshmallow. How had he managed to outwit our younger, fitter central defensive pairing?
It was like our old managers Paul Buckle and Paul Trollope had never gone away, that familiar old sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach telling me that we are in for a regulation hiding.
Pretty strange, really, because our defensive record under new boss Mark McGhee had been pretty exemplary. We had just had three clean sheets in a row, and had only conceded three goals in our last seven games.
It got worse, though. After 20 minutes we had conceded three goals ... and Akinfenwa had scored two. It's not over til the Fat Lady sings? Well, the Fat Boy was in full cry.
I couldn't listen any more and turned the radio off with a mixture of anger and confusion.
How could this be happening?
I didn't give up completely though. I decided to turn on Sky Sports - it wouldn't hurt so much seeing the goals going in on there - you wouldn't hear the Cobblers fans celebrating.
Not only that but I could flick over regularly to monitor Arsenal's amazing attempt to overturn a 4-0 deficit to AC Milan in the Champions League. They were already 2-0 up.
As the evening wore on, though, a strange thing happened. Rovers didn't concede any more goals.
Over the last two seasons, conceding three goals in the first 20 minutes would have led to losing by a cricket score by the final whistle.
Instead, with 25 minutes left, midfielder Craig Stanley grabbed his first goal for the club. 3-1.
Arsenal meanwhile were 3-0 up ... if they could pull off the impossible then we could certainly come back against the team lying bottom of the entire football league.
86 minutes gone ... and it's 3-2. Lee Brown capitalises after Chris Zebroski is brought down in the penalty area to hammer home the spot kick.
And then comes an agonising eight minutes or so, until the final score flashes up. Northampton 3, Bristol Rovers 2.
A bad night. But not as bad as it could have been.
And at least we can be proud of a team that is prepared to put up a fight - not surrender meekly in the face of adversity.
Still, we can't afford to repeat that early lapse in our next game - at home to promotion-chasing Torquay on Saturday.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


IN the manner of all good journalists I can't reveal my sources (and I hope Lord Leveson isn't watching former News of the World journalists too closely) but I happened to come across a transcript from a Football League boardroom this week.
It went something like this...
FINANCE DIRECTOR: I've no wish to pour gloom on proceedings gentlemen but I thought I had better bring something to your attention.
DIRECTOR NO. 2: Surely there can't be much to upset us old chap. I mean... we've bought in a number of really top players during the summer, have established a squad to be proud of, have reappointed the manager who was so impressive for us before he decided to leave us for greener pastures and are now pushing for the play-offs.
FINANCE DIRECTOR: Yes, mmm, I realise that... the problem is that all this has had a rather substantial impact on our wage bill. Not only that but our average attendances of just over 4,000, paying their entrance fee of £20 a time at the turnstyles, doesn't exactly cover the wages of all these top players as well as the top-notch manager and his staff. And don't forget we had to pay substantial compensation to the bloke who went before him AND his assistant.
DIRECTOR NO 2: Hmm, I see your point.
CHAIRMAN: So, um, how bad is it? And what can we do about it?
FINANCIAL DIRECTOR: I'm afraid to say, your majesty, that we are talking about a fair few million.
CHAIRMAN: Can we hang on until we get promoted, hopefully via the playoffs, and get a nice tidy sum from the gate plus the cash for going up? If need be we could melt down that nice silver cup they give you, too, and put a cheap replacement in the cabinet...
FINANCIAL DIRECTOR: It's a bit of a gamble and I am not sure if we could do that PLUS pay all our bills til the end of the season.
DIRECTOR NO 2 (face lighting up and lightbulb flashing on above his head): Hey, wait a goddamn minute. What if we actually delayed paying our tax? Those buggers at the revenue have far more things to tax themselves than little us, if you'll pardon the pun... and that would give us the leeway to see the season through, win promotion via the playoffs, sell all the players who got us there, get a nice little bit of compensation when a bigger club poaches our manager AND melt down the trophy, replacing it with a cheap imitation.
CHAIRMAN: That is brilliant. That's why you're on the board. All in favour...?

Of course, this is all a bit of tomfoolery, but the news that Port Vale are the latest team to hit dire financial straits does make me beg the question: Why oh why do clubs continue to put off paying their tax bills?
HMRC have obviously had enough of being taken for a ride and the evidence of Portsmouth's continuing demise and the fact Cardiff were pushed to within 24 hours of going bust must have been lost on all these other clubs.
It's all by the grace of God I know but I am sure Gas chairman Nick Higgs and his board must be aware of the pitfalls by now and are running a tight ship.
It would explain why two of our more experienced players, Byron Anthony and Scott McGleish, have gone out on loan recently and why we didn't make any permanent transfers during the January window.
Nice to see, also, that the man we have appointed to the hot seat, Mark McGhee, has been prepared to work with the staff already at the Mem rather than bring in his own entourage, as others have done before him.
Hopefully the next step will be to have a good look at some of the other younger prospects on our books like Shaquille Hunter and Lamar Powell - players that could become worth something to the club in years to come and keep our head above the parapit.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Dorman delivers

