I’m old enough now to be able to draw comparisons in sport going back 40 years. As a boy I lived within an hour or so of several Football League teams, and birthday presents often included a ticket to an attractive game.
In 1974, I was among a crowd of over 21,000 at Eastville to watch Bristol Rovers beat Bournemouth 3-0 in the old Division 3 in front of the Match of the Day cameras. It was the season where manager Don Megson
steered Rovers to the title.
Part of the Rovers defence that season was Lindsay Parsons, a balding left back who played for the club for 13 seasons before finishing his full-time playing days at Torquay.
An out and out defender, he never scored a Football League goal. He career at Eastville crossed the path of Tony Pulis, and clearly the two got on well as Parsons worked with the now WBA boss as a scout for many years until Pulis left Stoke. At the time Parsons was 67.
His only venture into management was in non league football, and I spoke to him when he left to join Pulis at Gillingham. “You could have Donald Duck in charge of this club and it would still finish in the first four” he said. It was a good line to end on. Needless to say, the cartoon character wasn’t his successor.
Fast forward to the present day and Parsons’ old club has Darrell Clarke in charge. A hard working midfielder in the lower leagues as a player, Clarke is displaying the same tenacity as he tries to take Bristol Rovers back into League 2 at the first attempt. No other club has managed that for ten seasons.
Along with politicians, sports people – especially football managers – are in that relatively small group that have to constantly justify in public what they are doing and why they are doing it. Media duties come with the territory.
The first person I remember reading about in this sense was the England cricket captain Raymond Illingworth. A peer of Parsons, albeit in a different sport, Illingworth skippered England on the successful 1970-71 Ashes tour to Australia at a time when newspapers were to the fore and radio coverage of overseas tours was limited.
In that direct manner you would expect from a Yorkshireman, he said he was there to win the Ashes and dealing with the media was not a priority. He did it, but he didn’t enjoy it.
I don’t think Clarke enjoys it either, although an unbeaten run of 20 matches until last Saturday and two Manager of the Month awards suggests he, like Illingworth, has the balance the way he prefers it. That said, the more successful he is, the more attention he’s likely to attract.
As we hit the bell for the last lap of this nine month race, my mind also returns to one of the most famous Grand Nationals.
In 1973 Crisp hared off in front and appeared certain to win unless he fell. Gradually Red Rum emerged as a possible if distant challenger to the tiring leader. Crisp jumped the last with a decent advantage but I can hear the late Peter Bromley’s commentary “Crisp is walking” as Red Rum gradually closed and then passed him just ahead of the winning post.
For a large part of the Conference season, Crisp was the equivalent of Barnet, and Red Rum was Bristol Rovers. At one stage the lead was 11 points, but now with only eight obstacles left to negotiate, (nine for Barnet), Rovers are ahead. Other runners, especially Grimsby, are also taking closer order.
A year ago, Darrell Clarke was appointed to try and stop Bristol Rovers dropping out of the Football League. He couldn’t do it. If he takes them back up 12 months later, the magnitude of his achievement deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Don Megson’s more than 40 years earlier.
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