Covering football games as an accredited journalist is something that is both a privilege and a joy to do. However, in the press box you don’t get to celebrate in the same way that fans can. With this in mind, I have recently missed being able to celebrate a goal rather than just hastily typing details.
As Deputy Editor for VAVEL, one of my key responsibilities is covering Hull City games from the MKM Stadium - I’ve rarely missed a game from October 2020 when I got the chance to start covering the Behind Closed Doors games during the 2020/21 season.
This weekend I was invited by a good friend to watch his team - Bristol Rovers - play Rochdale up in the North West. Ironically enough my own team were playing in Bristol at their hated neighbours, and I made the decision to do the shorter journey over across the Pennines. I definitely made the right choice, with Hull City losing 0-5 in the South West.
Bristol Rovers fans are unbelievable
Right from the off, the travelling Gasheads were an example that all away supporters should aspire to be. They were loud and proud in the the pubs before the game, but with no hint of aggression or trouble towards anyone. I was welcomed with open arms from all those I met and instantly joined in with the infectious repertoire of songs and chants.
Once at the ground, the songs kept coming - they were never ending. Once the kick off was underway the Rovers fans kept going, getting behind their team in a big way. Even when Rochdale went 2-0 up before the 20 minute mark, they did not turn on their team. They encouraged, chanted and sung their players forwards - and they had chances, but took none of them.
A poor first half - but the support never waned
It was a poor first half from the visitors and manager Joey Barton wasn’t happy on the sidelines, making a change on the half hour mark. What was clear though was that Gas needed to win with other results not going their way - in fact they could have dropped out of the playoffs altogether with the wrong circumstances.
The Gas fans roared their team forward and got their reward at the start of the second half. Nice one touch play finally broke the stubborn back ten of Rochdale and Sam Finley poked home from close range.
The one chance Rochdale had in the second half was put away, however. Just when Gas looked like they were going to level the scores they were punished for hesitation in their back line and it was 3-1 - and I thought at the time, there is no way back now.
Gas weren’t finished though. Only five minutes later Aaron Collins side footed home from close range to halve the deficit again to 3-2. From then on, Rochdale tried all the tricks in the book to slow the game down and frustrate the Gas. Yet again, the fans were incredible and never stopped backing their team.
Draw snatched before the unthinkable happened…
With time running out, Gas finally made their breakthrough. When Collins put the ball over the line with only a minute to go the place erupted. Fans tumbling down seats, stairs and strangers uniting in sheer euphoria. When added time of seven minutes was announced, I remember thinking - they couldn’t, could they?
The short answer was that they absolutely could. 95 minutes were on the clock when a cross was put in, and somehow the Rochdale goalkeeper pulled off a world class save to deny Rovers. As the ball rebounded up in the air, there was a split second of silence. I saw it almost in slow motion as a header was aimed goal-wards and the ball eventually bounced over the line.
The drama in this game was unrivalled
I’ve been to many games as a fan and as a reporter. Some I’ve come away depressed; some elated. However, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a game quite like that one. I’ve never seen scenes like those that followed the fourth goal in a ground that didn’t didn’t involve my own team. It was quite special and after the fans had been cleared from the pitch there was even time for a red card for Rovers for an off the ball incident.
The final whistle saw Gas storm the pitch and hoist Joey Barton up in front of the crowd. This looked bizarre at the time as Rovers are not up yet. Third spot could still be theirs but they may have to settle for fourth depending on other results. Even a win for them next week at home might not send them to League One just yet.
However, it’s important to see where this club has come from. At the end of October, Gas were 18th and looking over their shoulders worried about relegation. Fast forward to today and they will at least finish in the playoff places, and it’s clear that although there may be much controversy around Manager Joey Barton, the club have managed to create a siege mentality that has galvanised them as the season has progressed.
Gas fans are up there with the best in the country
“Good night, Irene; good night, Irene - I’ll see you in my dreams,” bellowed the crowd long after the final whistle, coupled with endless verses of “We’ve got Super Joey Barton, he knows exactly what we need.”
I may not be a Gas fan, but I was made to feel like one at the Crown Oil Arena. I sincerely hope they go up to League One this season, as their long suffering fans above all deserve success. There aren’t many fans of other clubs who would make up half the entire attendance in the fourth tier of English football - and it was superb to see.
Good luck to Gasheads up and down the land for the following week or two - if the penultimate game’s drama is anything to go by, Rovers fans may all age ten years with all the drama that could unfold on the final day of the season next week.