Rival distraction

Cheltenham have suddenly left their neighbours Gloucester City far behind. NOw they kind of miss each other, says Mark Herron

Since Cheltenham Town joined the Nationwide League, not everything has changed for the better. One of the most significant differences in the match-day routine has been brought about by the sudden lack of a genuine local rival. No more opportunities to cheer as news of another goal conceded comes through on the radio. Half the enjoyment has disappeared over­night.

Previously, there was little doubt as to the identity of public enemy No 1 – Gloucester City. More than 100 years of rivalry between the two clubs was exacerbated by a sense of competition between two towns of similar size, separated only by a couple of miles of green belt. Despite their proximity, they remain distinctive and proud of their contrasting histories. At the risk of off­ending a large slice of the local population, let’s just say that Glou­cester is more blue-collar, while Chel­ten­ham is reg­arded as “a bit posh”.

It has been suggested by more than one observer that the respective professional football and rugby clubs are in the wrong towns, but no one around here seems to be com­plaining. And there can be little doubt that Chel­tenham Town have ultim­ately ben­efited from the current set-up, as the city of Gloucester’s penchant ⌦for rugby has helped to restrict the efforts of its foot­ball club.

On the football front, Cheltenham have held the upper hand for much of the time, though local brag­ging rights were finely balanced as recently as May 1997. Both teams were fighting it out in the Southern League Premier, aiming for the single promotion slot after the Moat Street ground of champions-elect Gres­ley Rovers had brought gasps of horror from the Conference ground police.

Gloucester looked the better equipped of the two clubs at the time – they were playing the better football, attendances had nudged higher than those at Whad­don Road for the first time in living memory, and they appeared to be backed all the way by a chairman who had authorised a seemingly endless string of finan­­cial commitments and who used the local media to good effect.

A season’s efforts, and possibly the future direction of football in north Gloucestershire, was de­termined by a half-hour spell on the last day of the cam­paign. Appropriately enough, after months of unconvincing displays, the Robins ended the season with two 0-0 draws. Gloucester only needed a home win over mid-table Salisbury City to move ahead of their local rivals. Their efforts were boosted by an own goal from Matt Lovell, a former Cheltenham player, before Gloucester collapsed under the strain and eventually lost 3-1.

Almost immediately, the local football scene was changed beyond recognition. Manager Steve Cotterill led the Robins to unprecedented success – Conference runners-up, FA Trophy winners, Conference champions and Third Division play-off contenders. Off the pitch, the players have become local celebrities, the ground continues to be upgraded each season and the club’s football in the community programme extends its reach throughout the county.

Over at Gloucester, the finances quickly crumbled, creating an equal and opposite effect to the success at Chel­tenham. As the two clubs take stock of their cur­rent positions, the Robins sit three levels above their neighbours and can boast of attendances at reserve matches which compare well with those achieved by many of Glouc­­ester’s Southern League Western Division op­ponents. Who knows how things might have turned out if Salisbury had not staged that second half fightback?

Cheltenham may now be firmly in the driving seat, but this hasn’t stopped the Whaddon Road faithful from going through something of an identity crisis. Who exactly are Cheltenham’s rivals now? Picking on a middling non-League team is increasingly frowned upon. These days, anti-Gloucester songs rarely fea­­­ture on the terraces and their reappearance would feel wrong when the Robins are picking-up a lot of new sup­port from Gloucester itself and other outlying towns.

Cheltenham Town are no longer strictly Chelten­ham’s team – the appeal of League football allows the net to be cast further afield. There is even a possibility that, somewhere down the line, the Robins could be watch­ed by more Gloucester-based fans than Gloucester City – a thought that would give goosebumps to some of the old-timers on both sides of the fence.

Finding a replacement rival isn’t that easy, though. Cheltenham fans have flirted with the possibility of crossing swords with Swindon Town, Oxford United or Hereford United. But rivalries don’t appear over­night – they have to be earned – and we haven’t even faced Swindon or Oxford in a competitive match yet. Kidderminster probably offer more scope, but the two clubs always enjoyed a good relationship when they were in the Conference and it would seem a shame to spoil that.

Maybe we are just destined to become one of those lonely clubs without a rival and will have to tear up half a terrace songbook. Some Cheltenham supporters have already attempted to address this situation by turn­ing against each other – the “old brigade” v the Johnny-come-latelys. The voice of reason says this can’t be the way forward, surely.

From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month