That’s it then. 2016/17 is over. The dying embers of a play-off place were finally extinguished with something of a whimper away at London Road on Saturday.
I don’t think many of us expected an away win, given our well-documented struggles on the road this season, but to be 4-0 down in such a crucial game was a bit of a shock. A mixture of rare mistakes by our quality January loan signings and some lapses in concentration seem to have done for us. Rory Gaffney’s first goals in what seems like an age restored some credibility, and they were well taken strikes as well, but on the big day we came up short.
What was more frustrating was that everyone around us dropped points. Had we got the job done at Peterborough, no-one else closed the door on us, so Sunday’s 12pm kick-off vs Millwall would’ve been a high noon showdown: loser-takes-nothing, but not quite winner-takes-all, given that Rochdale and Southend are still in the mix.
Instead, we go into Sunday with nothing to do but play for pride, trying to keep up our incredible home form, wave goodbye to a good season, and hopefully spoil Millwall’s party after their diving, cheating ways when we visited south London earlier in the season.
At times like this, one’s mind wanders – what if that crazy back pass that cost us a win at home v Scunthorpe hadn’t happened? What if we’d had a less calamitous goalkeeper for the first half of the season?
There were so many junctures where points were dropped, and if only one of them hadn’t happened, the dream would still be alive. Visions of another walk down Wembley way, names added to the folklore of the club, and, in the distance, the return of the Bristol derby. Gone for another year.
Personally, while restarting hostilities with our oldest enemy in League One would’ve been nice, their recovery and survival in the Championship, barring a mathematical freak, gives us another good reason to get over the line and up to the second flight of English football as soon as we can. Derbies in the Football League Trophy, the only competition where we’ve met them in 17 long years, have had electric atmospheres – imagine them in the Championship.
Additionally it will be, as the end of every season is, the chance to give a fond farewell to some faces that will be seen in the quarters for the final time (along with, I’m happy to say, Mark McChrystal, who is being given the send-off a double promotion winning skipper deserves – well done BRFC).
Who else will wave goodbye to the Gas, making way for the handful of new faces needed to push us forward? None of us know for sure, but educated guesses will be made on Twitter, and in good old-fashioned form down the pub. People who claim to be ‘in the know’ will say so-and-so is leaving, and that one player or another is definitely putting pen to paper and extending his stay with us.
For once, there’s not really anyone in the senior squad who wouldn’t be deserving of polite applause should they return to BS7 with a visiting team. That obviously hasn’t always been the case here, and it’s to Darrell Clarke’s immense credit that his whole team have earned the fans’ respect. As Clarke is keen (and correct) to point out, the highest league placing in 17 years has been achieved by this lot.
The average Gashead (if such a thing exists) will be happy with 2016/17: a top ten finish on a bottom ten budget in our first season up; attendances through the roof; a team that is evolving into genuine contenders for next year and will hopefully continue to do so; a club that is doing things right on and off the field. We are light years away from May 3, 2014, Rovers’ very own Ground Zero. They’ll also say that we aren’t ready to go up, at least while we’re still stuck at the Mem.
Those people are right. This team, with a few changes, and this manager, are the right people to try and take us forward again come the summer. But don’t let anyone tell you not to feel disappointed right now.
History tells us that Rovers haven’t had a real shot at promotion to the second tier all that often (though, looking at the recent past, it does help if one isn’t struggling in the fourth or fifth), and for all my admiration for DC, there are no guarantees in this game. If we have another crack at the top six next year, great. But if we don’t, this year will look like the one that got away.
So, for Darrell, the work starts now. We wouldn’t want anyone else doing it.
Read more: ‘In Darrell Clarke’s shoes, I’d say it was already over’