Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the most comprehensive Conference Premier play-off final preview on the whole internet. Here at Severn Sport, we love non-league football. The team are all off to the home of English football this weekend, Wembley Stadium, to watch Bristol Rovers take on Grimsby as they battle it out for a place in the Sky Bet Football League. A special edition of the puncast will be recorded on the day, as we travel to Wembley on the coach, during and after the game, and on the journey home; it’s sure to be a cracker! What better prerequisite to episode 10 of the puncast, than a smashing match preview?
Wikipedia tells me that Bristol Rovers were founded in 1883, originally called Black Arabs F.C., and were also known as Eastville Rovers and Bristol Eastville Rovers, before becoming the Bristol Rovers that loyal Gasheads all know and love today in 1899.
Rovers were admitted to the Football League in 1920 and were one of the longest serving teams in the League, before relegation finally claimed that status from them in 2014. The club have enjoyed scattered success during it’s existence, with several promotions from the old Division Three to their name and one Division Three championship in 2006/07, lifting them into Division Two (League One).
In the various cup competitions they’ve competed in over the years, Rovers only major success was winning the Watney Cup in 1972, beating Sheffield United in the final. The Gas have also won the Gloucestershire Senior Cup on 32 occasions.
The team play at the Memorial Stadium in Horfield, Bristol. An old school football amphitheatre that holds just under 12,000 fans, Rovers moved in initially as tenants in 1996 but purchased the stadium 2 years later.
Again, Wikipedia tells me that they were formed in 1878 originally known as Grimsby Pelham and later became Grimsby Town.
Despite recent misfortune, the club is the most successful of the three professional league clubs in historic Lincolnshire, being the only one to play top-flight football. It is also the only club of the three to reach an FA Cup semi-final (doing so on two occasions) and is the only one to succeed in two finals at the old Wembley Stadium. It has also spent more time in the English game’s first and second tiers than any other club from Lincolnshire.
In terms of competition success, Grimsby have faired better than Bristol Rovers. The Mariners enjoyed their most successful period under the management of Alan Buckley; he had three spells as team manager between 1988 and 2008, guiding the club to three promotions and two appearances at Wembley Stadium during the 1997–98 season winning both the Football League Trophy and the Football League Second Division Play-Off Final. In 2008 Buckley took Grimsby to the capital again, but lost out to MK Dons in the final of the Football League Trophy.
The Mariners had also reached the Football League Two Play-Off final in 2006 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, but lost the match 1–0 to Cheltenham Town, and in 2013 they returned to Wembley only to be defeated by Wrexham in the FA Trophy final. Relegation from the Football League in 2010 makes them the fourth club to compete in all top five divisions of English football (after Carlisle United, Oxford United, and Luton Town).
The team have played their home matches at four different stadia over the years, but their current home – Blundell Park – has been home to the Mariners since 1899!
The two teams faced off against each other on the very first day of the Vanarama Conference season, playing out a boring 0-0 draw at the Memorial Stadium. The reverse fixture was played on Valentines Day this year, with Rovers taking home all 3 points in a 1-0 victory.
The Gas didn’t have the greatest of starts to the season and at the end of their first month back in non-league, Rovers were languishing in the table down in 15th place after wins against Halifax and AFC Telford, but a disappointing loss to Altrincham left Darrel Clarke’s side looking over their shoulders, rather than up the table. Grimsby faired slightly better on the other hand. Despite failing to win in their first 3 fixtures, emphatic 6-1 and 7-0 victories over Gateshead and Alfreton Town respectively meant they finished the month in 12th place. Solid mid-table.
Bristol Rovers were on absolute fire in the month of September. Despite a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Braintree at the start of the month, the Gas went on a 6 match unbeaten run with wins against teams like Wrexham and Nuneaton, seeing them end the month just outside the play-offs in 6th place. Grimsby meanwhile were struggling to build on their strong end to August and 3 losses against teams they should’ve really beat (Lincoln, Torquay and Southport) left the Mariners still in mid-table obscurity down in 13th.
Both sides only lost once in the month of October but it was the Mariners that faired better in the league standings. Impressive wins against Torquay and Chester saw Grimsby finish the month in 8th place, 3 points behind Forest Green Rovers who occupied the final play off spot. The Gas meanwhile also had a fairly solid month, despite losing to local rivals Forest Green, Rovers managed to pick up wins over Southport and Dover to keep them within touching distance of the play-offs in 6th.
