It’s beginning to look increasingly like our season is over.
No-one within the club would ever accept that until sixth place is a mathematical impossibility, such are the standards set by the management, but the dreams of a fairytale third straight promotion are beginning to drift away.
For the first time in what seems like a long time, a season might be petering out at the Memorial Stadium. 2016/17 may not go right to the wire, like the glorious end to last season, or the final day of the previous one, where Rovers were never more than two Gateshead goals away from sealing the Conference title. Nor is there likely to be an extension to our season in the form of the play-offs, as there was in 2015.
As exciting as those two run-ins were, the real achievement for the team this year is that we aren’t going to be involved in a relegation battle right down to late April. Watching a season meander into anti-climax may be frustrating, but in our case it’s also heartening. I don’t think anyone had us down as relegation favourites, but promoted sides set avoiding the drop back to whence they came as their first target.
The hopes of a late run for the top six seemed to slip away on Tuesday. A 3-0 defeat away at Bury, heavily assisted by a referee who gave at least one, if not both, of Stuart Sinclair’s two yellow cards for diving incorrectly, and who gave the softest penalty against Rovers in a long stretch, has made things improbable.
Darrell Clarke is a manager who prides himself on respecting officials and not complaining, and even he was waiting at Gigg Lane at full time to speak to the man in black. For a start, Sinclair isn’t a diver; it’s an often-used cliché but he’s ‘not that sort of player’. The dive by the Bury player for their penalty was flagrant, but the Lancashire-based ref (should referees from Lancashire referee games of teams from, er, Lancashire?) didn’t seem to spot that one.
Most of us are able to accept out sides’ own shortcomings: let’s face it, there have been enough of them over the years. But it genuinely seemed to be twelve against ten out there.
The task it leaves us now is to close a four point gap, which doesn’t seem too bad. Especially when taking into account our next three games: second-bottom Chesterfield at home on Saturday, then relegation certs Coventry, the bottom side, away, followed by lower mid-table fodder Shrewsbury at home.
I actually expect maximum points from those three games, awful refereeing notwithstanding. However, if you take into account our vastly inferior goal difference, and the fact that three of our rivals for that final play-off spot have games in-hand over us, I don’t see a repeat of the heroics of recent years. The other three spots seem out of our reach already.
As many have pointed out, this stoppage may be a good thing – too much promotion too soon, especially at a club like ours with insufficient infrastructure, can lead to a just-as-rapid fall. Ask anyone involved with Yeovil Town.
As mentioned above, there’ll be no let-up in the work rate. Darrell Clarke didn’t rebuild our club on the back of complacency, after all. He’ll have told the players to keep pushing themselves – aim for 60 points, then 65, and so on. He’s already talked of beating the points totals set in our previous spell in the third tier. Additionally, quite a few of the squad need to use these final games as their sales pitch to the manager for a new contract – ‘playing for their futures’ is another cliché but it’s only used often because it’s often true.
One player whose future definitely lies elsewhere is Mark McChrystal, released last week. I don’t think there are too many words that can do justice to Macca’s contribution to the club in his four years here. Brought in by John Ward to shore up the defence, he was one of the few to come out of relegation out of the Football League with any credit.
Word on the street was that he had planned to retire, but changed his mind, such was his determination to get Rovers back up and out of non-league. You can see how much accomplishing that particular mission meant to him with that famous photo from the play-off final: while the manager, pressure finally relieved, runs towards the tens of thousands of Gasheads, wild-eyed, Mark breaks down in tears.
His first-team chances waned, with the improvement of Tom Lockyer and his partnership with first Tom Parkes and a good few centre-halves this season, but he led the club with distinction.
Those with longer memories will, of course, talk of players and teams that conquered the third tier, rather than the fourth or the fifth, but for those of us who saw a club on its knees, on and off the field, and its resurgence, many if not all of those involved will be deemed to be heroes or legends by many. The captain of those two promotion-winning sides should be no exception.
Thanks for the memories, Macca.
Read more: ‘Two draws that could easily have been wins’