"As for Maidenhead, the conga (which was amusing) aside, quite a strange bunch really – some the oddest chants I've ever heard at a football match" ~ localboy86, Amber Planet forum, 26th April 2015

Monday 1 June 2015

Away Day Diary: Bristol Rovers 1-1* Grimsby Town (17/05/15)

*AET, Rovers 5-3 on pens

^^^ I'd seen Rovers three times in the flesh, during the 2014/15 season ahead of last month's play-off final at Wembley: two 2-0 defeats at Barnet and Braintree - the former with Macleod (M), the latter with Dickie W, Steve H and Macleod (M) - and a 0-0 draw at Woking with the wife. Nb. Rovers only lost five league games all season! Willie T - locked out at Woking - was accompanying me to the national stadium. Would the Exeter City/ Maidenhead United 2CW - who has tasted defeat and victory in this nerve-wracking, end-of-season showpiece - be a good luck charm? I sincerely hoped so as we munched on bacon sarnies in my sunny back garden before the short drive to Beaconsfield station and the 12:09 train. "Who's your favourite non-league team?" Willie asked, with the caveat that he hoped it would be the last time he could tease me with this question (I'd relentlessly mocked him, similarly, throughout the Grecians' spell in the Conference). "Maidenhead United are my favourite non-league team," I said without hesitating. "'Who's your favourite Football League team' has been a more pertinent question," I continued. The answer to that? Whichever club was playing Reading. Or Bristol Sh!tty. Or W@nky Wanderers. Obvs.

^^^ Despite understandable consternation regarding the ticket prices (I couldn't bring myself to purchase the cheap tickets months in advance for fear of jinxing things), the forecast was for a record-breaking attendance. Therefore, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by how busy the train was. Or that fans of both sides - particularly Rovers - thronged the route to the Green Man pub. Willie's first visit to the agreeable boozer. I, in contrast, had been several times: most recently before Dallas Cowboys @ Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL last November; perhaps most memorably before/ after the FA Vase final in 2010, when I was photographed with the SC Paderborn 07 team bus and Northwood Mark (as he was known to us then) with Whitley Bay's victorious manager.

^^^ The pub was predictably rammed, but the bar staff - many resplendent with BRFC motifs painted on cheeks and forearms - were as efficient as ever. Soon enough, we were supping our drinks (Doom Bar for me) in the sunshine outside. Songs (mainly 'Goodnight Irene', of course), flags, blue smoke bombs, and inflatable penises (!) were all on display - a testament to the party atmosphere. I've since read that Gas legends Andy Tillson and Dave Pritchard were also at the pub; the roll call of other ex-Rovers players spotted at the game includes Byron Anthony, Billy Clark, Joe Davis, Adam Dawson, Nathan Ellington, Mike Green, Matt Harrold, Barry Hayles, Ian Holloway, Jo Kuffour, Lee Maddison, Christian McClean, David Mehew, Tom Parrinello, Paul Randall, Alefe Santos, Gary Smart, Michael Smith, and Nick Tanner. Impressive. And indicative, I think, of a football club that means so much to so many.


^^^ William loves the Gas.

^^^ Will.I.Am loves the Gas.

^^^ Rovers til half-five.

^^^ Grimsby fans. About 13K of them.

^^^ Rovers fans. Officially there were circa 28K.

^^^ Pre-match shenanigans: Woy Hodgson shaking hands, the national anthem, etc. The game kicked off slightly late. Within minutes, Rovers were one down: the impressive Nathan Arnold was allowed to run and cross, with the ball going in off the face of Lenell John-Lewis ('His name is a shop, his name is a shop') after ex-Bath and Salisbury keeper Will 'I wanna dance with some' Puddy had saved with his foot. A defiant 'Goodnight Irene' was belted out - arguably the loudest of the day - but Rovers were rocking, and Grimsby could've put the game beyond them in the first 20 minutes or so. Puddy - who has never convinced me - looked like a bundle of nerves. I had my heart in my mouth every time he had a back pass to kick, and he was also fortunate to receive a yellow rather than a red card when handling outside the box. TBH, the referee had a bit of a nightmare: booking Matty Taylor for diving when ankle-tapped by the Grimsby keeper and failing to give Town's #6 - Carl Magnay - a second yellow when he wiped out Ellis Harrison. By this time, Harrison had thumped home the equaliser from a corner, rashly conceded by the otherwise imperious Aristote Nsiala. Rovers were the better side for the final 15 minutes or so of the first half - with Chris Lines and Lee Mansell temporarily wrestling control of midfield from, IMO, man of the match Craig Disley (who had started ahead of Lines as Rovers beat Shrewsbury Town in the League Two play-off final in 2006/07; a game I attended with the wife and several Rovers-supporting colleagues from the Bank of Ireland, below) - but it was all-square at the break.

