If anyone had thought that the Wembley penalty shootout in 2014/15 had been dramatic, it was nothing compared to events at the end of the following season when Rovers clinched promotion on the final day of the 2015/16 season, which just happened to be May 7th!
They went into their final home game of the campaign in fourth place. Northampton Town had already been crowned champions, so the remaining two automatic promotion places were up for grabs and the three contenders were Accrington Stanley (84 points), Oxford United (83) and Rovers (82).
Rovers were at home to Dagenham & Redbridge, Accrington entertained Stevenage and Oxford were playing Wycombe Wanderers.
The game against Dagenham & Redbridge saw a crowd of 11,130 turn up hoping to see Rovers promoted for a second year running as Darrell Clarke took charge of his 100th league game for the club.
Former Rovers assistant manager John Still was in charge of the Daggers, who had already been relegated. Still selected former Rovers striker Jamie Cureton as one of his substitutes and saw his side score first.
A quick 12th minute counter attack saw Matty Cash given time and space to pick his spot and he rifled a low shot past Steve Mildenhall. It was a goal that was greeted in silence by all but the small number of Daggers fans inside the ground.
The decibels rose again three minutes later, though, as Billy Bodin got Rovers back on level terms. The midfielder slalomed around three challenges inside the area before slotting a shot past goalkeeper Mark Cousins.
However, the anticipated goal avalanche failed to materialise and at half time Rovers, and their two rivals, were all square in their respective games.
Nine minutes after the break Oxford took the lead against Wycombe and added another in the 72nd minute and so Rovers were well aware that they needed to score again and hope that Accrington didn’t find the back of the net.
As the board went up showing how many additional minutes were to be played, news filtered through of a third Oxford goal. They were up; who would join them, Accrington or Rovers?
Two minutes into the four added on, Matty Taylor’s shot came back into play off the post but Lee Brown, up in support of the attack from his left back position, pounced and slotted home the rebound with his right foot.
Cue pandemonium and manager Clarke again showed his prowess as a sprinter, dashing from his technical area to join in the celebrations with his players near the corner flag.
The noise inside the Mem was deafening, but there were still two minutes to play and Accrington’s game hadn’t yet finished.
At the final whistle supporters poured on to the pitch thinking promotion had been achieved. At that very moment it hadn’t, as they were still playing at Accrington’s Wham Stadium. And then came the news that they had been held to a goalless draw by Stevenage which meant that Rovers claimed third place and automatic promotion.
Everyone went mental, the decibels rose and, two years after dropping out of the league altogether Rovers were heading to League One and Darrell Clarke had led them to back to back promotions.
Rovers finished the season on 85 points, lost just one of their last 14 games, ended the season with nine consecutive home wins and recorded 11 victories on the road. In all there were 26 wins, seven draws and 13 defeats, while 75 goals were scored and 45 conceded.
Over the course of the season 30 players appeared in league games for the club, while Lee Brown was the only ever present. A total of 21 players made their league debut, including eight in the first game of the season, a home match against Northampton Town.
Of the four goalkeepers used, Will Puddy made just one appearance while of the two loanee custodians Lee Nicholls appeared in the 2021/22 Championship play off final for Huddersfield Town, while Tom Lockyer was in the opposing Luton Town squad and was sent on in the second half of the first leg at Kenilworth Road.
On the Rovers bench for that dramatic last day game was a future Scottish international in Oli McBurnie. He didn’t get on, neither did Tom Parkes, Ollie Clarke or Puddy though all were prominent in the on the pitch celebrations after the game!
As well as the game being played on the seventh of the month, Rovers beat Morecambe by the odd goal in seven in October 2015. Still lucky!
Clarke said this once he had got his breath back after that dramatic finish to the campaign; ‘I realise now that I haven’t lost my pace because when Lee’s shot hit the net, I was off down the touchline like a sprinter.
‘I can’t begin to describe the catalogue of emotions I went through. I was almost in tears at times when some of our chances went begging. ‘What a way to do it. I feel for Accrington and it says a lot about their manager John Coleman that I have already received a text of congratulations from him.’
(all photos courtesy of Neil Brookman)