With 83 minutes gone, the public address announcer politely requested for supporters to stay off the pitch. Perhaps he had a premonition and, frankly, who was he kidding? Two minutes later Bristol Rovers had put a seventh goal past an already relegated Scunthorpe to miraculously leapfrog Northampton on goals scored and into the final automatic League Two promotion place. The Home fans emptied from the Thatchers terrace to mob the goalscorer, Elliot Anderson, who has been a revelation since joining on loan from Newcastle in January and was the hosts’ creator in chief on a simply unforgettable afternoon. At that point players and staff from both teams shot down the tunnel, with the Rovers manager, Joey Barton, among those asking fans to return to the stands.
It was a fittingly barmy crescendo to a bonkers ride for those at a sold-out and rocking Memorial Stadium. Wael al-Qadi, the Rovers owner, ended up walking on to the pitch to plead with fans to keep their counsel for the remaining four minutes plus stoppage time before Barton took the unprecedented step of taking over the microphone to confirm the referee, Charles Breakspear , had threatened to abandon the game if supporters returned to the field a second time. “Please stay off the pitch,” Barton said in a message transmitted over the speakers, before both teams re-emerged about 15 minutes later.
By then, news of Northampton’s 3-1 victory at Barrow had already filtered through to fans.
At the start of the day fourth-placed Rovers, who were 17th in the division on New Year’s Day, were one of five teams down to Swindon Town in seventh hoping to secure third spot, although some fancied their chances more than others. At the outset they required a five-goal swing to go their way and their goals-scored column (71 to Northampton’s 60) was ultimately the decisive factor, while their head-to-head record was also superior.
Barton had promised to go for the jugular and he stuck to his word, removing the stabilizers by playing two centre-backs, Connor Taylor and James Connolly, with wing-backs. Glenn Whelan, who turned 38 in January and played under Barton at Fleetwood, operated at the base of midfield to help police the odd Scunthorpe attack. James Belshaw was in effect playing rush goalkeeper for Rovers, who had lift-off on 18 minutes when the 18-year-old Oliver Lobley, on his league debut, inadvertently put Anderson’s troublesome cross past Scunthorpe’s 17-year-old goalkeeper Owen Foster, one of seven teenagers in the visitors’ lineup.
Four minutes later Rovers had their second goal, Taylor heading in at the back post after more good work by Anderson. Taylor equally made a decisive intervention at the other end, preventing Cameron Wilson’s low cross from reaching Joe Nuttall inside the six-yard box.
Within seconds Rovers were ready for the restart, ravenous for more. Luke Thomas pulled wide as the hosts pushed for a third, which would eventually arrive through Aaron Collins on 53 minutes. The Rovers striker potted his shot into the far corner and rushed to fish the ball out of the net.
The goals kept flowing, even amid some agonizing missed chances. Anthony Evans drove in on the hour mark and then scored a fine free-kick with 14 minutes of normal time to play. “We want 10,” was the message from supporters who could sense the extraordinary. Barton was playing the role of manager and balboy, desperately attempting to speed things up whenever and wherever possible.
At that point they required two more goals and three minutes later Collins added his second, sweeping home inside the box to cue pandemonium in the stands. Goodnight Irene, Rovers’s anthem, echoed around all four sides of this ground but there was still time for one more significant goal, as Anderson headed in at the back post. Blue flares were lit on a bouncing home terrace. This preposterous finish will always be cherished in these parts.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.