^^^ Both the second half and extra time were write-offs, more or less. Two increasingly nervous and tired sides. Grimsby perhaps shaded things and went the closest to winning it. Rovers boss Darrell Clarke - who was in tears after relegation last season and who controversially celebrated beating Forest Green Rovers in the semi-finals by enjoying a few pints and starting a few chants in the notorious Queen Vic on Gloucester Road - changed his mind regarding substitutions at least once, as Lines and others struggled with cramp, before bringing on ex-Grimsby keeper Steve Mildenhall Mildenkrul for Puddy, just seconds before the end. Grimsby must've won the toss as the kicks took place in front of their boisterous supporters. Aside from a few thunderous renditions of 'Goodnight Irene' - and the raucous celebration of Harrison's equaliser - the 30K or so from Bristol had been somewhat subdued. Understandably so, given the almost unbearable tension. The Grimsby fans were loud from the off ... or at least from John-Lewis' early goal. They were, admittedly, less spread out - and, regrettably, aided by a drum - but still impressive, particularly their 'FISH' chant. They must've felt gutted when - after a string of excellent kicks - former Wanky Wanderers striker Jon-Paul Pittman impersonated Chris Waddle from Italia '90. I didn't celebrate too wildly as there was, at least, one more Rovers penalty to come, but the otherwise ineffectual Angelo Balanta was coolness personified, and then this happened ...

^^^ Euphoria. Then relief. Then genuine sympathy for Grimsby. Their third successive play-off failure. I had long since envisaged Rovers losing to Eastleigh in the final and so approached the Grimsby match-up knowing that, if the Gas were to get beat, at least it would be by a 'proper' football club and not a here-today-gone-tomorrow-sugar-Daddy-plaything. Like others, one suspects, I associate certain football clubs with certain persons I've met/ know (e.g. Ally T and my old Politics teacher - Mr McDonald - with AFC Bournemouth; the boss of my wife's boss and Timmy Mallet with Oxford United). Until recently, Grimsby had the misfortune to be associated - if only by me - with the roommate of a friend of mine during our first year at Uni. He - the roommate - was a Grimsby fan and a bit of an oddball ... with, it would transpire, indecent images of children stored on his computer. Thankfully, now I can instead associate the Mariners with the hospitable folk who signed Macleod (M), Will H and me into Cleethorpes' New Imperial Social Club in January 2014 and with the commendable vocal support at Wembley last month. Like many other Rovers fans, I sincerely hope they win automatic promotion next season and can start adding to their 99 years as a Football League club. FISH! (Top badge as well, BTW.)

^^^ We stayed just long enough to see Clarke and the boys lift the trophy aloft - should play-off winners get one?! - before heading back to the Green Man. I felt utterly drained.

^^^ More Doom Bar, as Arsenal fluked an equaliser at Old Trafford. Willie T and I were also cheered by the fact we'd lumped on 'Bristol Rovers to win on penalties' at 10/1. Ker-CHING!

^^^ Yep. And in League Two next season! Where they'll play against the hated Wanky Wanderers after the Chairboys hilariously conceded a 122nd-minute equaliser and then lost a penalty shootout against Southend United in their play-off final (in front of a 38,232 crowd; not many more than Rovers took themselves!). One suspects that the game at Adams Park will be rather tasty. Looking forward to it. UTG.

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