Rossanna Rocha is mobbed by her teammates. She’s just slammed in a 25-yard-drive into the bottom corner under the lights at the Memorial Stadium in front of a crowd of 2,247. A far cry from the usual crowds of 60 or so that Bristol Rovers Women’s – affectionately known as the Gas Girls – get at their home ground of Lockleaze Sports Centre.
The game at the Mem in April topped a fantastic season for both the men’s and women’s teams. The Gas Girls were crowned champions of the South West Regional League (Northern Division) which is the 6th tier of the pyramid, while the men’s team were promoted from League Two in dramatic fashion with a 7-0 demolition of Scunthorpe on the final day.
The Gas Girls will start next season in the South West Regional Premier Division, the 5th tier, just 3 years after they were holding trials to find players for the newly launched team. But now, after being held back by Covid, they have clinched back to back promotions and are climbing up the women’s leagues and growing the popularity of the sport.
The return of the Gas Girls
The Gas Girls are a huge source of pride for the blue half of Bristol. Their nickname is in recognition of Bristol Rovers’ unofficial nickname, The Gas, but sadly the financial situation within the football club in the mid-2000s led to the funding for the women’s team being cut and them being renamed Bristol Academy W.F.C. in 2005. For Gasheads – as Rovers fans are known – the worst was to come in 2016 when they were taken over by their fiercest rivals Bristol City.
So in 2019 when Matthew Davies (universally known as Mavis) joined the Bristol Rovers Community Trust, he wondered why there wasn’t a women’s team. He met a person of like mind in Nathan Hallet-Young and they got the ball rolling. The Gas Girls are part of the Community Trust and are independent of the club. This time round, the Gas Girls were not going to be affected by the fortunes of the men’s team.
Open trials were held, with Mavis quietly confident that they would get “a fair few in”, but over 100 women and girls turned out. Mavis told the Cable: “That took us by surprise. And I think that kind of gave us the momentum really to kind of think, ‘okay, we’re gonna be on to something here’”.
One factor was the national team’s great showing in the 2019 Women’s World Cup held in France, where they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by eventual winners the USA. Gas Girl Katie Rawlings says this “got more people involved, whether it was just just having to kick around a park or playing for a team”.
Gas Girl Libby Bell also cites local factors, with a wide gap between those players who want to play competitively and those who are out for a more casual kick about. This is a gap that the Gas Girls currently occupy.
“The gap between Bristol City women and any one at a decent standard is mad, so you’ve either got to be like the best in Bristol, or you’re kind of just Sunday League sort of level,” said Bell. Bristol City women play in the FA Women’s Championship, the 2nd tier of the pyramid, and are fully professional.
Everyone at the club knew from the start that there would be expectations that come with the Bristol Rovers name. Katie told the Cable: “People look up to our team, because we’ve got the badge, we’ve got the name. So it was always a little bit like, it’s quite nice to hear that it gave us a lot of confidence. But it was also obviously a little bit of nerves, because we almost had to prove to them why this is their cup final”.
The expectations didn’t phase the girls in their inaugural 2019/20 season. They had a 100% record in the Gloucestershire County Women’s League, the 7th tier, before the season was declared null and void due to the Covid pandemic. This was bitterly disappointing, but Katie said the girls had to “take it on the chin” and “use that as fuel to push on”.
They returned the next season to win the title and with it promotion. The next season (2021/22) in the South West Regional League brought another title with a goal difference of +65 – an incredible feat in a league where only 16 games were played.
Off the pitch
One thing that Mavis and Nathan were keen to embed in the club from the start were the four areas that the Community Trust focuses on, which are community, education, participation and performance.
Partnerships with organisations that fight descrimination have seen them hit the national headlines, when in 2021 their ‘Bristol Pride’ special edition away shirt was inducted into the National Football Museum. The curators at the Museum said:
“The shirt is so vibrant and eye-catching. The museum loved everything from the Gas Girls’ club crest which features a female pirate to the link-up with Bristol Pride. This is a progressive women’s team who want to establish their own identity. The partnership with Bristol Pride is a great fit. Bristol Rovers Women spread the message of inclusion, diversity and community and Bristol Pride works towards equal rights and building a self-accepting and self-affirming community through school education, consultation and the city’s Pride Festival.”
This was a labour of love for Mavis, who designed the shirt, but he’s keen to stress it’s about more than that, telling the Cable: “Working with those organisations to help our community is a massive, massive thing”.
It was the partnership with another campaign fighting against discrimination Her Game Too that saw the Gas Girls play under the lights at the Mem. The game was played as a double header with Forest Green Rovers after the men’s teams played their League Two League fixture earlier in the afternoon.
The crowd of 2,247 was a sign of the popularity of not only the Gas Girls, but women’s football in general. For context, average attendances in the top flight, the Women’s Super League, were “around 3,000” in the 2022-21 season according to the BBC.
For Gas Girl Libby Bell it was extra special to lead the girls out for the game as she is a Gashead herself and has stood on the ground’s Thatchers terrace with her family to watch the men’s team play. She described walking out with the mascots a “surreal moment” that she “definitely won’t forget”.
Katie Rawlings was also beaming at the memory: “Playing at the Mem will be the highlight of my football journey. I never thought I would get the opportunity to play on a professional football ground with so many fans supporting. I still cannot believe it’s happened. Seeing the fans there filled me with so much pride and confidence”.
The national picture
The rising attendances in the women’s game show no sign of slowing down. The women’s FA Cup drew an attendance of 49,094 in May 2022 and on the international stage this summer is the women’s Euros, hosted in England, which saw the 87,200 tickets for the final sell out in less than 24 hours. This will set a new record attendance for a women’s football game in England.
With the Gas Girls holding open trials again this summer, a good showing from the national team could see another bumper crop of women and girls turning out. Who knows, one among them could turn out to be the next Ellen White.