In the twenty-four years since Bristol Rovers found themselves relegated to the third tier of English football, seventeen men have tried and failed to return the Pirates to what was called Division One at the time of departure, but is now rebranded as the Championship. However, in the eighteenth and latest challenger, Darrell Clarke, they might have found the man who can finally bring them back to where many of their supporters believe to be their natural place in English football’s hierarchy. In the city of Banksy, Clarke is himself leaving his own mark on those in blue and white quarters.
It wasn’t always this rosy at the Memorial Stadium. When the Mansfield-born former centre-back took over the reins from John Ward in March 2014, the club was in League Two and on the verge of relegation out of the Football League for the first time in their proud history. Originally, Clarke had been brought in as Ward’s assistant at the beginning of the 2013/2014 season, leaving behind a successful stint at his first managerial posting; Salisbury City. Despite being handed the ball while only thirty-two years of age, Clarke had led the Wiltshire club to back-to-back promotions, taking them from the Southern Football League Football Division, through to the Conference Premier (now the National League).
On the face of it, it appeared a curious move for both parties when it was announced in June 2013 that Clarke had given up the manager’s job at Salisbury to become Ward’s assistant manager at Bristol Rovers. The Gas was now only one division higher than Salisbury and it’s rare for an ambitious young manager to accept a demotion to a number two position. However, the board of directors were looking at the longer-term picture. Though John Ward had arrived just in time to save Rovers from relegation the previous season and had agreed to stay on as manager for another year, it was known in advance to be a short-term gig for Ward. The veteran manager had been on the verge of joining Plymouth Argyle as a Director of Football before he answered the Rovers distress call. Rovers persuaded Ward to stabilise the club in the short-term before handing over the reins to a younger man and moving upstairs. But Darrell Clarke was not a name that whetted the appetite amongst those on the Memorial Stadium’s terraces. He had had a mediocre playing career, barely registering on anybody’s radar outside of Mansfield and Hartlepool United, while his managerial successes were at a lower regional-only level. Many Bristol Rovers fans rightly regarded their club as a much bigger challenge than the one Clarke had faced down the road in Wiltshire.
However, soon matters on the pitch would take on much greater significance than the identity of their new assistant manager. The brief renaissance that Ward had inspired at the end of the previous season proved to be short-lived as the Pirates found themselves struggling again once the season got underway. The team Ward had thrown together was a ragbag affair made up primarily of a lower-league journeyman, youngsters still wet behind the ears, and one or two who believed themselves to be above labouring in the lower reaches of League Two. There was no identity to Ward’s side and the football was turgid. Rovers hovered within the bottom seven positions for the majority of the season, barely staying out of the relegation trapdoor. In March 2014 the Rovers chairman, Nick Higgs, made the decision to bring forward the managerial transition and installed Clarke as first-team manager with Ward making his way upstairs. It was a decision that was to backfire. Handed the reins with only eight games to go, Clarke was on a hiding to nothing. Despite winning his first game in charge, he was unable to prevent a run of seven winless games as Rovers slipped into the bottom two. On the final day of the season, they succumbed to a 1-0 loss at home to Mansfield, condemning them to their first taste of life outside the Football League since the club’s admittance in 1920. In truth, that catastrophic final day had been threatening to arrive for some years prior. Rovers had been dogged by financial difficulties and generally poor managerial appointments ever since they made the hasty decision to relieve Paul Trollope of his duties while still in League One back in 2010.
For Clarke, in tears at the final whistle, it threatened to bring an early closure to his brief time in BS7. Some supporters, indignant at what they had just witnessed, invaded the pitch and demanded that the heads of those responsible be rolled. John Ward, confronted by angry fans in the parking lot after the Mansfield game, was fired as Director of Football within days of the season ending as an immediate cost-cutting measure. Many onlookers expected Darrell Clarke to quickly receive his P45 in a swift clearing of the decks in preparation for life in the non-league. Instead, Rovers raised a lot of eyebrows by choosing to stick by their young manager and give him the chance to bring them back from the Conference Premier at the first time of asking. It was not a popular decision amongst supporters who, post-relegation, had huge doubts concerning Clarke’s abilities.
