Bristol Rovers v Grimsby Town, Conference Play-off Final, 17 May 2015

As always, the people that get paid oodles of sponduliks to brand things got it wrong.

They packaged the Vanarama (ugh) Conference final – the match to decide which of two teams gets to return to the promised land of the Football League – as the “Big Day Out”, as if the teams playing it were plucky village part-timers, and their fans were provincial oiks who would be simply thrilled, honey, whatever the result, by the mere opportunity of a trip to glamorous London and the chance to picnic in the concrete environs of the “National” Stadium at Wembley. But whilst this may be the fifth division, it’s still chocker with professional teams, many of whom pull in several thousand punters every other Saturday. Some even have brighter pasts: only a generation ago Bristol Rovers and Grimsby Town were playing each other in what is now the Championship (I was there, else I’d hardly believe it myself). Even now, between them, these two teams have persuaded more than 47,000 people to attend a non-league football match.

Trouble is, for many of us, this really really wasn’t a “day out”, and the fact it was at Wembley was pretty much meaningless (apart from that being one of the few grounds that could accommodate the demand for tickets; and being, by virtue of a few Jubilee line stops short of Barnet FC, the closest Rovers game this season to in love with these times in spite of these times HQ). No, this was merely the 49th league game of a gruellingly long season, and one in which – for the very first time – Bristol Rovers had our destiny in our own hands. If we could win – by any means necessary, he said, channelling KRS-One – then that and that alone would justify the trip. If we couldn’t, we’d have been better off having our ‘big day out’ at the seaside instead. That sounds terrible, I know, but we were desperate.

And don’t get us wrong – we’ve enjoyed trips to showpiece finals before with BRFC. The old Wembley in 1995, the Millennium Stadium in 2007, the new Wembley in 2007. We even won the last of those. And in each one of them, there was a real excitement and passion in the stands, and a perfect reaction on the pitch. Players from both teams raising their games, rising to the occasion. 

Not today. Not from the Rovers XI or supporters, anyway. Grimsby’s fans – who should surely have been at their wits’ end too, after four seasons shackled “below deck” in the Conference – seemed to cope much better with the tension. Even before the game, they were singing and shouting and *supporting*. We weren’t, and I feel bad that I wasn’t, but it just felt like business, business that needed to be done, and that we needed to get on with and get over with, as we tried to find a silver lining and tried to forget about the General Election and the policies already announced by a new Government, and tried to forget surely the worst-ever automatic promotion combination from League One.

And so kick-off came. At last, it was time for the big match. The Pirates against the Mariners. West against East. Tramway against Pete Green. Norman Mailer and Cary Grant against a layer of chips. Niereich vs. Hackler & Kuch. You get the picture.

Now. I’ve developed something of an obsession about not conceding early goals. This century, I rarely expect my beloved Rovers to win, draw or even score. All I ask is that they try and last five minutes in a match without going behind. That seems a sensible, eminently achievable approach. You would have thought it wasn’t too much to ask: a few hoofs upfield, waste time at a throw-in, pass it around the back, or mess around near the corner flag. And yet I still get flashbacks…

Millennium Stadium, 2007: Forget the World Cup or the FA Cup, it’s the Johnstone Paints Trophy final. Rovers keep Doncaster to 0-0 for… three minutes. (They’re 2-0 up after five). 

Wembley Stadium, 2007: League Two play-off final (that’s The Fourth Division, in old money). Learning from their terrible start a couple of months earlier, Rovers hold Shrewsbury at bay for… oh. Two and a half minutes. Luckily, we recover to eventually win… but why make it so hard for yourselves?

So. Wembley 2015. Can we at least do better than 2007? Twice bitten, once shy?

No. Of course we can’t. Grimsby take the lead on 1 minute 40 precisely. The reaction from the Grimsby massive is a deafening wall of white noise, a morsel of Metal Machine Music. From that point on, the Rovers team were jittery, us fans subdued. It was a collective “here we go again”, it was 20,000+ people thinking, “Rovers, why do you always do this to us?” and it would herald 120 minutes spent shuffling uncomfortably in my seat, tearing my greying hair out, staring blankly towards the pitch, leaning back and taking deep breaths.

After the opening half hour - in which Rovers were frankly a shambles and Grimsby could and should have extended their deserved lead – Ellis Harrison struck an equaliser, which nobody saw coming, and which we greeted with relief and surprise more than elation. On the pitch, at least, Grimsby then slowly but surely sank to our level, and the remaining hour of normal time and half an hour of extra time passed with defences on top, the ball permanently in the air, and no passes being strung together whatsoever. Up in the stands, England manager Roy Hodgson was being subjected to all this too: it must have been the worst game he’d seen since England-Costa Rica in the World Cup.

Off the pitch, their fans continued to put us to shame and (occasional Goodnight Irenes aside) completely drowned us out. Once Ellis departed with cramp on 77, it seemed pretty clear to this mug punter that there were no goals left in the game. The only thing that cheered me was the boldness of Rovers doing a van Gaal on 120 minutes and putting on our substitute ‘keeper for the inevitable penalty shoot-out decider. It was a smart move from the gaffer, something that likely made no difference to the outcome but that at least suggested boldness, that gave us fans a buzz, a spark, a level of intrigue to toy with.

But if the penalty shoot-out was inevitable, what happened in it was more surprising. It surprised me, anyway. Because the Rovers players, with their leaden legs and generally underperforming bodies, suddenly turned into invincible Adonises as we put away 5 out of 5 penalties with alarming skill and composure, even at the end of the pitch surrounded by the fantastic and noisy Grimsby fans. I think I knew we’d made it when Angelo Balanta, not a man who has exactly set the Conference on fire, planted a perfect penalty, as if he was Le Tissier or Franny Lee or something. GTFC, for their part, skied just the one over the bar and that was all it took for the die to be cast.

This is a dream I thought would never see the light of day” (I turn to Catapult at moments like this, and indeed many other moments).

So now we’re back where we were a year ago. The Fourth Division. It seems mad to celebrate that so much, when until 2000 we’d never been as low as… The Fourth Division. But coming straight back up from the notoriously hard-to-escape Conference - just ask Grimsby - is quite an achievement, as is 1 defeat in 32 games (at any level). Please, please, please though, let us never go there again. For their part Grimsby, we think, must be near-favourites to come up next year.

Especially given the averageness of this BRFC performance, I’ll be more than happy if we can just get back to finishing 12th every year, like we did under Ian Atkins. And perhaps – just for once – with a manager who won us promotion – Rovers fans could try not to call for his sacking when we don’t win our first couple of games…?

Until then, let’s enjoy the summer. Altogether now:

I knew a girl who wore a blue ribbon in her hair / She wore that ribbon in the merry month of May…”