Life’s a gas – Bristol Rovers 1 Oxford United 1

Bristol Rovers v Oxford UnitedIf  you live in South Wales and fancy sampling an 80s-style terrace frenzy with a decent crowd on it, options are few.

Newport County’s Rodney Parade doesn’t quite cut the mustard, its terraces are low-slung or uncovered.

So time to head for the land of carrot, Pirates and Sinatra. Time to sniff the Gas.

Oooh arrrt!

The Gas is a weird and memorable day out and there’s nothing quite like it in the UK.

The number 73 bus takes you, snakingly, up the Gloucester Road through the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.

Sit in the top deck and you get a great view of the Bristol street art revolution. Banksy’s been here. Jesus is doing a handstand. Blues musicians stare at you through impenetrable shades.

Bristol Rovers v Oxford United
Look Dad! One hand!

Artists have even scaled two-storey houses to reach the roofs and there are works on chimney stacks.

Scrumpy-tious

The Blackthorn End was just the ticket and thankfully not full of tanked-up cider drinkers.

Strange not to be in an enclosed, slightly sterile ground.  Three corners of the Memorial Stadium allowed for the wind to sweep across the pitch. You could see nearby terraced homes and beyond them, acres and acres of carrot fields stretching for miles and hundreds of tractors  (joke for Welsh readers).

It was a pleasure to be here. Perennial plucky under-achievers Bristol Rovers do well to survive and are 21st in the Fourth Division (none of this ‘League Two’ shit for me).

Bristol Rovers v Oxford United
Pirate ahoy!

Their blue and white squares kit – Vincent Tan take note – reverence for the city seafaring tradition and a 1930s blues song – Goodnight Irene – as the club anthem, give them a quaint charm. It’s as if the club has been unsullied by marketing.

The song, written by Lead Belly in the 1930s while he was in jail in Louisiana, has been a terrace favourite since the 50s.

Another old-school touch I liked. The very small LED scoreboard display was in mininmalist mood. It read: ‘Gas 0 The U’s 0’. Top apostrophe work there.

Derby day

The 1972 Watney Cup winners fielded no one I recognised though research reveals Welshmen Tom Lockyer and Kaid Mohamed, on loan from Port Vale, started for the Gas.

Oxford, third in the table, always looked far more comfortable on the ball.

A marvellous move down the left resulted in a cross being chested down by Dave Kitson to Constable who volleyed in from the edge of the box after ten minutes.

Bristol Rovers v Oxford United
Wind swept diagonally across the ground to add spice to aerial clearances

Former Reading star Kitson’s carrot hair made him stand out in the grey. He was also the stand-out player on the pitch, his touch and deft passing a treat.

But despite the old-style stadium, the crash barriers, the mud and the long balls launched in the air only to come corkscrewing down as their trajectories were twisted by the stormy weather, evoking matches of 25 years ago, the play was of a different level.

Back in the Eighties this game would probably have featured plenty of lump and run, flailing elbows, scything tackles and at least one fat midfielder.

Fourth Division fare is nowadays a much classier affair.

Twenty-five years ago a side of the Gas’s stature would rarely have played on-the-floor, spread-it-wide stuff. Miskicks, garryowens and ineptitude would have been common.

Here, the spirit was right.

Frank Sinatra at Bristol Rovers
Sinatra in the clubhouse. He released a version of ‘Goodnight Irene’ in the 1950s

And the Gas got lucky. Oxford’s reluctance to use the wind to stretch their hosts and failure to press for a second goal saw them punished. Striker Constable’s presence was arrested on 77 minutes when a midfielder was thrown on instead.

They settled for a 1-0 and seven minutes later a free-kick was headed home by John Joe O’Toole for a merited equaliser. It might have happened anyway but Oxford weren’t hungry or ruthless enough to take three points.

Rovers then ran amok and could have grabbed the win with a couple of daring attacks, launched as they sensed the U’s had eased up.

1-1 was about right. Let’s hope the Gas, who drew the Fourth Division’s best crowd of the day – nearly 6,500 – stay up.

I mean where else will you find a picture of Frank Sinatra on the clubhouse wall, a pirate in a glass case and good old Football League fan gloom, as  overheard in the bar?

A veteran mooched: “Bury away next Saturday. We never get anything up there. We’ve got to get rid of those purple away shirts – we haven’t won anything in them.”

Pirate at Bristol Rovers v Oxford United
One-eyed? He could only be a football fan. Blackbeard stands guard in the clubhouse.
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