|Hitchcock diving in to the away end in the 95th minute!|
In fact, the first 20 minutes of the game fuelled Rovers' optimism as we pinned Cheltenham back and put them under sustained pressure. O'Toole and Tom Parkes forced great saves from Scott Brown whilst several right wing crosses found the head of lone forward Ryan Brunt, who was just unable to divert a header towards goal. It was encouraging play from an ever-improving Rovers but as we were unable to break the deadlock you were mindful that Cheltenham could fight their way back in to the contest. They did exactly that midway through the half and Shaun Harrad tested Steve Mildenhall was a powerful volley from 20 yards before Paul Benson saw an effort bounce harmlessly wide. It was becoming an even contest and it appeared half-time would come around with the scores level at 0-0.
Unfortunately for John Ward's men we were dealt a cruel blow as a lucky ricochet and block in our penalty area found Harrad who darted a fierce strike in to the left hand corner of the goal. It was undeserved for the home side to be ahead at half-time and you were left wondering whether the goal would knock the stuffing out of the players ahead of the second 45. We needed to react strongly and apply more pressure on an organised Cheltenham back-line, that was well managed by ex-Gas favourite Steve Elliott, otherwise we'd find ourselves in trouble. The players re-emerged from the tunnel looking focussed and the half begun with a midfield battle.
Eventually we came out on top and started to create space for some shots. O'Toole hit a left footed drive just wide of the upright before seeing a low half-volley parried away by goalkeeper Brown. Rover continued to dominate play but just seemed unable to force any real opportunities to trouble Brown. As painful as it was to say it seemed destined that we would fall to a desperately unlucky 1-0 defeat. The regulated 90 minutes was almost up when Brunt was wrestled to the ground 15 yards out but the referee, who was very whistle-happy in favour of the home side, was having none of it. To me, and I know I'm biased, it was a clear penalty but we were destined not to get any change out of the officials judging by their decisions over the course of the game. 4 minutes of stoppage time was announced and Rovers continued to throw men, and the ball, forward in an attempt to source an equaliser. For the first time all evening Cheltenham supporters began to sing quietly at the opposite end of the pitch when what felt like our last cross had been cleared. That had to be it, time was up.
The referee looked at his watch two or three times before deciding to let the game run for a couple more seconds. We had a throw-in on the left touchline which Lee Brown laid in to the path of Michael Smith. Smith passed to Norburn 40 yards out and the midfielder knew that another pass would offer the referee a final opportunity to blow his whistle and call an end to proceedings, so he looked up towards goal. He then struck a high shot towards goal and it seemed like it was flying and swerving wide of Brown's goal. However, it dipped at the last moment and exploded past the goalkeeper before hitting the top corner in front of the Rovers fans. Utterly speechless. It was a truly stunning goal and in Southampton-esque style it signalled the beginning of wild celebrations. By wild I'm talking pandemonium both on the pitch and off it with everybody associated with Rovers jumping around and hugging whoever was in sight. Young Tom Hitchcock was so caught up in the moment that he threw himself in to the away end and celebrated with Gasheads, whilst Norburn was mobbed by every one of his team mates who were in awe of his last second wonder goal.
(Now, I don't normally put YouTube links up here, but you have to check this one out if you're able to. It's BBC Radio Bristol's Richard Hoskin and Rovers programme editor Keith Brookman commentating on the last minute goal:)
It took a while for the players to get back in position after finding Hitchcock and there would only be enough time for Cheltenham to kick off before the referee blew his whistle. They passed the ball from the centre spot and the game was drawn to a close and the home supporters began to exit the stadium in their droves, completely shellshocked by what had just happened. Rovers fans, however, continue to sing and cheer as they had done all night and the moment was enjoyed by the team and by Ward and his management staff. We admired our players just as much as they admired our support and it was the perfect example of everyone involved with the club working in tandem with one another to achieve results. Sure, it wasn't our fourth consecutive win and we are only 3 points above the relegation zone, but our improvement has been remarkable and warranted enjoyment. The superb Mark McChrystal high-fived Gasheads before being followed by the superb O'Toole, whilst the star of the show Oli Norburn pumped his fist in to the air several times to rapturous applause from the 1400-strong army of Gasheads. This is what Bristol Rovers is all about.
It was a special end to a superb night. We went in to this week wanting to remain unbeaten and, with one game down, we still are. Another difficult looking away trip lies ahead of us with Oxford United's Kassam Stadium our next stop on Saturday, but with in excess of 1500 fans likely to make the game, Rovers are going to be willed on to another pleasing result. Here's hoping we can get it.
Loving Rovers at the moment. Things are looking good.
Up the Gas!