• Adam Stubbings

Ray Jest's Reliving Rovers: 1968/69 Part Seven

In this new series, Rovers fan Ray Jest takes us back in time to relive classic seasons from the archives. First up, Ray tackles a memorable 1968-69 campaign with the club in the old Fourth Division, managed by Lawrie McMenemy and looking to win their way out of the bottom tier.

Check out Part Six of our series, published last week, then read on to continue our journey onto the home stretch and a close race for promotion.

The Easter period saw Rovers travel firstly over the Pennines on Monday 7th April for a game against Rochdale at their Spotland Stadium. Rochdale were lying in fourth place in the table, five points adrift of Rovers but with three games in hand.

Neither team could afford to slip up against their rivals, nor would either team want to lose their unbeaten runs with no defeats in fifteen for Rochdale and Rovers without defeat in eighteen games.

A close encounter saw the game ending with honours shared although Rovers claimed to have scored when Rochdale defender Ashworth headed the ball under the crossbar under heavy pressure and into the net. Rovers’ players claimed in vain for the goal, but the referee waved play on, much to their dismay.

Doncaster moved to the 50-point mark in the table but Lincoln City, who dispatched Bradford City 3-2, were now just three points behind although still having played two games more. Rochdale climbed into third place with 45 points, five behind Rovers but still with three games in hand.

Rovers were now watching closely over their shoulders, not just for the teams that may catch them but for any that could take away the title and it was with this partly in mind that Rovers entertained Brentford at Belle Vue on Tuesday 8th April for the second of their Easter games.

That Winning Feeling

Although Rovers remained unbeaten, they had only picked up three points from the last three games and needed to get quickly back to winning ways to see off the trailing pack.

Joe Slater in the Evening Post had said that he felt “another Aldershot display was just around the corner,”, which was to prove prophetic.

In front of 11,559 faithful fans, Rovers came out of the blocks all guns firing.

The game was a triumph for Rovers and their attacking football but it was a comedy of errors for Brentford defender Peter Gelson, who scored an own goal and gave away two penalties – although it could have been three as he made a despairing effort to palm out Stephen Briggs’ goal.

With just minutes on the clock Regan laid on a chance for Briggs who calmly finished putting Rovers in front.

Five minutes more and Johnson floated a pass to Wilcockson, whose cross was headed into his own net by Gelson.

With 16 minutes on the clock it was Gelson again, this time stopping Graham Watson’s goal-bound effort from crossing the line with his hands. Regan strode up and calmly placed the spot kick out of the reach of Philips in the Brentford goal.

Quarter of an hour gone and 3-0 up, the Rovers fans were high on anticipation, but the goals dried up and half time arrived with no further score.

Although Rovers had dominated the first twenty minutes, Brentford still had their chances and had their forwards been on the mark the score could have been much closer.

The second half resumed with Rovers once again probing for openings in Brentford’s defence.

Sixty minutes had gone when Briggs was played through in Brentford’s penalty area and was crudely pulled down again by Gelson. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and again Regan stepped up to calmly put the ball past Philips, but this time to his left-hand side.

Watson, who had been tireless throughout, was rewarded with a goal himself 17 minutes from time.

A corner by Johnson, headed goalwards by Robertson, came back off the bar for Regan to put the ball back into the area and Watson headed home on his knees.

Philips in the Brentford goal caught the ball but the referee’s decision was that it had crossed the line and he gave the goal despite vigorous protests from the Brentford players.

While all this was happening, Watson was laid prone in the Brentford penalty area having received a kick in the face as he went for the ball.

Despite having his lip split open Watson was ok and returned to the fray as Rovers completed an important victory.

Rovers manager Lawrie McMenemy was interviewed after the game, saying “you get out of the game what you put into it. This is no more than we deserved.”

Touching Distance

With five games left to play, Rovers were five points clear of Colchester United in second place although Colchester still had their two games in hand.

Rovers’ next game, on Saturday 12th April, was away to Peterborough United at London Road. It was a game that if they won, many thought, would give them the points total that should guarantee promotion. It was then just a case of seeing if they could achieve the top prize of the title.

The game however left lots to be desired. Whether the expectation got to Rovers or whether the blustery, windy conditions played a major part is debatable, but certainly both factors played a major part in proceedings.

Long range shots were more liable to finish up hitting the corner flag as opposed to finishing anywhere near their intended destination and where up-and-under lobs would end up was anyone’s guess.

