Spence and Collins fitting heroes in surreal epic as Gas erase Taylor headlines
As a journalist, the job is to sum up what happened in BS7 0BF last night, to bring meaningful insight, to explain why, but I don't think I can. How do you even start to make sense of the chaos?
What a game. Bristol Rovers were seemingly dead and buried after League One Oxford United – thanks to villains and heroes of Gas history Matty Taylor and Billy Bodin – stormed ahead.
The narrative was set, the reports were written, the social media tin hats were prepared with Taylor haunting Rovers again, but Joey Barton's Gas took the script, tore it up, set it on fire, tied rocks to it and lobbed off the Suspension Bridge.
Substitutes Sion Spence and Aaron Collins make for fitting heroes in this surreal tale. Spence scores goals but can't get a game. Collins just hasn't been able to score goals.
He did on Tuesday though; his incredible long-range strike 205 minutes deep into this battle – and almost 1,000 minutes into his Rovers career – sandwiched by a Spence brace to make it 4-3 and incite the limbs of all limbs.
Oxford – who cancelled out Sam Finley's opener to lead 3-1 at half time in extra time thanks to goals from Taylor, Bodin and Steve Seddon – were the audience of this classic, the crowd instead an active protagonist in the drama.
All they could do is slump to the floor, led by their jaws, stunned on a night that will have its own little place in Bristol Rovers history.
The magic of the FA Cup
This was an epic two-parter, like the initial Godfather films or a white chocolate Twix.
Oxford may be a promotion-chasing League One side, but Rovers were more than a match for them over two thrilling encounters which encapsulated the magic of cup football.
Karl Robinson – who, I'm sure will enjoy being reminded, cannot beat his old mate Joey Barton and is winless in eight – and his side always appeared to have an extra gear when they flexed their muscles, but three times over the two legs they paused for a break like the arrogant hare.
Meanwhile, Rovers never stopped plugging away in an incredible show of resolve, boosted with glittering examples of their quality. I mean, it's frankly absurd Antony Evans is a League Two player.
At the Kassam, they rode their luck but never gave up, and at the Mem they were the better side. Maybe Oxford shaded a tepid first 45, but Rovers were outstanding after the break and ought to have sealed their second-round berth in the allotted 90.
To extra time they went, where Oxford once again showed a fleeting moment of superiority to seemingly strike the fatal blow.
But not against these Rovers. Saturday's win against Northampton Town was a statement of their development and determination, and in a similar fashion on Tuesday they seized the moment when it presented itself.
Spence's header gave them a chance and they took it and ran a la James Belshaw charging like an alcohol-fuelled reveller down Gloucester Road to join the celebrations at the end.
Football is weird. No goals in 17 games for Collins since his summer move leaving his confidence on the floor, yet he scores a screamer that will be long remembered around these parts.
That equaliser sparked jubilant celebrations but also more inevitability on a night not short of it (Taylor was always going to score after Robinson labelled him an injury doubt, right?).
The crowd was too loud, the Us too rattled. Rovers were going to score again in the remaining seconds and that boy Spence did it again. The cross from Harry Anderson prompted groans with the ball heading out of play, only to be replaced by pandemonium as Josh Grant kept alive and Spence slammed home to write his name in Gas folklore.
The best Mem moment since Lee Brown Day? It's got to be up there. The FA Cup will never lose its magic.
Sion Spence certainly uses his time efficiently. In 206 minutes as a Rovers player, he has three goals and two assists to his name.
And these aren't stat-padding goals, these are match-winners. The Wales under-21 international's last-gasp finish at Walsall was, at the time, the most important goal of the Barton era.
And his decision to withdraw from international duty to focus on nailing down a place at Rovers was vindicated in incredible style.
His header to make it 2-1 was that of Premier League-quality striker and he struck the winner through bodies like an assassin.
He's an awkward player to fit into Rovers' system. Does he have the same overall influence on games as Evans? Probably not. Does he have the pedigree of Luke Thomas? Probably not. Does he have the same magic of an in-form Sam Nicholson? Probably not.
But does he score goals? Hell yes. He's left Barton with no excuses now. He must become a central player of the manager's rotation, and what a problem to have. With messers Pitman, Saunders and, eventually, Clarke, to come back, there are goals right through this team.
This is why we do it
Supporting a third or fourth-tier football club generally is a life sentence to a lot of disappointment with a sprinkling of moments to savour.
Tuesday was one of those sprinkles.
Gasheads have endured so much of late, watching the end of a golden era in the club's recent history and a dismal relegation played out behind closed doors within the past three years, plus a few off-field dramas.
The start to this season wasn't great, either, but things are getting better and those eight minutes of bat-s*** crazy madness that spun this game are why fans do it.
Those screaming-induced headaches that only fade when the head hits the pillow, those bumps and bruises sustained from being bundled down the terrace steps to celebrate, those disbelieving embraces with your mates.
Being a Bristol Rovers fan has not been much fun in recent times and Tuesday's joy was the least they deserved.
At 3-1 down, a father and his two young lads headed for the East Stand exit with an early start for school no doubt in mind.
That must have been an interesting conversation this morning, missing three goals and an unforgettable moment... Dad may not be the most popular person in that house right now.
They wouldn't have been alone in leaving, but this is a lesson in football. You just never know what might happen next.
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