Pirates close to move from Memorial Stadium

icon bristolrovers27 July ~ South Gloucestershire Council gave Bristol Rovers planning permission for the construction of a new £40 million stadium last week. It has brought the Pirates tantalisingly close to the conclusion of a saga dating back to 1986, when the club was forced to leave Eastville Stadium, their home for 89 years, due to financial difficulties. They went into exile, sharing Twerton Park with non-League Bath City, until returning ten years later to share Bristol Rugby Club’s Memorial Ground. To say that their new rental was not up to scratch would be an understatement.

At first there were only three sides, all of which looked quite different from one another. The DAS enclosure looked like a pavilion borrowed from nearby Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. Only one stand had full cover, meaning many supporters had to suffer a crushing defeat and waterlogged shoes at the same time.

Still, the club were back in their own city. Two years later tenants became owners as the rugby club’s own financial difficulties led to Rovers buying the ground. Some improvements were made such as a roof for the Blackthorn End – the main hub for the vocal Rovers support.

A temporary stand, looking as though it was borrowed from a tennis club, filled three-quarters of the open end. It did little to stop the archaic-looking ground appearing more suited to rugby than football.

In 2007 planning permission was granted to build a new 18,500 all-seater stadium on the site of the renamed Memorial Stadium. Rovers had agreed to share with Cheltenham Town, some 40 miles outside Bristol, while the work was completed.

The new stadium was going to be part-funded by the construction of nearby student accommodation. However, in the 2008 credit crunch, the property company providing the student lets pulled out. The club were back where they started.

For a long time it appeared it would be Bristol City, not Rovers, who would be moving into a new stadium. However, City's plans to build a 30,000 capacity stadium in Ashton Vale have been held up by legal wrangling since 2009. It makes the likelihood of Rovers' new stadium an even sweeter prospect for their supporters.

The club announced a partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE) in 2011 for a 21,900 stadium. Under the terms of the agreement, UWE will lease the land, based near their Frenchay Campus, to the club. In return they will received access to club facilities and media rooms for students on non-matchdays.

The decision to grant planning permission may revive the club's flagging fortunes. Rovers will have a stadium fit to grace any of the divisions. Concerts and others events will provide extra revenue while the new capacity, almost double their existing, gives scope to attract new supporters. Rovers will hope to learn from Reading and Swansea, both of whom kicked on following the construction of new stadiums.

The bulk of the financing for the venture will come from the sale of the Memorial Stadium site to Sainsbury's. Their application to build a new supermarket on it will be considered by Bristol City Council in September. If this receives the go-ahead then Rovers can expect to kick off 2014-15 in new surroundings. David Tully

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