Notts County 4 Bristol Rovers 2
Friday 3rd of November 2017, FA Cup First Round
Seemingly not satisfied with our seven game in three days bender last month, Daz and I were linking up again to take in a couple of games together, one in the East Midlands, one in the West like the suave cosmopolitans we are. The first match would be the FA Cup first round clash between Bristol Rovers and League Two leaders Notts County at Meadow Lane. Rovers had been in a bit of a slump of late, losing three league games in a row to Oxford United, the lowly Rochdale and worst of all from my point of view, a 4-0 tonking away at Shrewsbury Town. Some cheer had been returned by us overcoming MK Dons 2-0 on the weekend and losing to West Ham Academy in the annual quest to exit the EFL Trophy as early as possible. As an added bonus, misfiring striker Tom Nichols had managed to open his Rovers account with a goal in both games and would hopefully be high on confidence going into this match. I couldn't hand-on-heart claim the same however. With our league away record for the season standing at P8 | W2 | L6 (discounting the hard-fought 1-0 win at Craven Cottage in the League Cup) and my personal record standing at P12 | W2 | D3 | L7, it was hard not to feel fatalistic about an encounter with high-flying County, considering also our tendency to flop against lower league opposition. I don't however go to away games to see us win, I go to drink beer, shout and tick off grounds, so I dutifully piled into the Ram express leaving Bristol Parkway and we hit the road along with Duke and Andy Gale.
Notts County, as they like to frequently remind everyone, are the oldest professional football club in the world (the honour of being the oldest club in general belongs to Sheffield FC who play in the Northern Premier League). Formed in 1862, though anecdotally existing informally before even that, the club has played at Meadow Lane since 1910. Arguably their greatest claim to fame, other than the 1894 FA Cup, is the fact that they were the inspiration behind Italian Giants Juventus' black and white striped shirts. Perhaps befitting of a club that's been around for such a long time, the Magpies have had a wide variety of successful and not-so successful periods in the league. At present they are at the foot of an almost two decade long slump, having travelled from the old first division all the way down to League Two from the 1991-92 season onward, with only brief respites from fourth tier to third in a general downward spiral. The past two seasons in League Two haven't been too inspiring for them, finishing in 17th and 16th place but they appear to be breaking the juju this time around and have been in an automatic place since September.
The east midlands hasn't been a favourite haunt of Partizan Bristle since I started, to date I've only been to Northampton Town despite my mother originally hailing from the land of Robin Hood and scabs and my great aunt continuing to live as she always has in the village of Bunny (no really). As such I was looking forward to ticking off another classic league ground. One thing I hadn't realised was that the distance between Meadow Land and rivals Nottingham Forest's City Ground was quite literally gobbing distance. 300 yards and (perhaps just as well) the River Trent separate the two adversaries, beaten in the UK only by Dundee's Dens Park and Dundee United's Tannadice Park which in a testament to pure British obstinacy stand on the same road, with no watery barrier, a mere 200 yards apart.
After walking round and round the perimeter of the ground in opposite directions a couple of times, Daz and I eventually organised ourselves to the same location and went in. With an away attendance of 454 there was plenty of room to meander about, grab a drink and admire the opulent glossy posters featuring the complete record of meetings, goals and results between the two clubs stretching back all the way to our formation that Notts had stuck up all over the concourse. Thanks, I guess. Must be nice to have that much disposable income, most Rovers fans thought we were living fancy when the new board added the second tent.
We took our seats in the Jimmy Sirrel Stand next to the large strip of tarpaulin separating us from... several hundred empty seats. It seems the Friday kick-off to avoid a clash with Forest put off the extra 3.307 that County have been getting on average this season. Perhaps they were all at the last surviving Hooters in the country, conveniently located just across the road from the stadium like Daz was, the sexcase. Not much to say about such an old ground sadly as once again in conforming to the post-Taylor Report world it became another identikit stadium but if I had to sum it up I thought Daz's description as a "mini Molineux" was quite apt.
Out on the pitch Rovers unleashed a rare display of early dominance with Liam Sercombe netting in the 8th minute with an assist from Joe Partington. This was followed quickly by an even rarer beast, a Stuart Sinclair goal as the hirsute centre-mid headed home a Chris Lines corner in the 12th minute, dreamland! The small but jubilant crowd of County supporters behind the goal evidently took the advice of the travelling support and stuck their drum up their arse while the blue and white battalion enjoyed an unfamiliar period of tranquillity and confidence, even merrily discussing whether a celebratory slide down the tarpaulin would be worth the shattered limbs and the inevitable appearance on The Lad Bible. Sadly this was not to last. Pretty much immediately after Sinclair's goal, Notts County started getting forward more convincingly and like so many before them often completely bypassing the midfield, as former Champions League semi-finalist Alan Smith did with a cheeky back-heel moments after coming on under drunken screams of "YOU NEVER MADE IT" from Gale.
The tide really turned in the 29th minute when Tom Broadbent brought down Shola Ameobi in the attacking half and Carl Dickinson curled the free-kick perfectly for Ryan Yates to stride past the ponderous Rovers defence and nod home. Not a minute later Yates drew the scores level by bundling a corner into the bottom corner of the net past an incapacitated, or possibly just crap Adam Smith, who was flopping about with his arm across his face as soon as the ball came in. That said, the veteran of weird racist orgies was far from the only man at fault, as other members of the Great Leak of Horfield positioned themselves too far away from the two men at the far post. There were suggestions of a kit-clash due to both sides wearing their half-white half-black/blue home kits in a night game but really if most of our lads can't pick out a set of quarters on a pitch by now questions need to be asked.
As I'm sure you can imagine, the atmosphere below ground during half-time wasn't the most jubilant. Really the very least you might expect from a professional football team playing another from the league below would be to defend a two-goal lead longer than 18 minutes. Although Daz and some others were treating it as though Rovers were essentially starting the game over again for the second half, I'd seen this pan out too many times to have any sort of hope. Only the bizarre faces of the Notts County stewards glaring at me from the bottom of the stand could cheer me up now.
On 58 minutes the inevitable happened as the ball was lamped forward from the half way line up to the waiting and totally unmarked Jorge Grant, who trotted leisurely into the box and slid it across to Jon Stead who poked it past Smith for an easy home lead. The only resistance came from Broadbent who stuck his foot out but somehow didn't connect with the cross and Lee Brown he was level with Grant the whole time but apparently powerless to affect the shot in any way. Notts set off the drabbest flare ever and I gaze up to the sky and think about the life choices that lead me to this point. Having about as much will to continue as most of the crowd at this point, Rovers let in yet another goal in the 6th minute of injury time, as the ball was again played out to a home player in the corner in acres of space, this time Forrest loanee Jorge Grant, who skipped forward into a one-on-one with zero resistance and shot it past Smith, who couldn't seem to decide whether he should come out of goal and try and smother the attack or not, eventually tiptoeing forward and doing a little jump before falling to his knees and watching the ball over his shoulder.
Really I expected nothing from this game and only went along as a warm-up to the real football tomorrow in the form of Sporting Khalsa vs. Coventry United. I can't see myself heading out to another Rovers game until the great BRFC derby against Blackburn Rovers at the end of the month where hopefully some regrouping will have occurred in the meantime.