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Wagon Wheels, the East End shed man, and sleet. David Goldblatt gives his take.

Illustration: Laurence Ware / laurenceware.tumblr.com

A trip to see Bristol City from north of the river tells you a lot about how the city works, or doesn’t. Generations back you could catch a bus all the way or head to Temple Meads by tram or bus before getting a train to the specially built Ashton Gate station. Neither option remains – the station is long closed and bussing it means an infuriating changeover – a testament to the hopeless state of Bristol’s public transport.

Walking and cycling can be pleasant options. I’ve taken the stroll a few times on balmy afternoons. But it’s January, kick off’s 7:45pm and I can’t stomach sub-zero sleet or rush-hour traffic.

So I drive, guiltily enjoying the sweeping raised roads over Cumberland Basin before pulling into Ashton. As usual, the slipway from the road and the double yellow-lined kerbsides throng with neatly parked cars. I don’t know how long this arrangement, which speaks of Bristol’s informality, has existed, but I’ve never seen a ticket issued on match day.

Alix Hughes, a 30 year Ashton Gate veteran, swerved these problems long ago by buying a house a minute’s walk from the ground. I stop to pick him up, relishing an indoor moment before re-engaging with the cutting, capricious wind that offers a moments respite before spitting stinging raindrops onto your cheeks. It dawns on us we’ll be sitting in this for a couple of hours. Even Alix had wavered over attending this FA Cup third round replay against Doncaster Rovers.

But we’re going and so are thousands of others, hunching shoulders and stamping feet in the snaking queues. And why not? City may only be in League One, which, for the biggest team in England’s seventh largest city, seems below par. But tonight they top that league after a half season of technical, entertaining football.

Somehow the lines drain away and nearly everyone makes it in for kick-off. Its a strange arena tonight, just two open stands making for a cosy yet eerie atmosphere. The Dolman Stand has been closed to pack the 7,000 of us together, while the East End Stand was demolished last summer and, though the replacement skeleton rises at the corners, gapes open in the centre. For much of the season one would have looked there and seen East End Shed Man. His back yard abuts the building site and his shed afforded a perfect view. From his vantage point he’s conducted a series of call-and-response songs and chants with the fans in the stadium, but his view has now gone.

If East End Shed Man symbolises Bristol’s eccentric spontaneity, the redevelopment reeks of its torpor. City, or rather their owner, Steve Lansdown, has been trying to rebuild or move the stadium for nearly a decade. Like many Bristolian infrastructure projects it’s been fraught: plans to move out to Long Ashton and sell the site to Sainsburys were mercifully curtailed by local opposition and the courts, so the club are staying. Indeed, the city’s heel-dragging may, in this case, have been a strength rather than a weakness.

Across the empty Dolman stand the coloured bucket seats spell ‘BRISTOL’. Tonight it’s quiet, the crowd seemingly cold-weary and the ball rapping pin-sharp off boots and ad hoardings. The Doncaster fans, who won’t be home until the small hours, are equally mute. The icy rain blows ever closer to the front of our stand. Then, just after the half hour, a header from City striker Matt Smith is palmed out by the goalkeeper and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas bundles home.

It’s like flicking a defrost switch. Even after the euphoria settles the game acquires a soundtrack of chat, cries and calls. The man in front of us becomes animated, offering coaching advice, yelling for players to ”Skin ’im!” and joining the waves of “Come on you reds”. The wind mercifully drops and the rain recedes.

At half time Alix doles out his magic Wagon Wheels, without which no City victory can be assured. Out the back of the stand I spot East End Shed Man in his civvies. The club have done the decent thing and given him tickets for the rest of the season – inside. It’s not a night, we agree, to be on the shed.

The Wagon Wheels work and halfway through the second half Emmanuel-Thomas makes it 2–0 via a run and a sweet finish. With pantomime glee the Ateyo Stand rises and waves, “Cheerio-cheerio-cheerio” to Doncaster and we give silent thanks there’ll be no extra time.

The game ends and, with almost indecent haste, we cheer and head for the exits. Watching the choreography of departure – the hurried goodbyes, handshakes and backslaps – I wonder momentarily if my car might have been towed. But it’s there, still hard up on the kerb and ticketless, praise be.

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