Clinging to the pledge

Fan's Eye View: No.98 Bristol Rovers
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The Independent Online
You become a fan without ever knowing the danger you're in. One minute you're taking in the finer points, beguiled by the green of the pitch, the rain caught in the floodlights, the next you're hooked. Typically, it happens when you're too young to know what's happening. It isn't as if you've made a conscious decision, signed a contract promising life-long loyalty, but real fans have made the pledge by the age of 11, and there is no second chance. Some people make lucky choices; others are desti ned to three score seasons of pain. I was lucky - I chose Bristol Rovers.

I had succumbed by the middle of the second half of my first game - Southampton under the Eastville floodlights. Two down at half-time, but urged on by a crowd of 16,000 and the sweet smell in the air from the local gasworks, we scored four goals in a second-half flurry. Fittingly, Geoff Bradford scored my first Rovers goal. Capped just once (Denmark, 1956), he scored 242 goals for his only League club in 461 appearances. Eventually, his battered knees - the legacy of too many cartilage operations - gotthe better of him and he spent his last few seasons at full-back. By the end of that season (1961), I was a lost cause, courtesy of a series of unlikely and high-scoring victories, including a 4-3 win over Liverpool. Next season, I knew, would be a continuation of that run of victories. In the event, Geoff Bradford's two goals in the last home match against Walsall weren't enough - we were relegated. The season after, we needed to win at Halifax to stay up.

We won 3-2. The winter freeze that year prolonged the agony until the cricket season was well established. I heard the news fielding on the boundary at Wotton under Edge.

Memories of good times are all the clearer if there aren't many of them - how does your Manchester United or Liverpool supporter tell the difference between good and very good? Devon "Bruno'' White scoring at Wembley with a cultured left- foot volley; the king of elbow and forehead, Alan Warboys: for a week in 1973 the best centre-forward in England, turning in the mud on the half-way line and shooting past a succession of keepers from 30 yards; Harold Jarman, goalscoring winger with the spindly legs and loping run, so popular with fans that defeat at Molineux one season in the Cup was played out to the mournful chant of "Haarooold, Haarooold'', even though the great man wasn't even in Wolverhampton that night; and recently, the phlegmatic, reassuring Nigel Martyn, and, whisper it, Marcus Stewart, as clean-cut and sharp as a young Gary Lineker.

Hard times are less distinguishable, though the worst on the field was a 9-0 defeat at Tottenham in 1977. Hoddle was so good that day that if the game had gone on until five o'clock, the score would have reached 20. Their eighth was offside, mind. Why did I even go that day? I was in the middle of a run of 35 successive away games without a win. When it started I was a youngish 23; by the time we snatched the points at Cambridge, I was a jaundiced 35.

Occasionally, over recent years, I've wondered how I'd cope if the club closed down. It's come close on too many occasions recently - stands have burned down with unnerving regularity; exile to Bath for far too long; a manager (the inspirational Gerry Francis) whose only signing, the £20,000 Ian Holloway, he paid for out of his own money; key players regularly sold: Gary Mabbutt, Martyn, Nicky Tanner, Steve Yates, Scales, Penrice, White, John Taylor, Holloway. Making this year's play-offs is a realisticprospect, but the bigger challenge is the impending return to a new stadium back in the city of Bristol. There really should be two teams in Bristol.