Bristol Rovers’ place at the bottom of League One was confirmed with a 1-0 defeat at Blackpool on the final day of the season.
Victory at Bloomfield Road on Sunday would have provided Gasheads with a flittering moment of satisfaction, but Rovers succumbed to their 28th beating of a season that is, mercifully, finally over.
Substitute Ellis Simms broke the deadlock 15 minutes from time for promotion-chasing Blackpool, who wrapped up third place and enter the play-offs as the divisions form side. They were backed by hundreds of supporters gathered outside the stadium, with firecrackers rising above the stands as they celebrated the game’s only goal.
They rested several regular starters with the coming weeks in mind, but Joey Barton’s Gas were second best throughout and headed back south with very few positives.
One bright spot was the performance of 17-year-old goalkeeper Jed Ward on debut, but the overriding cause for tempered optimism is the clean slate and unavoidable home truths relegation in such a desperate fashion provides.
Barton has had one eye on next season since Rovers’ relegation was confirmed more than a fortnight ago, and now he will fully focus on arresting the malaise and losing culture that has gripped the club.
Their final efforts of the season were plucky, but the reality is this version of Bristol Rovers has been far from good enough.
Blackpool, despite resting their key players for their upcoming play-off campaign, started better and boasted a flow through the thirds Rovers have longed for all the season. The hosts first chance fell to Jordan Thorniley inside three minutes when his snapshot flew narrowly over the bar with Ward rooted.
Rovers moved forwards on 10 minutes and pieced together a good move that saw Pablo Martinez square the ball to Alex Rodman, whose shot on the turn deflected over the target.
Keshi Anderson has not been a regular starter for the Tangerines this term, but he was outstanding in the first half as he menaced down the left flank and cut into dangerous areas at will. On 12 minutes he stung the palms of Ward before Demitri Mitchell blazed the follow up into the Jimmy Amfield Stand, which would have been buzzing with the fans forced to stand in the chilly breeze under police supervision outside the stadium.
Anderson certainly was buzzing around, ghosting in behind to dink the ball over Ward and into the net five minutes later, but referee Charles Breakspear spotted a foul in the build-up. The former Swindon Town winger had his best chance of the half two minutes before the break, but somehow he slammed his 10-yard effort straight at Ward, who showed he has the instincts for the position, reacting instantaneously to palm the shot to safety.
Ward made another good save shortly after the break to deny Eliot Embleton’s drive and the Gas almost burgled a lead at the other end just shy of the hour mark, with David Tutonda’s deflected strike spinning wickedly and wrong-footing Stuart Moore, but the goalkeeper somehow extended his leg to scoop the ball over the bar with his shin.
Defensive errors have been a feature of Rovers’ slide onto League Two, and Cian Harries almost added to the catalogue of misery in the 63rd minute with a weak back pass which almost caught Ward out, but he and Jack Baldwin did just enough to scramble clear under pressure from Bradley Holmes.
Rovers may have thought they had weathered the storm on the Fylde coast, but Neil Critchley’s call for reinforcements reaped almost immediate rewards. Simms volleyed home former Manchester United prospect Mitchell’s cross four minutes after leaving the bench, leaving Ward with no chance thanks to a pinpoint finish.
After 45 games where Rovers had failed to earn a point in the final 15 minutes, they were not going to be successful in the 46th and final match. Luke McCormick desperately tried to deliver a parting gift before his loan move expires and he returns to parent club Chelsea after an excellent campaign with the Gas, making a determined run towards goal but Moore was equal to the 22-year-old’s strike, as Rovers’ season ended in familiarly meek fashion and a fifth defeat in succession.
Barton will meet with players on Monday to discuss their futures, and few can expect to be part of the manager’s rebuild after a woeful campaign.