Was this the greatest final day in the history of the Sky Bet League Two?
Bristol Rovers certainly put Saturday, 7 May 2022 in contention. The Gas, who sealed promotion on goals scored after vanquishing Scunthorpe United 7-0 at the Memorial Stadium, overcame a five-goal swing to pull off an automatic promotion that had seemed scarcely believable a few hours earlier.
That remarkable result, coupled with Northampton Town’s 3-1 win at Barrow, meant Rovers took third place, level on points and goal difference with the fourth-placed Cobblers, but ahead on goals scored.
“This season, you can’t sum it up – I’m speechless. It’s what you play football for,” said Rovers keeper James Belshaw amid chaotic scenes of celebration.
This is the story of one of Sky Bet League Two’s most unlikeliest final days.
Goals go in everywhere
The deadlock was broken with 18 minutes on the clock at the Memorial Stadium, albeit with a slice of luck. Young Iron defender Oliver Lobley turned the ball into his own net to give Bristol Rovers the lead.
Just four minutes later, Stoke City loanee Connor Taylor, who has established himself as a fan favourite during his fleeting time at the Memorial, made it 2-0 – a lead which the hosts took into the break as they held on to fourth place.
But, to make matters even more astonishing, the Cobblers weren’t messing about, either. With just over 20 minutes played, Jon Brady’s side were 3-0 up and cruising, rippling the net for their third of the afternoon in the same minute that Connor Taylor nodded in the second to double the Pirates' lead.
As Joey Barton’s men emerged from the tunnel at the end of the interval, it looked as though they would be gearing up for the Play-Offs, had it not been for a stunning second half showing.
Leading marksman Aaron Collins’ brace played a part, as the striker made it 3-0 less than 10 minutes after the restart. And his 15th of the season was soon to follow.
Next up was Anthony Evans who got in on the act on the hour mark, before rippling the net with a spectacular set-piece from 25 yards out with less than a quarter of an hour remaining on the watch. It was only now that Gas fans began frantically checking the rule book to see what should happen if their team tied with the Cobblers, who were now winning 3-1 after Barrow pulled a goal back.
Elsewhere, the destination of the League Two title changed hands twice in five minutes as Forest Green Rovers – who were eventually crowned champions – and Exeter City went head-to-head for top spot. And it wasn’t even the story of the day, as the drama continued to unfold in the South West.
Collins made it 6-0 to put the Gas on the brink and Elliot Anderson, the EFL’s Young Player of the Month, did the unthinkable as 7-0 flashed up on the scoreboard. That was four goal contributions for the afternoon for the teenage starlet.
Gas in 7⃣ heaven @Official_BRFC complete an unbelievable last day turnaround to take third place and seal automatic promotion 🤯#EFLonQuest #EFL #BristolRovers #UTG @The_Rovers_Ram @GasCastPodcast— Quest (@QuestTV) May 7, 2022
Stream free on demand with @discoveryplusUK: https://t.co/5BVoLl5xim pic.twitter.com/kCj3BNuZ0z
An identical record with Northampton meant that the third and final promotion berth would be determined by goals scored, which saw Bristol Rovers edge the Cobblers to seal the deal, as the Memorial Stadium erupted, rounding off a truly unforgettable final day in League Two.
The fact that Barton’s side ending up equaling their record for their biggest winning margin in an EFL game showed just how improbable the result had been.
“It’s what you play football for”
It’s highly likely that the celebrations continued long into the small hours of this morning, but top scorer Collins was among the first to get the celebrations started.
“What can I say?” he asked. “That was absolutely phenomenal. This just shows the character we’ve got in the changing room.”
Just as the Welshman, who made the switch in the summer from Forest Green, made an attempt to sum up the afternoon’s events, he was interrupted by a flying Sam Nicholson who pounced upon Collins in the corridor.
“We’ve done it. Who would’ve thought it? Look at where we’ve been all season. Those two games just sum us up. We always believed; there’s no point in not believing. We’ve just won 7-0 on the final day to get us up. I can’t say much more.”
Chants of ‘Belshaw, Belshaw, Belshaw’ drowned out keeper Belshaw’s post-match musings.
“For myself, it’s been a long year,” he exhaled. “It was a tough summer last year. For the turnaround in my career, there’s a lot of people I need to thank.
“The boys have so much quality in front of me and if we can keep the back door shut, they can go and do what they do. It’s an unbelievable group of lads.”
This time last year, Staffordshire-born Taylor was plying his trade in the non-League pyramid. Now, he’s got a winners’ medal around his neck.
“My first season in the EFL and to get a promotion is ridiculous,” he reflected. “It’s just surreal. From the staff to the players to the fans, what a Club.
“I’m so delighted to get it over the line. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. You won’t see many fanbases like this in League One or the Championship. We’ll enjoy it all night.”
Barton the soothsayer
The Gas boss raised eyebrows earlier in the season after the Pirates found themselves 4-1 down against Exeter City in August, declaring: “I know we’re going to get promoted, no doubt about that.” As it transpired, he had psychic abilities.
“One thing that can’t ever be questioned is the character of our team and our players,” he said, following the emphatic victory. “As a direct consequence of that, the fanbase have turned up and supported them because they knew they’d give everything. You get special days if you get that kind of recipe.”
And Rovers’ last-gasp triumph will go down as one of the former Manchester City midfielder’s favourite footballing memories.
“It’s probably something when I’m in my rocking chair and the fact I’ve headed a lot of balls out at the near post area has caught up with me, I’ll remember this favourably with Weetabix dribbling down my chin and I’ll be thinking of the scenes at the Memorial on this day,” he smiled.