Bristol Rovers 0 Yeovil Town 1 – Saturday 13th December 2003
I grew up in an era when Yeovil didn’t really have any derbies. Bath and Weymouth were in lower divisions and had been for many years. We would encounter them occasionally in cup competitions, but those generally went our way and it was hard to feel much for them having never seen us play at the same level or suffer one of our many historical Boxing Day defeats to them. When I first started going to Huish Park in the 90’s we would get Forest Green or occasionally Cheltenham for our ‘festive’ fixtures, and it’s not really the same as a proper derby. The closest to that feeling I got was for Hereford, who had been Southern League rivals in the early 70’s (and promoted off the back of one decent cup result rather than league performances, let’s not forget that) but were relegated back to the Conference the same year that we were promoted, in 1997. That was the first year I saw an extreme police presence at Huish Park, helicopters circling the stadium and lots of gesturing from 14 year old lads outside the away end. We tended to beat them as well so that was always fun.
Everything changed with promotion in 2003, with the prospect of playing lots of other south west clubs – Plymouth, Swindon, Bournemouth, Torquay and of course the two Bristol clubs. Exeter suffered a very badly timed relegation so we would have to wait a few more years to play them. Most of these were fairly good-natured in my experience, but the real needle was saved for the Bristol clubs, and in particular Bristol Rovers. I don’t think there was any real hatred with most of those clubs because we didn’t have any history with them, but with Rovers it was different. Of course, we would play Bristol City a couple of years later and Gary Johnson would end up leaving us for The Big Club Up The Road (TM), coming back for a few former Yeovil players at the end of the season. Certainly there was no love lost when he left us for them in 2005, the 2-1 win over them which took us up to 2nd in League One with two late goals was particularly enjoyable, and the roar which greeted Wayne Gray’s second was probably the loudest noise I have heard at Huish Park to date.
However there could be a really unpleasant atmosphere when we played Bristol Rovers, especially in those first couple of seasons. We did play them in the LDV Trophy in 2001, when the top Conference sides were ‘invited’ to take part in the Football League Trophy. We took around 1100 fans, they stuck us in a corner, and we played fairly well to earn a 1-1 draw, with McIndoe scoring our goal but then missing a penalty in the resultant shoot-out. That gave us our first taste of the delights of the Memorial Stadium but it was dialled up to 11 the following season. At the Memorial Stadium you get shoved into a corner terrace with one of the worst views in English football (people complain about our terrace but at least you can see from it), if you’re not lucky enough to get one of the ’temporary’ seats. The Mem is a bit of a white elephant of a stadium as all of the various stands are different heights and widths and don’t run the full length of the pitch so you have a bit of green plastic seating here, half a terrace there. The main stand is sufficiently high that home fans can lob pasties and other projectiles at away fans – which I am sure they do not do and have never done. Certainly we’ve only ever had a warm welcome when we have been there, with dozens of friendly police officers escorting us to our vehicles, even if (as in our case) our vehicle was nowhere near the area they were escorting us to. It’s a charming ground. It used to be owned by the rugby club who no longer play there having moved to Ashton Gate (that must have stung), and although there has been talk of a new stadium for many years, nothing has materialised yet.
When we first played Rovers in the league they were at a low point. They finished 23rd in League Two in 2001/02, the last year that only one club went down. They only avoided relegation in 2002/03 with a late run of ten points in the last four games. So in 2003 they probably saw us arrogant upstarts, the annoying little brothers who they could previously patronise with a pat on the head, but they didn’t like it when we started playing at the same level as them, and turned out to be better. We won home and away in 2003/04 which I am sure only annoyed them more.
There was some additional needle in the dugout – in 2003, Rovers were managed by the very old school Ray Graydon, who was sacked shortly afterwards and replaced with a caretaker manager until the appointment of Ian Atkins in 2004. This was when the bad blood was probably at its height as there was no love lost at all between Atkins and Gary Johnson which stemmed from the time that Atkins was sacked at Cambridge to be replaced by Johnson in the mid-90’s. The two are about as opposite in their approach to football as it is possible to get – Johnson preferring to play attacking football on the ground, while Atkins would rather defend for 90 minutes and hoof it up to a big man. For a long time he was the manager clubs called when they were trying to battle out of relegation, like a lower league Neil Warnock. The Rovers fans already didn’t like us before Atkins was appointed, but he made sure to turn resentment up by a few degrees, leading to the night at the Mem in 2004 when the home side had two players sent off (and arguably should have been more) in a 2-2 draw. We won’t dwell on how that game ended as a draw, but instead enjoy this sublime goal from Gavin Williams. The return fixture was more one-sided, as Yeovil ran out 4-2 winners on their way to the League Two title. There were usually plenty of goals and red cards when the two teams played.
Speaking of sublime goals, there was just the one goal and one red card in the December 2003 meeting, with both going to Yeovil. In an admittedly fairly low quality game, a screamer from outside the penalty area from Nick Crittenden just before half time settled the match and sent Yeovil up to third. The Glovers were on a good run of 10 wins in 13 matches, including an FA Cup win against Barnet which set up a third round tie at home to Liverpool. It was certainly a good time to be a Yeovil fan and that might have been partly why Rovers didn’t like us very much, the little club was upstaging them. Rovers were a bit toothless, and never really threatened even after Jake Edwards was sent off for very foolishly retaliating to being stamped on by Ijah Anderson. Edwards had only just come on as a substitute, and would rule himself out of the upcoming match against Liverpool through suspension. Despite having a man advantage for almost 25 minutes, the home side didn’t do much with it and Yeovil came home with the points. Match-winner Crittenden did not play a huge amount in what would be his last season at the club, as Paul Terry tended to play on the right of midfield, but on this occasion was needed in the centre while Way was injured. Crittenden scored one other league goal that season, in the 2-1 defeat against Leyton Orient.
We didn’t like Bristol City either and I’m sure they didn’t like us, especially in 2006/07 when as it turned out we were both going for promotion from League One. But, what with them being TBCUTR (TM), perhaps we knew we probably wouldn’t be playing them that often and Rovers were the team we could really get in the mire with. Top end of League Two, bottom end of League One, was where we spent a number of seasons and so did they, as we often found ourselves at a similar level. Indeed, when we got to the Playoff Final in 2007, I arrived in London at the same time as loads of Bristol Rovers fans as I went up for the weekend and their final against Shrewsbury was the day before ours against Blackpool. They won, which meant we would play them in League One from 07/08 until 10/11 when they were relegated again. These games tended to be less heated, and the most memorable was perhaps the late comeback to win 2-1 in 2009 thanks to Terrell Forbes’ first ever league goal. The 2-2 draw at Huish Park the previous season was also a very enjoyable game. Rovers ended up being relegated to the Conference in 2014, where they would bounce back at the first attempt, via the playoffs. So in 2015/16 the two clubs met again, but unfortunately just in passing as Rovers won both games and were promoted that season. In 2020/21 they were relegated back to League Two so who knows we may play them again soon, and I hope we get to play them while Joey Barton is still in charge it is bound to be eventful.
Goodnight Irene is a dirge though, isn’t it? How that gets anyone going for a football match is beyond me. When I first heard it at the Mem I nearly fell asleep, I thought it was being played at half speed.
Team that day: Chris Weale, Adam Lockwood, Colin Pluck, Terry Skiverton, Hugo Rodrigues, Paul Terry, Lee Johnson, Nick Crittenden, Gavin Williams, Kirk Jackson (sub. Jake Edwards 59), Kevin Gall (sub. Adam Stansfield 79). Unused sub: Steve Collis, Jamie Gosling, Lee Elam.