It was in November that both teams really found their form and for the first time, Grimsby moved above Rovers in the table. Excellent wins against Woking and Dartford saw the Mariners complete the month in 2nd place, but still some 8 points behind league leaders Barnet. Rovers carried on their magnificent unbeaten run with wins against Telford and Barnet, but too many draws in between saw them slip below Grimsby on goal difference.
The Christmas period rolled around and it seemed as if the Grimsby Town players had spent too much time stuffing their faces with chocolate and sprouts as they only managed to pick up 6 points over the festive month, which saw them slip to 4th place. Bristol Rovers continued their unbeaten streak with wins against Gateshead, Torquay and Macclesfield to keep up the pressure on leaders Barnet, but the gap was still 7 points between 1st and 2nd.
As the New Year came to Bristol Rovers kept up their unbeaten run with a win over Nuneaton but again, like November, too many draws meant they couldn’t close the gap on Barnet who had slipped up losing to Lincoln and Grimsby, with the gap at 7 points still. Grimsby had an excellent January, recording wins over Eastleigh, Nuneaton and, as mentioned above, league leaders Barnet. Despite remaining in 4th, the gap to Rovers was now just 2 points.
As we get into the latter stages of the season you start to think about who will realistically win the league. And for the first time, Bristol Rovers finished the month top of the league after winning all their games in February, including a Valentines Day victory over Grimsby. The Mariners had the chance to put pressure on the leaders, but slipped up away to Forest Green Rovers and, as mentioned, at home to Bristol Rovers. Despite finishing strongly, The Mariners ended February no closer than they started, 6 points behind 2nd placed Barnet and 8 points behind Rovers.
Akin to when The Undertaker’s streak came to an end at Wrestlemania 30, Bristol Rovers finally lost a match in March, a 2-1 defeat to Eastleigh. This set the tone for the rest of the month and 5 points from the 12 available saw Rovers relinquish the league leadership to Barnet and slip to third, with Grimsby now occupying 2nd. The Mariners were so close to picking up maximum points from March, but a late John Rooney penalty for Chester dashed their hopes of going top, so Grimsby had to settle for 13 points from 5 games, which saw them 2nd on goal difference, 1 point behind the leaders Barnet.
The final month of the season is always full of mixed emotions. The season is normally over by now with the league already decided and most of the relegation spots filled. However, the title was very much on for all 3 teams at the top. Grimsby were out of it on the first fixture of the month following a disappointing draw with Gateshead, which just left Rovers and Barnet to fight for the title. Both teams matched each other, result for result in April. Then on the penultimate day of the season, Barnet travelled to Kidderminster Harriers and Bristol Rovers made the trip to Dover. Barnet could only manage a 1-1 draw and with Rovers winning, it looked for all the world that the Gas would be claiming the title and Barnet would be going to Wembley. But in the last minute of the match, heartbreak for Rovers as they conceded a sloppy late goal to draw 1-1. The league was going to the final day.
The final day of the season
It was simple for Barnet, all they had to do was match or better Bristol Rovers result and they would go up as champions. Rovers had to win because a draw would not be enough if Barnet lost due to The Bees having a much better goal difference. Rovers did their bit, thrashing Alfreton Town 7-0 at home, relegating them in the process. But there would be no fairytale for the Gas, as Barnet convincingly dispatched of Gateshead 2-0. Barnet were champions, Rovers were going to the play-offs in 2nd place, alongside Grimsby in 3rd, Eastleigh in 4th and Forest Green Rovers in 5th.
In the first legs of their play-off games, Bristol Rovers travelled to the New Lawn to take on Forest Green and Grimsby made the trip to Eastleigh. Rovers and Grimsby both came away with an advantage to take into the home leg (1-0 and 2-1 respectively). In the second leg, Bristol Rovers easily dispatched of Forest Green 2-0 at the Memorial Stadium and Grimsby did likewise to Eastleigh, recording a 3-0 victory to book their place at Wembley Stadium on the 17th May.
With no major absences from either side for the play-off final, we can expect it to be a great game! Ellis Harrison returns for Rovers after missing the play-off semi final second leg through suspension, after being sent off in the first leg at the New Lawn.
There you have it then, the comprehensive preview from Severn Sport of the Vanarama Conference Play-Off final, and Severn Sport will be there recording episode 10 of the world famous sports puncast! We can’t wait!
Kelsey De Maria