No room for complacency as Rovers bid to create FA Cup memories worth cherishing
BRISTOL Rovers’ FA Cup visit to Barnet this weekend rekindles happy memories of my early days wearing the blue and white quarters.
It is a repeat of the first-round tie back in November 1983, which I believe was the first-ever meeting between the clubs. After a goalless draw at Underhill, we won the replay 3-1 at Eastville three days later and yours truly actually managed to get on the scoresheet!
It would be less than honest if I claimed to remember the goal or much about the two games, although I do recall we were not very impressed by the dressing rooms on our visit to Barnet.
That is part of the so-called magic of the FA Cup, which professional players have to adapt to when facing non-League opposition. If you don’t, or you think you only have to turn up to win, the stage is set for a shock result.
What I do remember well is the Rovers team I was becoming a part of when we faced Barnet and one player in particular who was playing out of his skin at the time.
Micky Barrett was in the middle of a purple scoring patch from the left wing. He also scored in the replay against Barnet, along with Neil Slatter, and looked set for a glittering career.
It’s still hard to credit that Micky died of cancer the following year at the age of 24. While I played a lot of games on the right wing during my early days with Rovers, I always considered myself a central midfield player.
Micky was the real deal, a proper winger with the skills to take on defenders, fly past them and get crosses in, as well as score goals. A real entertainer. Who knows what he might have gone on to achieve?
David Williams was player-manager when we played Barnet and the team included the likes of Phil Kite, Brian Williams, Aidan McCaffery, Tim Parkin, Geraint Williams, Phil Bater, Steve White and Paul Randall.
It was great having so many experienced players around me and I remember the immense pride I felt every time I stepped on to the pitch with them in those famous blue and white shirts.
We had a good side, but I can’t say the FA Cup is a competition that has done me too many favours over the years.
In fact, the tie involving Rovers I recall most vividly was when we lost 2-1 at home to Exeter City in the first round in November 1996, by which time I had become playermanager.
It was my first season as team boss and the board had hammered Bristol Rovers goalkeeper Steve Phillips saves a penalty when the Gas last met Barnet in the FA Cup in January 2008. Phillips’ save proved decisive as Rovers won that game 1-0 at Underhill, Barnet’s old home ground, and went on to reach the quarter-finals where they lost 5-1 to West Brom home to me the importance of a good cup run to the club’s finances. So I was feeling the pressure even before kick-off.
Despite that, I had a really good game in midfield and was named man-of-the-match. It was a strange feeling collecting the award amid the disappointment of losing and then I had to go and face the press to explain how we had been beaten.
When all that was done I ended up in the boardroom where you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. The directors were pretty frosty, so I broke the ice by throwing my man-of-the-match trophy down and yelling: “What more do you want me to do?”
Twenty-two years later I am sure Darrell Clarke and his players are equally aware of how important a cup run could be in terms of revenue to put towards developing the squad.
They don’t face an easy task. For Underhill, now read The Hive, where Barnet host their games these days and you can bet your life that wily old campaigner John Still will be working hard on making home advantage tell.
John is a manager I truly respect. He had a spell as assistant at Rovers in the 2000s and has done well on low budgets at a number of small clubs. I was with him at a charity golf event the other day. He does a lot of good work raising money for London hospitals and during our chat it was clear that, at the age of 68, he is as in love with football as he ever was.
John has produced so many top players as a coach and Rovers can be sure the team they face on Sunday will be well-drilled.
To avoid an upset, the players will have to observe the First Commandment of playing FA Cup football against lower teams – that you must match their desire and workrate.
Rovers are traditionally much more comfortable in the role of underdogs. I certainly used to prefer it as a player, but when the boot is on the other foot you have to compete like mad for 90 minutes and hope your extra quality tells.
A positive is that Darrell Clarke’s team go into the match on the back of a huge League One result at Blackpool last weekend. The 3-0 victory could hardly have been more timely.
As a pundit for Quest TV, I was able to watch the goals and the highlights from their studios, along with action from a lot of other games, and I was delighted for Darrell. I wrote in my first column about how much time I have for him as a coach and as a man committed to the Rovers badge. Hopefully, a difficult season has now reached a turning point and we can look forward to more success in League and cups over the coming months.