Rovers were relegated again in 1980/81 and didn’t gain promotion again until 1989/90. In the years following their 1973/74 triumph the club had seen a number of different managers come and go; Don Megson, Bobby Campbell, Harold Jarman, Terry Cooper, Bobby Gould (twice), David Williams and Gerry Francis.
Oh, and they had also moved to play their home games in another City and entered into an agreement with Bath City whereby home matches would be played at Twerton Park.
It was Francis who built the next promotion squad and he guided them to the play off final in 1988/89, where his side were beaten, on aggregate, over two legs by Port Vale; It was the last time that the play offs were decided in this way.
There was, though, no hangover and the club earned promotion, as Third Division Champions, the following season with promotion being clinched in the penultimate league game of the season against arch rivals Bristol City.
The side remained unbeaten in the league at Twerton Park all season and kept 27 clean sheets in all spite of the sale of goalkeeper Nigel Martyn and striker Gary Penrice, in the autumn of 1989, to Crystal Palace and Watford respectively.
The match that saw Rovers ensure they would be promoted was an eagerly awaited clash between them and City, postponed earlier in the season, and took place on Wednesday 2nd May. Never has so much ridden on a local derby.
Third Division leaders City needed only a draw at Twerton Park to confirm their promotion, while a win would see them take the title. If Rovers were to gain their 15th home win of the season they would leapfrog City into first place and guarantee promotion.
Manager Gerry Francis said; ‘If we make it then we will have done it the hard way for we haven’t stopped playing for a month.’
Defender Geoff Twentyman was hoping that both Bristol clubs would be promoted and said; ‘It would be great if we could show the rest of the country that Bristol is capable of making a national impact as a football city. ‘Although I obviously want Rovers to win and to take the Championship, I also hope City are promoted. It’s good for the area to have football of the highest standard and I see no reason why there can’t be two Bristol clubs in the First Division one day.’
Skipper Vaughan Jones said; ‘From the interest this game has generated we would need Wembley to accommodate all the fans who want to see the match, But for all those Rovers fans who can’t get tickets I have this message – we aim to win for you.’
Meanwhile Ian Holloway urged supporters not to cause trouble; ‘I have heard rumours that tickets have been bought for the wrong end by the wrong people and they are going to cause trouble, but we don’t want any of that from either side. ‘Why can’t everyone just be pleased that the two Bristol clubs are doing so well? If one finishes runners-up and the other champions, what I say is well done Bristol. ‘Why can’t we celebrate together? Whatever happens on the night one set of supporters is going to be slightly disappointed. But we both have another game and if Notts County don’t win at Reading on Thursday we’ll both be up anyway.’
Steve Yates was due to make his 100th Rovers appearance in the game and he said; ‘It’s been a terrific season for me. I’ve worked a lot on my speed, which has improved greatly. My defensive partner, Geoff Twentyman, now takes the big forwards while I concentrate on the faster ones.’
The day before the game, a group of City and Rovers players met up at the Hope Centre in Hotwells at the request of Ian Holloway. His brother John was working for ‘Our Chance’ part of the National Schizophrenic Fellowship which aimed to rehabilitate patients with long term mental illness and helped them find voluntary work and the aim was to promote a charity game that Holloway was organising the following week.
The Twerton Park crowd of 9,813 were treated to a night of high drama when the game finally kicked off and those of a blue and white persuasion paid homage to their heroes following their 3-0 win in what was a real demolition derby.
Devon White opened the scoring on 25 minutes when he turned in David Mehew’s right wing cross and ‘Bruno’ scored again on 55 minutes when Carl Saunders was the provider. The game was sewn up seven minutes later when Andy Llewellyn handled Phil Purnell’s shot on the line. That left Ian Holloway to take what was, at that point, the most important spot kick in Rovers’ history. The midfielder didn’t disappoint and sent goalkeeper Ronnie Sinclair the wrong way with his penalty.
There was trouble in the City end as they realised they had no chance of winning the game but attempts to get the game stopped were thwarted. Referee Roger Dilkes was encouraged to let the game continue. He praised the attitude of both teams afterwards and revealed that City’s Rob Newman had said; ‘You keep the game going ref, and we’ll keep going for you.’
Manager Gerry Francis was thrown, fully clothed, into the bath by his jubilant players after the game, and celebrations continued long into the night and long after City’s entourage had departed. He did manage to have a few words for reporters, though, and said; ‘I honestly believe we have been the best team in the Third Division. No other side can match us for consistency. An important factor is that the players have learnt to handle pressure situations. Going so close in the play offs last season taught them a great deal.
‘I was delighted with our performance. It was tremendous and, but for a couple of brilliant saves at the end, the winning margin would have been even bigger.’
City boss Joe Jordan was magnanimous in defeat, saying; ‘We didn’t really create many scoring opportunities, which was very disappointing and over the 90 minutes Rovers fully deserved to win.’
Midfielder Andy Reece revealed after the game that his father had passed away the previous day but he hadn’t told anyone; ‘Dad had been in hospital for some time and it’s heartbreaking that promotion came 24 hours too late for him for him to know about. But he knew, deep down, that we would make it and I see our achievement as my tribute to his memory.’
The following Saturday Rovers, backed by an estimated 5,000 travelling supporters, were 2-1 winners at Blackpool which meant that they finished the campaign as Champions. City finished two points behind Rovers and were promoted as runners up while third placed Notts County also went up.
Rovers lost just five league games all season, won 26 and drew 15 of their 46 league games, scoring 71 goals and conceding 35 in the process. They never scored seven in any one game, but a 6-1 win against Wigan Athletic on March 3rd 1990 will do me!
Four players, Geoff Twentyman, David Mehew, Vaughan Jones and Ian Holloway were ever present while four more, Ian Alexander, Steve Yates, Andy Reece and Devon White all appeared in 40 or more games. Mehew didn’t score more than one goal in any league match, yet top scored with 18. White, with 12, was the only other player to reach double figures.
Of the 21 players used, Marcus Browning made one substitute appearance and David Byrne two. Those two were among the six players to make their league debuts that season, along with Ian Wilmott, Tony Sealy, Brian Parkin and Carl Saunders.
(all photos courtesy of Alan Marshall)