DUBAI: Time was running out and a fifth, sixth, and seventh goal were needed.
They would, astonishingly, arrive, because that’s what football miracles are made of.
But we’re jumping ahead.
This has been a good season for Arab owners of English football clubs.
Manchester City are on the brink of retaining their Premier League title. Newcastle United have pulled off a record-breaking escape from relegation and are looking toward a bright future. And Wigan have gained promotion to the Championship.
But for sheer drama, none of these stories can quite compete with that of Bristol Rovers, owned by Jordanian businessman Wael Al-Qadi.
At one point, the club was second to bottom in League Two, 91st out of 92 clubs in the pyramid of English football. To say promotion to League One was against the odds would barely scratch the surface of the events of the season.
“It was one of the most crazy, demanding seasons, really tiring because we went through it all, the lowest of the low to the highest of the high,” said Al-Qadi. “In a normal season, I’m here 50 percent of the time, I attend 50 percent of the games, but this season, because of what was going on, the upheaval in the club, going from rock bottom, I was here a lot more. And as a result, negativity and stress and lots of problems arose from within the club, and around the club there was pressure on me to get rid of the manager (Joey Barton). It was basically a revolt from within the club to make change.”
Some difficult decisions had to be taken, ones that have been vindicated spectacularly.
“I stuck with him and as a result, I cleaned house in the club, everybody was just pushed out and I appointed the new CEO (Tom Gorringe) who was with us as a commercial director, he became the youngest CEO in English football. Sweeping changes all across the club in all the departments brought in new, young, energized people.
“The combination of Tom, Joe, and me we rode out the storm, and results started to happen,” he added. “It went from a total negative dark place to be, to a ride of success which was fantastic. The quality of football being played, the goals, fairytale gains, being 3-1 down with 18 minutes left to win 4-3 in the 95th minute, stuff like that. It’s just incredible.
“And then the final game of the season, ‘the miracle’ I call it, a footballing miracle, to witness that was just unbelievable. And then what happened after the celebrations. The whole city, for not only that night, for days and weeks, they’re still talking about and it will go down in the folklore of the club as one of the greatest achievements ever.”
May 7, 2022, and Bristol Rovers are playing Scunthorpe United at the Memorial Stadium with an automatic place in League One on the line. But they trail Northampton Town, second in League Two and playing at Barrow, on goal difference.
“Going into the game, it (automatic promotion) was unlikely, we had to first of all win by five goals just to catch up and hope at the same time, if we didn’t do that hope we win and Northampton draws or loses,” said Al-Qadi.
“So I asked the manager, ‘Are we going for it? And he was like, hell yes. So I knew we were gonna attack and go for goal difference because we’re not relying on the other teams to do us favors. So the lineup was totally attacking, we put in wing-backs who are wingers actually, we changed the line up to basically nine attackers and just two defenders and I knew we were gonna go for it.”
What happened next defied all footballing logic.
“So we started off well but then the news filtered in, 1-0 Northampton, then 2-0 Northampton, then 3-0 Northampton, so you’re kind of deflated, and you start thinking, okay, at least we’re in the playoffs, it’s not the end of the world. And then we scored a goal, and we scored another goal. And Barrow scored the goal. That’s three goals wiped off the deficit of eight.
“So at halftime, there were five to go, and honestly I thought that it was doable because I know we were going to go all-out attack. I know that we’re one of the fittest teams in the league, I know that a lot of our goals are scored in the last 15 minutes, so it was just me expecting the next goal to go in
“And then after that went in, I was like, okay, when’s the fourth going in? And then, okay, when’s the fifth going in? Then the sixth goal (on 79 minutes). And then when the seventh goal went in (85), I lost it completely. It was, it was just incredible.”
Having pulled off the impossible, there was a brief, but terrifying, concern that it could all be in vain when the fans invaded the pitch before its conclusion, with the referee taking the players into the dressing rooms for 15 minutes.
“We were under the whim of this referee,” Al-Qadi said. “His decision could cost us, basically, promotion. So I went down on the pitch and addressed the crowd, ‘Please do not come onto the pitch’, because this referee could abandon the game again.”
After Barton addressed the crowd as well, the match was completed and the celebrations could start all over again.
Al-Qadi’s faith in his players to pull off the result was not based on blind optimism either. Increasingly throughout the season, the team had shown a capacity to score very late, decisive goals, a legacy of their improved fitness.
“When Joe came in, he realized that we were way behind in standards in fitness and sports science and nutrition,” he said. “So he did a complete overhaul in that department and he brought in people who he knows and trusts and who he’d worked with before. For example, we got in Tom Short, ‘Shorty,’ from Premier League Burnley. He had treated Joe when he was a player at Burnley and got him fit again, so he knows his capabilities.”
Al-Qadi calls Short and all the backroom staff “unsung heroes” for their part in the promotion.
“Joe built a super fit team that lasts beyond the 90 minutes, you could see it throughout the season, where other teams drop off around the 75th minute, and we keep on going. We’re fitter, we’re stronger, and the results speak for themselves.”
A week before the promotion was secured, Bristol Rovers had pulled off another miracle away at Rochdale. Losing 3-2 into stoppage time, Barton’s team somehow managed to turn almost defeat into a 4-3 win, a match Al-Qadi watched with the traveling support.
“It’s just crazy, I wanted to get on the pitch,” said Al-Qadi. “What a day. We had to win to keep up with everyone at one stage, we win, we are losing, we were out of the playoffs. Imagine we were losing 3-1 with 18 minutes left, we were out of the playoffs. Even going to the 90th minute, we’re losing 3-2, two out, and then all of a sudden we’re in and then the next week, we get promoted. It’s crazy.”
Rovers took more than 2,000 fans to Rochdale and Al-Qadi’s presence in the stands was proof that six years after taking over the club he is as much a fan as he is an owner.
“You have to enjoy it,” he said. “You have to because there’s so much stress and anger and you know, falling out with people and people don’t see that, it’s not just about watching a football game and enjoying it. So I guess it’s like a balance with all the joy you get. It balances out all the other negative stuff that you have to deal with, and we have dealt with, and how the season was crazy.”
With no stress of a playoff to worry about, the Bristol Rovers fans have been wallowing in the joy of “the miracle” and the chairman is enjoying the ride even as, behind the scenes, preparations for League One are already taking place.
“You should see the fans. I mean, my God stories of lost ones, dear ones, that they bring their pictures of the dear ones to the game. And after promotion, they just put that picture up and take a memory picture for them. It’s done for them. It’s so many stories, you know, it’s just unbelievable. I met a guy who flew in from Australia just for this game. And I was so relieved for him, because imagine if we didn’t make it.
“And another guy from Canada,” he added. “I was picking up my son at the airport in the morning. He came in from the US, and I was stopped by the flight steward who recognized me, (he) came up and said, ‘I just flew in from Ireland. I’m gonna go get changed and go to the game.’ It’s just beautiful stories.
“They’re over the moon, they’re just really happy,” Al-Qadi said. “They’re loving the football we’re playing at the moment. They say it’s the best football they’ve ever seen. It’s really satisfactory to hear that.”