Ray Jest's Reliving Rovers: 1968/69 Part Six
In this brand 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 Five of our series, published last week, then read on to continue our journey through to Easter, as Rovers looked to steal a march on their promotion rivals and go clear at the top of the Fourth Division.
The following Saturday, March 1st, Rovers travelled the short distance to their West Yorkshire neighbours Bradford City and a game at Valley Parade.
Bradford still harboured hopes of a top four finish and this would be a test of Rovers ability to show that Tuesday’s game had been no ‘flash in the pan’.
A large contingent of Rovers fans followed them across to Bradford hoping to see their team still at the top of the table by the end of the game.
As the game got under way, Rovers found that they would not be allowed to bask in the glory of their seven goal success for long, but, like a good top of the table team they showed the resilience and resource to make a spirited recovery after falling behind.
On a mud bath of a pitch Rovers were under the cosh from the off and it was no surprise when Bradford forward Bobby Ham headed them in front on 16 minutes.
Gradually though, the hard work of Flowers and Haselden and the prompting of midfield general Johnson began to pay dividends. On more than one occasion Rovers should have levelled the score, but they had to wait until the 37th minute when Johnson moved into the penalty area.
Bradford defender Stowell slipped as he attempted to tackle the Rovers midfield man and he was left with the simple task of lobbing the out of position goalkeeper Roberts for the equaliser.
For a while, the equaliser stung Rovers into more action, but with both defences now dominant it was left for the game to peter out into a commendable 1-1 draw.
Rovers were just about worthy of a point from the swaying struggle in the Valley Parade mud.
Aldershot lost again on the road 2-0 at Wrexham but Darlington stayed on Rovers’ heels with a 6-2 win of their own over Workington Town.
Darlington were just one point behind Rovers but had three games in hand. Rovers could afford no slip ups if they were to maintain their hold on the leadership.
Rovers Tick Along Into March
The following Monday, March 3rd saw Rovers once again on the road and a trip down to Somerton Park, the home of Newport County.
There was a no-nonsense attitude to Rovers’ play; in fact, they started with a point and made sure they finished with a point.
All the fancy football and frills were left for Newport whilst Rovers defensive attributes were put to the full test and any chances of victory relied on quick breakaways.
For all their possession, Newport could not get through the Rovers barrier. With seven men in defence, Rovers showed Newport much more respect than they needed to and by the time they realised this it was much too late. Rovers in fact dominated the last ten minutes or so but it only served to show the Newport faithful just what they could have done if they had set out to do this from the start.
Doncaster held on to top spot with Darlington being held at home 2-2 by Chester City so there was still just one point in it.
A Friday night fixture at Belle Vue on 7th March against Yorkshire rivals York City should have been a home banker for Rovers. York, struggling in 20th place in the league, were having a torrid season.
Rovers produced their best football early on and their fast, attacking football brought them an early goal. A cross from Usher was headed on by Regan and Graham Watson smashed the ball past York goalkeeper Tunks to put Rovers ahead.
York almost struck back minutes later, but MacDougall could only place his shot wide of goal.
For all their dominance, Rovers had to wait until the 37th minute for their second goal. Rovers defender Colin Clish, making a rare foray into the York half, saw a shot deflected but fall to Johnson who headed home in style.
York had posed one or two problems during the first half with their fast breakaway raids and it was from one of these that they pulled a goal back just before half time.
A mistake by the normally dependable Robertson saw his headed clearance fall at the feet of York forward Boyer, whose shot was stopped but not held by Ogston and MacDougall had the simple task of prodding the ball into an empty net.
In the second half it was a much different story as York pushed Rovers back in search of an equaliser. York it was who made the likelier chances in a lively second half, but Taylor wasted a chance on an open goal with Ogston on his hands and knees and then Jackson with another great chance hit the post.
Rovers survived but only just and thanks to some odd decisions by Mansfield referee Harold Ravey.
Darlington lost ground with a 1-1 draw at Grimsby, but it was Aldershot who now took up the challenge winning 5-2 at home to Swansea and drawing level with Rovers on 41 points.
Rovers were thankful of their recent 7-0 victory over Aldershot to keep them on top of the table courtesy of goal average.
Rovers’ last two home games had seen them score nine goals and concede just one, so most of the 10,255 fans who turned up on 11th March for the Tuesday evening game against Notts County could be forgiven for thinking a few more goals would be forthcoming.
Who could have possibly thought that Rovers’ 12 games without defeat would get the slow handclap from their fans? But they did!
Who would have thought the biggest cheer of the evening was for the fans’ arch villain Bobby Gilfillan when he came on as sub 20 minutes from the end? But he did!
And then when he had the chance to make himself a hero with a last-minute penalty, he would crash the kick against an upright. But he did!
"Needless to say, the game ended in a rather tame 0-0 draw. Commenting afterwards, Rovers manager Lawrie McMenemy said “Don’t be despondent, we’ll get 2 points at Scunthorpe on Friday to make up for it.
“If it wasn’t for games like this football wouldn’t be the game it is.”
Well that was one way of looking at it and many of the Rovers faithful hoped his words would be prophetic.
Keegan + co No Match for Rovers
On Friday, March 14th Rovers travelled down to Scunthorpe’s Old Showground with McMenemy’s words still ringing in their ears.
The attendance of 6,380 was double that of many of Scunthorpe’s home games this season and that was thanks to the marvelous travelling Rovers fans that were massed at the back of the goal.
McMenemy was a little apprehensive before the game as, for the first time this season, he had Robertson and Haselden missing from his line-up.