However, what wasn’t readily apparent at the time was that Rovers were to benefit longer-term from reaching that nadir. Relegation gave Clarke the opportunity to clear out his underachieving squad almost entirely, shipping out fourteen players and retaining only seven members - three of them academy graduates - for the challenge ahead. Clarke set about building a new squad. Previously Rovers had repeatedly fallen into the trap of signing overpaid nomadic-type players who had already seen better days, but Clarke instead focused on offering opportunities to those who had already experienced non-league football and had the desire to help Rovers escape it at the first time of asking. The signings, of course, did little to calm the fears of supporters who, in the main, wanted statement signings to declare Rovers intent. Instead. Clarke was to raid the unheralded footballing outposts of Hereford, Torquay, Forest Green, Salisbury, and Hartlepool to sign the likes of Matty Taylor, Stuart Sinclair, Daniel Leadbitter, Lee Mansell and Andy Monkhouse to form the backbone of his new-look side. In doing so, he was able to bring together a core group of players who were hungry for success and saw Bristol Rovers as a step-up rather than a step-down.
Rovers initial results in non-league football did little to dissuade those who had doubts over Clarke and his new charges. Rovers won only two of their opening seven games. After a desperate 2-0 loss against Braintree, in which supporters angst threatened to spill out over onto the pitch, Clarke was looking vulnerable. Instead, that 2-0 loss at Cressing Road was to prove a watershed moment in Bristol Rover's fortune, and indeed Clarke’s career. His team was to go on to lose only once in the next thirty matches - including a twenty-game unbeaten run - as they rose up the table, nestling in just behind the previously runaway leaders Barnet. Overhauling the north London club was vital. The Conference is an unforgiving division; only the champions are automatically promoted, while second place has to face the uncertainty of the play-offs. With two games to go, Rovers indeed found themselves at the division's summit, needing only two wins from their final two games to win the division. Unfortunately for Clarke and his side, they were to concede a late equaliser at Dover in the penultimate game of the season and, despite a thumping 7-0 win over Alfreton on the final day, they finished one point behind Martin Allen’s Barnet and found themselves in the play-offs. Fortunately for those in blue and white quarters, Clarke managed to guide his men narrowly through a semi-final victory over Forest Green Rovers, and then a nervy penalty shoot-out victory over Grimsby in the Wembley final. It was fitting that Lee Mansell, a key member of Clarke’s new model army, was the one to score the deciding penalty.
Clarke was delirious at the final whistle, running the length of the pitch, arms outstretched, to celebrate with the Rovers supporters behind the goal. A season that had initially threatened to unravel had instead been a triumph for their young manager as he returned their club to League Two at the first time of asking. Clarke had achieved his third promotion in only five seasons as a manager. But he wasn’t finished there. After retaining nearly every member of his squad and bringing in the likes of Billy Bodin, Chris Lines, James Clarke, and Cristian Montaño on free transfers, Clarke was to take his Rovers side one step better the following season by securing them automatic promotion to League One after only one season in the fourth tier. It was something that few Rovers fans could have expected their team to immediately achieve, especially considering that the core of their side comprised players who had barely played above a non-league level. Rovers was to achieve it in the most dramatic of circumstances, with Lee Brown’s last-minute winner at home to Dagenham and Redbridge on the final day of the season sparking seasons of joyous celebration the like not seen at the Memorial Stadium since the Pirates returned to their home city in 1996. Again Clarke was found on the pitch in tears at the final whistle, but unlike two years previously, this time it was for the right reasons. The supporters entered the pitch again, but this time to hoist Clarke and his players up onto their shoulders triumphantly as the men who had restored Rover's dignity after years of mismanagement both on and off the pitch.
