Date: 29th November 2017 at 6:20pm
Written by:

TO PUT things in the Queen`s English, this has been an annus horriblis. 

There has been a death in the family, illness, the constant spectre of redundancy in an industry dying on its feet… and on top of everything a dark pall hanging over my football club.

Suddenly, the euphoria of back-to-back promotions has been relegated to the dim-and-distant past, replaced by constant rumour and innuendo suggesting the very survival of Bristol Rovers is at stake.

For some of us, this is a familiar tale and one we are sick of hearing. 

A proposed stadium has been shelved. Check.

The training facilities aren`t up to any proper standard. Check.

Our top players are going to walk away. Check.

Our manager has lost the plot and has to go. Check.

I thought we had escaped this cycle. I thought that after the pain of the worst season in our history we had been galvanised and regenerated, like the football fans` equivalent of Dr Who. 

We had rediscovered what it meant to be a Gashead, and would never lose our grip on that feeling again.

Let`s face it, this club has battled most things since its inception in 1883 and the one thing that has been a constant is its unerring support.

Mind you, one thing that didn`t exist in those dark days of the past was social media. 

The closest thing we knew to Facebook was the gallery of mug shots down at the local cop shop.

And if you mentioned a Tweet many among us would  picture upper-class knobs running around a field jumping small objects (for a reference point, see Monty Python`s Twit of the Year sketch).

Things have certainly changed. Now every football fan is a keyboard warrior and every piece of juicy gossip will be taken by someone as fact.

Let`s be honest, anyone can go onto a site and claim to be someone they are not. Then they can invent some nonsense, say it came from a ‘figure of authority`, then stand back and watch the feathers fly.

In the past, being a Rovers fan was never about fighting among each other. We had enough battles to face from outside elements. We stuck together.

“Faithful and True” were – and still are – the words to our song.

Unfortunately some of the bile spouted recently left me ready to quit the forums and unfollow my network of Gasheads. 

Apart from going to matches, I was no longer willing to put myself through the torture of listening to half-baked truths or malicious falsehoods, and being told they were facts.

I had bigger things to worry about like the funeral of my father – the man who first took me to Eastville.

That took place last Wednesday back in Bristol, then on Friday I was travelling the length of the country to a wedding I had been invited to almost a year earlier.

The couple tying the knot were fellow members of the small group with whom I travelled around Australia and saw every Test in the 2006-07 Ashes series in which Freddie Flintoff`s England got trounced 5-0.

We stayed in touch and when they announced their wedding plans Blackburn, the team the groom Howard supported, were still in the Championship. 

I made a tongue-in-cheek remark to him that if they went down he had better ensure the fixture computer drew us against them on the same weekend – to save on the travel bill as much as anything.

I couldn`t believe my eyes when I checked the fixtures at the start of the season to see that was exactly what had happened.

So we had the funeral – bitterly sad – then I travelled north to the wedding, which was an absolute joy. On Saturday, Howard drove me the small distance to the Jack Walker Stadium.

I went in hope rather than expectation. We were slipping rapidly down the table having lost seven of our previous eight games.

And the match itself did nothing to soothe my feelings of despair: A decent first-half goal rubbed out by the officials a full minute after we thought we`d taken the lead.

Then Ellis Harrison opening the scoring with a beauty, only to be pegged back by a carelessly conceded penalty less than a minute later, the inevitable Blackburn winner following soon after.

We had been worth at least a point.

What I saw at the end, though, warmed my heart. Our large contingent of 1,300 Gasheads didn`t boo or hurl abuse at our team after another defeat. 

We didn`t call for the manager`s head or demand changes at boardroom level. 

We stood, we sang, we applauded loudly until every last player had left the pitch.

You could see the hurt in their faces, and the manager`s too. They had wanted to give us a result, but had failed at the death.

Still, it lit a spark in me that said ‘We fight on`, as we always have done. I hope it lit a spark in the hearts of those players, too. 

Because if we all pull together like we did at Blackburn last week, we will soon turn the corner and start winning again.

Isn`t that what faith is?

Nick Rippington is a national newspaper journalist based in London. He is also award-winning author of UK gangland fiction thrillers Crossing The Whitewash and Spark Out

Crossing the Whitewash – HERE
Spark Out –HERE


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