“One or the other should have been fine,” he said, “but both was a great loss. I just told the other lads they would have to work and fight all the harder.”
And they did, to make the boss’s promise of two points come true.
Johnson and Gilfillan got through a tremendous amount of work, Gilfillan making up for his penalty miss on Tuesday.
The Rovers rearguard were so much in control that is was 38 minutes before Ogston had a save of any kind to make and by then Rovers were already 1-0 up.
Watson, receiving the ball in midfield, moved forward before passing the ball to Usher, whose centre was headed home smartly by Briggs.
It was a fine goal but on 71 minutes Regan scored one even better.
Johnson, picking up a loose ball, drove forward on a great run. Again it was Usher who received the ball and his centre this time was met by Regan who rammed the ball into the net.
For the Rovers fans it must have seemed like a home game for they out-sang the Scunthorpe fans all through the game. Hardly surprising, Scunthorpe had given them very little to cheer about.
There were two notable differences for Scunthorpe. Stephen Deere, who had a great game at centre half, while up front Kevin Keegan had been prominent in the first half before fading in the second.
With Darlington and Aldershot’s games both postponed it allowed Rovers to open up a three-point lead at the top of the table.
Workington Halt The Progress
It appeared Rovers were now well and truly in the driver’s seat and only needed to carry their form on to clinch promotion.
Borough Park, home to Workington, was next to beckon Rovers on Wednesday 19th March and a game against a mid-table team, but a team still that aspired to promotion.
It would not be an easy task and manager Lawrie McMenemy decided on a 4-3-3 formation to try to counteract Workington’s strong home record.
It worked for 75 minutes, and then an injury to Flowers forced McMenemy into a change.
Flowers was replaced by Webber and just two minutes later Webber scored, but into his own net.
John Ogston could only parry a shot from Halliday, but the ball hit Webber on the arm and went in.
Strangely the ball would have gone clear if Webber had not come racing back to help out.
That changed the complexity of the game and Rovers now had to push forward in search of an equaliser.
Within five minutes they were back on level terms. Johnson, receiving the ball in the penalty area, hammered it past the oncoming Williams to level the score.
Parity was resumed and both teams fell back into their comfort zones.
Rovers got their point, but it could so easily have been better.
After 38 minutes Workington were reduced to 10 men. Robertson tackled John Ogilvie and the Workington forward spun with fists raised to confront the Rovers centre half, but instead of striking out he kicked the Rovers man on the knee in full view of the referee and was promptly dismissed by the official, Mr. T.A. Pallister from Peterlee.
It was Rovers’ fourteenth game without defeat and allowed them to open up a four-point lead at the head of the table.
Reasserting The Advantage
Colchester United were handily placed in 4th place in the league just five points adrift of Rovers in top spot, and they were Rovers’ next opponents at Belle Vue on Saturday 22nd March.
10,799 fans were present as the two teams lined up, and they were treated to an exciting and pulsating game of football between two worthy adversaries.
The game was an excellent advert for attacking football with neither side giving or taking any quarter.
The first half was end-to-end and kept the crowd constantly on their toes.
Chances were created and spurned, missed, saved and blocked by both teams, and at half time with both teams given a standing ovation, the game could have gone either way.
Both teams began the second half as they had finished the first, on the attack!
It was a disputed corner after 62 minutes that gave Rovers the break they wanted.
The corner taken by Usher was swung into the area dangerously close to the goal. Three times Regan managed to get a foot to the ball trying to force it home, and from his final effort the ball spun into the air and Robertson, up as usual for the set piece, was quickly in to head the ball home.
Rovers’ rearguard was now called on to repel attack after attack from the Colchester forwards but Ogston, Wilcockson, Robertson, Clish and Haselden, with a little help from their colleagues held out for a vital win.
Rovers had cemented their place at the top of the table and although one or two of the chasing pack had games in hand it was Rovers who had the point’s advantage.
Leaders Edge Clear
Travelling down to the West Country on Saturday 29th March for a game at St. James’ Park, home of Exeter City, Rovers had the chance to rubberstamp their lead over other would be title pretenders.
It seemed a simple task on paper but Exeter, although standing just five places above the bottom of the league, had won four and drawn one of their previous five games, whilst Rovers had gone fifteen games without defeat.
Rovers pushed forward looking for victory while Exeter relied on quick breakaways hoping for just that little slice of luck.
Both teams tried hard to break down the solid defences but to no avail, and the game resulted in a 0-0 draw.
For both teams it was a result that kept their unbeaten records on track.
It was an intriguing match played by two teams wholeheartedly playing to their peak, and this was emphasised by both teams being applauded from the field at the final whistle.
The point was enough to give Rovers a four-point lead over their nearest rivals Bradford City, although Bradford had two games in hand.
The following week saw Rovers return home to Belle Vue on Saturday 5th April for a game against near neighbours and rivals Chesterfield.
Chesterfield were having a poor season and were lying around the re-election zone in the table, so it seemed that Rovers only had to turn up to complete a league double having beaten their opponents 1-0 back in September.
Chesterfield had other ideas though and from the onset they rolled up their sleeves and gave a determined and resolute defensive display that Rovers could not get through.
The gate, swelled to 12,162 fans by a fair contingent of travelling fans, saw Rovers batter the door of the Chesterfield defence but all to no avail. The Spireites held on stoutly to gain their point and help their survival at the bottom of the table.
Although Bradford City lost 3-1 at home to Darlington, it just allowed Colchester and Lincoln City to leapfrog them into 2nd and 3rd places. Rovers still had a four-point lead but now the trailing pack had lost the small advantage. Colchester had just one game in hand, but Lincoln had played two more.