Jim Gwinnell finds the two Bristol clubs still resolutely incompatible but at last in a position to move forward
The West Country is quite possibly the least successful and therefore the most anonymous of all the footballing regions in the League. No past or present behemoths, the likes of which can be found in the north west, north east and London. No “sleeping giants” dozing fitfully in the manner of the midlands clubs. Not even the novelty value of being Welsh (though some Londoners would seem to insist that we are), but even clubs such as Cardiff and Swansea have had their fair share of success.
Several international footballers have launched their careers in Bristol and the region has had sucess in cricket and rugby union, so its lack of strong football teams seems to defy normal explanation. It may simply be that the clubs’ distance from the traditional strongholds of the League means that they have generally failed to attract support, money and players in the numbers drawn to other regions.
Professional football has been around in Bristol since the late 19th century and at one time could boast five clubs, including the early, gestating, forms of Rovers and City, before amalgamations and rationalisation left just the two. Of these two it was City who set the pace with their early entry into the League in 1901 followed by five years in the First Division between 1906 and 1911, and making a losing Cup final appearance in 1909.
This run of form set them up to be the major force in Bristol football, a promise they have never truly fulfilled. City were nearly forced to sell their ground during the Thirties, forced into heavy debt following further ground improvements made in the Sixties, and have made one more foray into the top division, ending in 1980. The following three seasons saw the club plunge straight through to the Fourth Division, dragging with them a raft of players on First Division wages. The original limited company was wound up in 1982 and it took a long time to recover.
Rovers, on the other hand, have never done more than bounce between the two middle divisions since entering the Third Division South in 1920. Of course they have had their moments, but this is a club that didn’t own the stadium it played in for nearly 50 years, spent ten years in exile at a non-League ground in Bath and has struggled financially for long periods of its existence.
With so many individual problems it is not surprising that many have considered a pooling of resources to be the answer. With one team in Bristol, goes the argument, the money and the fans would no longer be divided on unequal and constraining terms. However, even groundsharing has proved a divisive issue. The experience of the early Eighties, when Rovers were forced to become tenants at Ashton Gate for five games following a fire at Eastville, did more to confirm the doubts than dispel them.
The clubs’ fans are divided more by geographical than social reasons. City’s stronghold has always been in the south of Bristol, in areas such as Bedminster and Bishopsworth, with Rovers dominating the northern and eastern areas, including Eastville and Kingswood. The inhabitants of the more affluent north west of Bristol have tended to be drawn to rugby.
However, Rovers have fostered an image of themselves as the plucky underdogs and for this reason probably have the larger number of hardcore fans, with attendances that don’t fluctuate quite as much as City’s (admittedly due in part to the limited capacity of the grounds they have inhabited). City have the repuation of attracting more hangers-on, who disappear when spells of success are not sustained.
Such attitudes have been reflected in the policies of both clubs. When Harry Dolman was chairman at City in the Fifties and Sixties, they tried very hard to become a big club through buying in talent, while across the city Rovers manager Bert Tan was operating under a “no buy, no sell” policy that engendered a strong spirit within the team and between fans and players. Something of that mentality survives to this day under Ian Holloway, significantly a local (born in Kingswood) and a former Rovers player. This loyalty is often reciprocated by the board – would Holloway still be in charge, particularly after last season’s collapse, at a club where instant success was demanded?
City’s desire to do things bigger and better has extended to employing “name” managers with no previous connection to the area, such as current boss Danny Wilson. The Swede Benny Lennartsson appeared to have been brought in three years ago over the head of John Ward, the man who got City promoted to the First Division, simply because he was foreign at a time when foreign coaches had become the fashion.
It would be wrong to stretch the cultural differences between the clubs too far, however, and relations between the two sets of fans have only soured in the fairly recent past. Bristol derbies used to be played in an atmosphere of rivalry rather than outright hostility, but an unpleasant undercurrent that had bubbled away for several years came to a head at the end of a media-hyped derby at Ashton Gate just before Christmas 1996. Following a last minute equaliser by Rovers, over 400 City fans invaded the pitch and attacked rival players and fans – the only good thing to come out of it was a picture of Rovers striker Peter Beadle remonstrating with a thug in a Santa hat.
Since then derby attendances have dropped off slightly, particularly at Ashton Gate, despite continued appeals for calm from both clubs. Local TV has tried to create the impression that matches with Swindon and the Welsh clubs are also derbies, and their proximity obviously does mean there is a larger away contingent at such games, but the fans mostly don’t take the bait.
At present things look a lot more healthy for football in the city. Rovers have their own ground again, a stable and forward looking board and manager, and a financial set-up designed to cope with the rigours of promotion if and when it comes. City have also stated their ambitions and are making plans accordingly. Ever so gently, ever so quietly, something is definitely beginning to happen.
From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month