Matty Taylor has controversially switched Bristol clubs – which wouldn’t have been a problem for Matt Nation’s dad, who used to watch them both
If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then intra-city localism is the refuge of a bloody idiot, at least according to my father. Particularly when it means deliberately passing up the chance to watch a professional football match going on down the road.
My father grew up during the Second World War, just a bombsite away from the gasworks that gave Bristol Rovers their “reclaimed” nickname, so it was obvious where his family’s footballing loyalties lay. However, as soon as League football recommenced in the mid-1940s, he took the only right-thinking course of action: he started watching Bristol City as well.
To this day, I’ve never been entirely sure which team he prefers. Whenever asked, he always says “Both”, and when he talks about the respective merits of the heroes of his youth, it is indeed very difficult to detect any bias. Rovers players’ report sheets are brief, yet instructive (“Josser Watling? Shuffler”; “Alfie Biggs? Pikehand”; “Jackie Pitt? Shithouse”), while his judgement of their City contemporaries usually consists of nothing apart from the noises one makes after removing one’s shoes and slumping into an armchair (“Jantzen Derrick? Aaaawwww, yeah”; “Alec Eisenträger? Wouuargh”; “Shadow Williams? Mmmmm”).
The fence-sitting continues when he talks about the England internationals both clubs produced at that time. Rovers’ Geoff Bradford was “all right, I suppose”; City’s John Atyeo is the proof that, even if your parents predate the hippy era, it was possible for them to enjoy same-sex crushes. Even today, my father is not only unable to say Atyeo’s surname without calling to mind a man trying to get pally with the waiters in an Italian restaurant, but also describes his shoulders, thighs and hair in tones similar to those adopted by Sergeant Major Williams when talking about Gunner Parkins in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. “I saw Atyeo’s boots once,” he revealed, “and they were massive. He must have had proper man’s feet.”
In the 1970s we started going to matches together, yet I still couldn’t work out which of his torches burnt brighter. Rovers’ free-scoring forward pairing of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister, referred to as “Smash & Grab” in the papers, “couldn’t have held up a sweet shop with a water pistol”. Across town, City’s John Galley, a lanky striker who often appeared to have interchanged the positions of his arms and legs, was “nearly as complete as Atyeo”. My father’s unwillingness to set out his footballing stall in front of his son dogged our relationship right up until I left home.
Thirty years on, he’s stopped going to both clubs for age-related reasons, and it’s difficult to tell whom he misses more. Ten years ago, he didn’t renew his Rovers season ticket, mumbling something about “preferring to spend his Saturday afternoons stood in front of the Radio Rental shop window with the tellies switched off than watch that shower”. His Ashton Gate swansong occurred at the beginning of the current season when, shortly after attending a funeral, he realised that all his match-going mates are now either infirm or dead.
Despite playing his cards far too close to his chest, I salute my father’s ability to watch both Bristol teams. In a combined existence of nearly 250 years, only four have been spent in the top division. Unlike other more successful teams in two-club cities, neither Bristol team has a record to boast about. For decades, Rovers’ main claim to fame was being one of only two teams to have never left the second or third division; City only really hit the national headlines when the Ashton Gate Eight ripped up their contracts to save the club from going under in the 1980s.
As a follower of two bald men fighting over a non-existent comb, my father’s reaction to bigger town clubs sneering at their local rivals’ lack of trophies or “tradition” is one not of derision, but of incomprehension. If you want the intra-city rivalry to continue, he reckons, surely it’s better to make sure both of them stay afloat – by going to watch both of them.
His most lucid explanation of his two-pronged approach is a comparison with sausages. “I like my beef sausages as much as anyone else, but if they haven’t got any in that day, I’ll make do with pork sausages. They’ve probably got more rubbish in them, but they still hit the spot.” Probably not the first, and definitely not the last, time Bristol Rovers’ (or indeed Bristol City’s) performances will have been compared to a pig’s arse. Matt Nation