Bristol Rovers’ ability to thrive in big moments was a defining factor in their season, creating memories the squad, staff and supporters will remember for years to come.
Time and again, the likes of Elliot Anderson, Aaron Collins, Antony Evans and Sam Finley produced contributions of the highest quality for the Gas, and they will rightly be revered long into the future.
But a season is built over 46 games and over the course of the campaign, there have been many moments of significance that added up to a jubilant conclusion against Scunthorpe seven days ago and promotion to League One. Here are some of the underrated moments of Rovers’ thrilling season…
Shin it to win it
Rovers were behind schedule in the autumn and pressure was growing on Barton. Heavy home defeats to Leyton Orient, Swindon Town and Newport County in the space of a few weeks, plus an eventful few days ahead of the game, meant the Gas needed a result for a variety of reasons.
At this stage, Rovers were a disjointed team that struggled in both boxes, but what they never lacked at any stage of the season is character and their victory at then-high-flying Harrogate Town on October 30 was one of many examples where the Gas dug deep and grinded out a result.
Harrogate were scoring freely and in the top seven at the time, but Connor Taylor and his defensive allies delivered a statement performance to keep a clean sheet and concede no clear chances to the Sulphurites in-form forwards.
At the other end, things were not easy for the Gas. Brett Pitman, fresh off a run of three goals in three games, was forced off injured after a few minutes and Sam Nicholson and Luke Thomas were leading the line in a makeshift 3-5-2.
An unlikely hero seemed to be required and up stepped Nick Anderton to score the scruffiest of shinned goals from a set-piece to give the Gas a 1-0 win on the road when those were coming at an absolute premium.
Left-back Anderton had been introduced as a half-time sub for the injured Junior Brown. The former Carlisle United skipper had endured a difficult start at his new club; like his teammates, he was short of form and confidence but this served as a turning point from an individual perspective and it was also a result that helped catalyse growth into a formidable team.
In terms of aesthetics, it was perhaps Rovers’ least beautiful goal of the season, but it was one of huge importance.
Holding their own
Speaking of catalysts, the dramatic 4-3 FA Cup first-round replay triumph over League One Oxford United in November rightly is remembered as a pivotal point in the season, taking confidence to new heights and solidifying a connection between the team and the fanbase.
But the first leg of that cup tie was also of huge importance. The Gas went to a promotion-chasing side in the league above and held their own.
Barton’s blues twice came from behind at the Kassam Stadium, and when Antony Evans struck their second equaliser three minutes from time the hosts could have few complaints.
Of course, there is always the consideration that the FA Cup is a leveller with its added randomness, which can make it tricky drawing meaningful conclusions, but this was a morale-boosting Sunday afternoon for the Gas. They showed they could mix it with a full-strength higher-level side and have success, and if they could do that, there were no barriers to them doing the same in League Two.
Belshaw’s Hartlepool heroics
The Gas ended the season with a hugely impressive 13-game unbeaten run at the Mem and by the end, the football was often thrilling. But at the start, there were struggles and the ability to grind out results proliferated momentum early in the year.
The first game in BS7 of 2022 brought the visit of Hartlepool United to the Mem. Rightly, Gasheads were expecting a win after a promising performance in defeat at Peterborough United in the FA Cup, but with several players returning from COVID-19-related absences, there was a degree of rustiness in Rovers’ play due to the disrupted training programme.
The final scoreline of 2-0 was a handsome one, but also flattering. Pools edged the possession battle and ought to have capitalised on their second-half chances, but they were met by a James Belshaw on the top of his game.
Belshaw’s fan favourite status was well on the way to being created, and perhaps it was this performance that confirmed it; it was his heroics that kept the score level before Aaron Collins and Antony Evans scored late goals to snatch the points.
The keeper received a 9/10 in our player ratings. “Hartlepool forced many corners and Belshaw played a big part in ensuring they posed little danger to the Gas,” this reporter wrote. “He was decisive in punching and catching those balls into the box. Made a series of fine second-half saves, with a wonderful reaction stop with his legs from Cullen preventing a near-certain goal. Belshaw, with Collins, was the defining man in this game.”
Walsall part two
The away day at Walsall in Sepetmber produced a lot of good memories for the players and fans alike, as the Gas came from a goal down to win 2-1 at the death, snapping a winless streak on the road that was getting dangerously close to the 12-month mark.
The Gas had forgotten how to win away from home in that time, but that was an afternoon when the green shoots of a new team were starting to appear and Sion Spence’s last-gasp winner was one of the moments of the season.
But the season’s second meeting with Walsall was hugely important, too. The Gas had built a four-game unbeaten run in the league to get the wheels moving in the right direction, and like against Hartlepool a fortnight earlier Gasheads were confident of victory against the Saddlers on January 29.
But when Luca Hoole made a clumsy challenge to receive a second yellow card seven minutes before half time, the visitors were buoyed. Barton, however, had other ideas, sending his troops out in the second half not only well organised but carried a threat in attack with Collins playing on the last defender.
Still, as the game entered stoppage time locked at 0-0, a point felt like a decent enough result in the circumstances, but that persistence and never-say-die spirit that Barton fostered in his group was evidenced again. Substitute Harvey Saunders pounced on a moment of indecision between Donervon Daniels and goalkeeper Carl Rushworth to cause chaos, and Collins was perfectly placed to steer a header into an unguarded net.
It could be said about many games, but those two extra points won against the head proved decisive.
A crucial point
The final day of the season proved that not only did every point matter but every goal, with the Gas winning promotion on goals scored ahead of Northampton Town. The margins proved to be so fine, meaning Rovers’ 1-1 draw at Tranmere Rovers proved to be of increased value.
Particularly after Kane Hemmings put the hosts ahead in the second half. At the time, Tranmere had their own promotion hopes to think about, and with a vocal crowd behind them there was no shortage of motivation.
With the top three the target for the Gas, they could ill afford a defeat along the way after they were beaten by Carlisle in March. A leveller was required and Elliot Anderson was the man to produce it.
He turned the Tranmere defence inside out before spearing a shot into the bottom corner with his left foot, delivering another moment of brilliance precisely when the Gas needed it.
There were more memorable days than this in the run-in, and better performances, but that point added to the tally was of precious value in the end.