Losing My Favourite Game: ‘A Pain in the Gas’ with Sarah Ponsford.

Some defeats are instantly forgettable, others we’re able to scrunch up and file away in the deepest recesses of our memory, never to be seen again until they’re coaxed out of us by a therapist during a mid-life crisis. Some catch us cold at 11:30 on a Tuesday night as we drift off to sleep, thundering to the forefront of our thoughts and keeping us awake til the small hours as we replay key moments over and over again. Amongst all the defeats we witness as football supporters, there is always one that promises to stay with us forever. This season, we’ve invited voices from the world of football and beyond to share their most harrowing memories.

Taking a stroll up the avenue of anguish this week is Sarah Ponsford, who’s been a devoted Gashead since the age of eight, when she started attending matches at Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground with her Dad. Now living in London, Sarah is a contributor to This Fan Girl, a digital community that celebrates female football supporters, providing a voice for the stories and opinions of women who love the beautiful game.

Members of the Football League since 1920, The Gas had enjoyed a solid if unspectacular ninety-plus years in the lower leagues. Each decade would generally see the club either promoted or relegated between the second and third tiers of English football, and beyond their cup exploits in the 50s and 70s, a run to the FA Cup quarter finals in 2008, knocking out Fulham and Southampton on the way was as close as Rovers have come to hitting national headlines. At the turn of the 21st Century, The Gas were demoted to the fourth tier for the first time in their history, and narrowly avoided falling out of the Football League the following season. The goals of Richard Walker and Rickie Lambert saw them bounce back up into League One in 2007, but the sales of their best players and an increasingly leaky defence would see their stay last just four seasons.

By the start of the 2013/14 season, Rovers had drifted into midtable obscurity in League Two, and things would only get worse…

Sarah Ponsford Header

Bristol Rovers 0-1 Mansfield Town
English Football League Two
3rd May 2014

Currently making up the numbers in League One, Bristol Rovers have been in the third tier for three seasons having won back-to-back promotions from the National League in 2015 via Playoffs, then in League Two after a dramatic injury time winner from Lee Brown (now at Portsmouth, still lower league dynamite). There have been many memorable moments from the past 20 years supporting Rovers. Some of the best days of my life…but this feature is about opening up healed wounds, and rubbing a shit ton of salt in there while you’re at it.

The day we were relegated from the Football League would have to be one of the worst days in my life. We had an abysmal end to the season which saw us plummet into a relegation battle, winning just two of our last 11 games. But it wasn’t just the league position – it was everything about the club, and something I had never witnessed before and since at The Mem.

The right attitude goes a long way at the club seeing as we have next to no funding. That 2013-2014 season, the attitude of some of the players wasn’t even disheartening – it was an “I don’t care” manner which caused a ripple effect of frustration out to the supporters in the stands. We knew they weren’t trying. Many of us remarked on this atmosphere both on and off the field as being “toxic”.

Coming into the last day of the season, home to Mansfield, and we were favourites to stay up. All we needed was a draw. Subsequently, we lost 1-0. To make matters worse? We were relegated on goal difference – just 4 additional goals across the previous 45 games would have been enough to keep us safe. We were now a non-league side.

In the run up to the game, I had a sinking feeling. Statistically the odds were for us, but the way they were playing, the management, and atmosphere around the club made you believe that the worst was about to happen. And of course, it did.

The game itself? You know when it’s just one of those days. We had plenty of shots, hit the crossbar numerous times, it just wasn’t happening. Details of the game are lost, but that feeling as the full whistle blew was emptiness.

The aftermath of the game was the worst I’ve seen. Police horses were brought out to control the irate crowd as some ran onto the pitch to confront players and management. The journey home which was usually a flurry of typical Dad comments about how rubbish the people they pick to speak on the radio were was just silence. Rovers had exhausted me, and it’s the emotions I remember so vividly. That tense feeling, sheer frustration, and then the heartbreak. It wasn’t one of those situations where the results were out of your hands – we had the chips and royally fucked it up.

To end on a positive note, the following season was actually one of my favourites, if not favourite, of my time supporting Rovers. We hired Darrel Clarke – a very promising young manager now at Walsall. He spent the summer getting rid of all the dead wood just there to pick up their cheques. He had a knack for scouting great players too, despite the complete lack of budget. Matty Taylor (dare I say his name since his move to the other side of Bristol) was released by Forest Green and moved to us on free transfer. Regardless of his colours now, I think most Gasheads will agree that his time at Rovers was vital in getting us back into league football. But it was the team as a whole – they were a unit and that season felt like having my old Rovers back again. I don’t know one fan who isn’t grateful for Clarke’s contribution to the club.

There were other pluses. We didn’t have the luxury of those tiny second highlights on football league shows, so fans would create their own on YouTube and other social channels. I imagine sales of portable batteries in north Bristol boomed in 2013-2014. The away game against Woking saw so many Gas turned up that they weren’t allowed in the ground and had to watch through the fencing on the outskirts. The season ended with a trip to Wembley winning promotion on penalties against Grimbsy.

The following season was just as dramatic and saw us promoted again after clinching the last automatic promotion spot in League Two on the last day of the season from an injury time goal.

It’s that old saying – sometimes you have to hit rock bottom. We’ve seen this with clubs like Leyton Orient, AFC Wimbledon, and Dulwich Hamlet who were kicked out of their ground due to hellish property developers. This was definitely the case for Rovers. In the space of 4 years and 3 leagues later, that day was the kick up the backside that was definitely needed.

League One is a great league. Nearly a third of teams are different every season and there’s such a variety of clubs and away days. Of course, I wouldn’t say no to another promotion though. One thing is for sure, the importance of goal difference will never be lost on me.

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Thanks to Sarah for sharing the painful memories of Bristol Rovers’ relegation from the Football League in 2014. It would be remiss of us not to point you in the direction of Sarah’s Instagram. Meanwhile you can check out the work Sarah and a whole raft of talented female fans do with This Fan Girl on their website, or follow them on Twitter

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