When Clarke subsequently offered new contracts to every single member of his promotion-winning squad, some supporters may have had misgivings about the ability of one or two to compete at a higher level. After all, the bulk of this squad was still comprised of the faces that were competing for Rovers in non-league football. Fortunately, those fears have proven to be unfounded, as Clarke has managed to keep the momentum of back-to-back promotions going this season. Rovers have surpassed expectations and found themselves in and around the League One play-off positions all year. Despite a bottom-eight budget, Clarke is mixing it with the top-eight. It’s an opinion that a third successive promotion to the Championship wouldn’t benefit the Pirates in the longer-term. Arguably, they’re not yet ready on or off the pitch for duking it out with the second tier’s big boys. A season of consolidation in League One might better lay the platform for a sustained assault on promotion the following season. Getting to the Championship is one thing, but staying there is an even bigger challenge in itself.
But for how long can Bristol Rovers keep Clarke out of the clutches of those clubs with deeper pockets? In the summer, the first serious interest in Clarke’s services came from Leeds United. Despite the Yorkshire club’s chequered recent history, they’re still one of the biggest clubs in English football, and the pull of Elland Road understandably forced Clarke into considering his future. Fortunately for the new Rovers chairman, Wael al-Qadi, and the Rovers fanbase, their manager was to turn down Massimo Cellino’s advances and stay at Rovers. It was a wise decision. Leeds was the right move at the wrong time for Clarke. Unfortunately for Bristol Rovers, it’s unlikely that this is the last time they’ll face serious interest in the thirty-nine year old's services.
It’s easy to see why Clarke must to turning the heads of those in the Championship, and even some in the Premier League might have their eyes on him for the longer-term. Even discounting a record of four promotions in six years, Clarke has managed to consistently bring a team to battle by being more than the sum of their parts. His teams play attractive, passing, football in the main but he’s also practical enough to mix it up when required. He has tactical nous the likes of which you rarely see in the lower leagues. Opposition managers have no idea what to expect when they play Bristol Rovers. Clarke has them perfectly in tune with a 4-4-2 diamond formation, a 4-3-3 with wingers either side of a lone frontman, a 3-5-2 wing-back system, or the standard 4-4-2 with his tricky, direct wingers supplying two strikers. What’s more, he appears to be a master motivator, and his players want to go to war for him. Listening to him give interviews is an education. After years of disconnect with their men at the helm, the supporters have somebody they want to get behind. Indeed, on the very odd occasion, Clarke has shown up in the Queen Vic pub opposite the ground and had a pint with supporters before joining in with the singing - look up the videos online. It’s these down to earth qualities that have endeared him to those in Bristol who prefer their blue to their red. It’s why recently, after suffering the indignity of losing their top goalscorer, Matty Taylor, to neighbouring Bristol City courtesy of a paltry release clause, the panic has not set in. Clarke has their full trust, and Rovers, at the time of writing, remain unbeaten since Taylor’s January departure.
These are exciting times to be a Rovers fan. Their club sits just outside the League One play-off places, and a third straight promotion, while unlikely, is not impossible. Off the pitch the new owner has purchased them the land and had planning permission granted, to build a new training ground. The new 28-acre site will bring together the first team and the club’s academy, as well as provide room for medical and gymnasium facilities. A new stadium, something that has been much-needed for some time now, remains in development with al-Qadi and the Rovers chairman, Steve Hamer, still in talks with the city council and the University of the West of England over a site near the university’s campus. The stadium, provisionally named the “UWE Stadium,” has been in development for several years, but the Rovers hierarchy is hopeful that plans for the 21,700 capacity project can finally get off the ground in the near future. There have been a number of false dawns as regards a new stadium project over the years. Rovers supporters will hope that it might finally become a reality.
By the time Rovers run out at their new stadium, it’s unlikely that Darrell Clarke will still be in charge, for at the current rate it’s surely only a matter of time before Clarke receives greater recognition beyond League One. But until that time comes, Rovers supporters can be happy to have one of one of the lower-leagues best-kept secrets on their bench.