WHILE the rest of the office is engrossed in a close encounter of the rugby kind, I am sitting quietly at my desk.
I've got fingers crossed, legs crossed and toes crossed.
And it has nothing to do with the action being enacted out on the playing fields of Twickers.
Half the office is rooting for England, the other half for Wales. They aren't all Welsh, some of them claim to be Irish while never having moved more than 300 yards from north London in their entire lives. Plastic paddies, if you like.
To them, a defeat for England - whoever manages to inflict it - amounts to a victory for the entire Celtic Brotherhood.
Me? I'm staring intently at the small computer screen in front of me, watching the final football scores coming through.
And I'm only really interested in one result.
It is an indictment of our season that I am actually hoping the Gas can hold on to a 0-0 draw at the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield, which is currently the home of Rotherham.
At least it would mean that our recent resurgence under new boss Mark McGhee hasn't petered out following defeat at Shrewsbury and a 0-0 home draw with Oxford.
Then in one brief instance my whole weekend has been transformed.
A message flashes up on the bottom of the screen.
Rotherham 0 Bristol Rovers 1 (Dorman 90).
And I feel like running around the office, ripping off my shirt and waving it above my head.
I know it's not a cup final - just a run-of-the-mill middle table contest in the depths of League 2. But McGhee has pulled another rabbit out of the hat, and suddenly all those fears of relegation that haunted me just a few weeks ago have been banished for the season.
Ah, Andy Dorman.
He's been on loan with us from Crystal Palace, a proud holder of three Welsh caps and a bloke who, by all accounts, had a decent scoring record when North of the border at St Mirren.
He's been with us since the end of last year, and hadn't scored once until now.
You beauty!
There's even better to come. Our former boss Ian "Olly" Holloway - a Gashead legend -has just managed to mastermind a 3-1 victory for his team Blackpool over our neighbours from the south of Bristol. The last time I had looked at the Trashton scoreline it had been 1-0 to City.
Happy Days, they don't come much better.
It's all getting pretty serious in the rugby, but I am walking around with a huge smile on my face. The Six Nations? Who cares. The Carling Cup final? What of it. The race for the Premier League title? Oh, is that still going on?
To my mind, McGhee hasn't just revived our fortunes, he has sent our expectations into orbit.
Of course, that has happened many times before, but there is something about this manager that oozes authority.
I like, for example, the way he has smashed away some of those favourite football cliches.
You never change a winning side. McGhee tends to do it every week and still gets results. He plays horses for courses, switches clientele and formations, and holds his hands up if things go wrong.
Some players are undroppable. McGhee has been inclined to leave out our two top scorers - Matt Harrold and Scott McGleish - on occasion to keep everyone on their toes. He realises it is a squad game and that with nine games coming up in March he will need all his players fit and firing for the challenge ahead.
Equally, how many managers would see a young talent like Elliot Richards start to make an impact and weigh in with a few goals, only to relegate him to the bench shortly afterwards? That's what McGhee's done because he realises how much performing in the mud and thunder environment of League 2 can physically take it out on a player still finding his feet at this level.
We need to rip up the current team. Everyone was talking about getting in a new manager before the transfer window closed because the squad wasn't strong enough. But, apart from the loan signings of midfielder Matthew Lund from Stoke and centre back Tom Parkes from Leicester(a neccesity when the impressive Aaron Downes received a serious injury) plus the acquisition of fullback Jim Patterson, he has said he is satisfied with what he has got. Not only that he has actually let some players out on loan.
It's a huge change from our last few managers. Paul Trollope picked his team regardless of players' form, trying to stick with the ones he considered his first choices. Short of a catastrophic injury crisis, those on the sidelines knew they would be out in the cold for long periods.
Dave Penney came in and spotted so many glaring problems he tried to change everything at once, and brought in players in the hope they would be able to stem the slide down the league.
He also tried to encourage a whole new playing system on those who had been used to performing in a completely different way, causing resentment among some of our more experienced stars.
And as for Paul Buckle, the players just didn't seem to know where they stood with him. One week they were in favour, the next they were dumped out of the team.
One minute they were playing in their preferred position, next they were switched to do an unfamiliar role for the team. No wonder results suffered when players didn't seem to know where they stood from week to week.
McGhee realises a team must be more than the sum of its parts; That each individual must be completely sure of the job he is there to do; that nothing should be left to chance.
He isn't governed by fear - a fear that changing things might backfire - because he believes in his own abilities and that belief rubs off on the players.
Yes, it's early days I grant you, but the more I see of Mark McGhee, the more I believe we may have stumbled on the right manager at last.