Under these circumstances Millington in United’s goal and Ogston in Rovers goal both were distinctly unhappy. Having said that both goalkeepers were beaten only once.

Luckily for Rovers their effort counted whilst Peterborough’s effort came back off the bar and bounced to safety.

After 35 minutes the crossbar came to Rovers’ aid as Price headed for goal. It looked all over as if the ball was heading for the net, but it hit the underside of the bar and although Peterborough claimed a goal the referee waved play on and the ball was cleared.

The score stayed that way until 20 minutes from the end when Johnson, probing as he had been all night, found Regan with a superb cross ball. He tapped the ball wide to Colin Clish who crashed a first time shot into the goal.

Rovers and their band of faithful followers travelled back to South Yorkshire buoyed by victory and happily discussing whether Rovers had indeed given themselves enough points for promotion.

Rovers were now six points ahead of their nearest rivals Colchester United and although Colchester had two games in hand it was looking increasingly likely that if Rovers were to carry on with their good form the title was within their grasp.

Turnabout Is Fair Play

With just four games left to play Rovers began the countdown on Monday 14th April with an away fixture at Griffin Park and a quick rematch with Brentford.

It was thought that Rovers should at least gain a point towards their promotion hopes as Rovers had played Brentford just a few days before in a rearranged game and had comfortably beaten their opponents 5-0.

With that in mind they took to the pitch full of confidence, but this was a different Brentford from the one played earlier, as they had a point to prove.

From the off they were a faster, slicker side than Rovers and showed they were intent on gaining revenge for that defeat which was their heaviest for three years.

They tackled like demons and Rovers were forced to defend in depth as wave after wave of attacks were tossed at them.

With five minutes of the game gone Brentford scored what would be the winner.

With Brentford camped in the Rovers penalty area, the ball was played over the heads of attackers and defenders and somehow found its way to John Richardson, who played an overhead ball back into the area. Catching everyone by surprise, the ball looped into the net for Brentford’s goal.

Strangely that was one of the few chances either team had in a match that was played mainly in midfield and it proved to be the winner.

With Rovers losing, Colchester had the chance to close the gap to four points, but they were held at Peterborough in a 2-2 draw. The gap was now down to five.

Regan + Watson Get It Done

Rovers’ fans were counting on the team putting that defeat behind them as they gathered on Saturday 19th April for the game at Belle Vue against Port Vale.

Rovers had beaten Vale back in September 2-0, so were looking for the double over their opponents. They had little to play for aside from pride as they sat just below half way in the table, five clear of fourth-bottom Newport County but with only two games left to play.

9,795 fans squeezed their way into Belle Vue hoping for a victory that could almost rubberstamp Rovers’ promotion.

In a mostly drab game, there were two moments of magic. Moment number one was after 30 minutes when Rovers (who up until now had been a shadow of their normal selves) moved into top gear with Gray moving the ball out to raiding full back Clish.

The pass from Clish into the area was the kind of pass that wins championships. It sliced through the Vale defence and all Regan had to do was add the finishing touch and put the ball in the back of the net.

Watson replaced the unfortunate Gilfillan, who was taken to hospital with a suspected broken leg, and it was he who supplied the second bit of magic.

Watson started and finished a superb piece of interplay between himself and Briggs.

Picking up the ball on halfway, Watson played the ball to Briggs who, after beating his marker, played an inch perfect ball back to Watson and he promptly beat Charrat in the Vale goal.

2-0 then at half time and the fans were hoping for more in the second half. It wasn’t to be as Rovers adopted a “what we have, we hold” attitude for the next 45 minutes, but it was two more points towards the promotion goal all the same.

Rovers now had 56 points; Lincoln had moved into 2nd spot on 51 but had played one game more than Rovers. Colchester could only draw at home to Bradford City and were now on 50 points in 3rd. Rochdale and Bradford City were on 49 points each having both played 41 games and finally Halifax Town were in 6th place on 48 points but had only played 38 games.

Theoretically Halifax Town were Rovers’ main rivals as if they won all their games in hand, they would top the league with 60 points.

Join us next time to see how the 1968-69 season concluded! We would like to thank Ray for offering to help us with content during this difficult period for football and the wider world, and would be happy to field enquiries from other Rovers fans with an interest in writing about the club if they wish to join the growing ITEN community. Please get in touch with us via our website or social media pages, or else we can be reached via e-mail at intotheemptynet@gmail.com.

All images featured in this article come courtesy of Ray's personal scrapbook, collected from various contemporary news sources.