Local journalist and author, David Goldblatt, gives his take on Bristol Rovers’ trials and tribulations, on and off the pitch. Illustrated by Laurence Ware.
For the first time in ninety-four years, Bristol Rovers were relegated from the Football League. As disappointing as it was, at least Rovers went out in style. Rather than simply slipping away unnoticed, there was the last minute catastrophic twist of their own making, followed by an angry, if theatrical, pitch invasion. I thought it a kind of karmic retribution for the arrogance and foolishness of the club’s relocation plans.
The owners of Bristol Rovers, alongside their disastrous management of team affairs, have spent most of their time and energy over the last few years trying to redevelop the Memorial Ground. After being refused planning permission on a number of earlier schemes it finally looked as if Nick Higgs, Rovers chairman, had struck gold. In 2013 Bristol City Council agreed to a new plan in which the Memorial Ground would be sold to Sainsbury’s and the club would move to a new 21,700 seat stadium built on land bought from UWE on the ring road in Filton.
This was a disaster in the making. First, because the idea that Rovers are going to be filling a 21,700 seat stadium is wishful thinking. Second, because the stadium will be located in an entirely disconnected and soulless non-place that is terrifically good for car drivers and useless for pedestrians. Architecturally and geographically disconnected, it will be an island of activity rather than part of the real texture of the city like the Memorial Stadium is now. Third, I really can’t see how putting a huge supermarket at the top of, until now, the most successful independent shopping street in the country makes any sense.
Rovers, whose finances were hardly healthy in the League, are now in a lot of trouble and the idea that they are going to grow into a new and much larger stadium seems unlikely. So, for the moment, the move is on hold. If Rovers spend a long enough time in the Conference – entirely likely since it took Luton Town and Cambridge United about a decade to get themselves out of similar mess – it is possible the whole plan will be consigned to history.
When it came to the start of this season, I found that the absence of the Conference table from my daily newspaper was an unwelcome reminder of Rover’s diminished status. So it was with mixed feelings that I walked up the Gloucester Road to see Rovers take on the early leaders of the Conference, Halifax Town. But I was pleasantly surprised. First, the Conference does not insist on the same kind of cheesy choreography and signage that the Football League demands: no sponsor’s boards on the pitch; no mock anthems and no mock handshakes. Even the volume of the PA system has been turned down. During the final season in the League the club’s desperation was reflected in the shrill hollering of the warm- up man and the bellowing entrance music that drowned out the crowd, this season you can hear them. Cost cutting has also seen Pirate Pete the lamentable touchline mascot take a break.
Despite the drop in leagues, attendance is holding up with over 5,000 present and the mood of the crowd was remarkably good. There was, of course, plenty of angry vitriol and pantomime moaning on the terraces but it had none of the bitterness that has been noticeable during the grim relegation battles of the past. By contrast there was a lot of good old fashioned fun as the crowd distracted the opposition’s goalkeeper and slaughtered the referee and the officials in time-honoured fashion. And not many games, not many of anything, end with a collective rendition of Leadbellys’s Goodnight Irene, but they do here.
Rovers at the Memorial Ground remain a brilliant, quirky afternoon’s pleasure with its own enduring rituals and liturgies. It is still the only football ground I know that smells of pasties rather than pies. It is, alongside Bristol City, a rare and precious place in which the idea of Bristol can be collectively imagined and acted out. The uncluttered austerity of theConference makes this element of the day even clearer. I wonder if this charm, could be maintained in an ‘off the shelf’ three quarters empty bowl in Filton. Enjoy it while you can.