I had several good reasons to make the Memorial Stadium in Bristol my next destination. First of all, I do work in a WW1 museum, and the Memorial Stadium was – as the name indicates – built as a memorial for the Rugby players of Bristol who lost their lives in the Great War.
Fittingly, the first two indications that you are approaching the ground, when you walk down the Gloucester Road are two signs by a church on the other side of the road.
And fittingly you have to pass through the memorial gate to get to the stadium. I have read that there is a ceremony at the home fixture closets to Remembrance Sunday and on Remembrance Day. But, alas, my visit was a week or two too early for that.
Secondly, I am currently doing research on the emerging entertainment industry in the late 19th and early 20th Century. And the stadium was actually built on the Buffalo Bill ground, where his Wild West Show performed in 1891. Not that there are any traces of it. But having walked the long way down Gloucester Road to get here, you cannot help wonder what the place looked like in those day. Was it way out in the countryside? When was the the terraced housing next to the ground built?
Thirdly, Bristol Rovers – although owners of the ground – consider themselves homeless (even though the scarf I bought said “Memorial Stadium – Home of Bristol Rovers”). Founded in 1883, the club moved to Eastville Football and Cricket ground in 1897. It was located next to the Stapleton gasworks, which is why Rovers are still called the gasheads or the gas, even though they seem to officially use the nickname “The Pirates”.
Rovers entered the football league in 1920, but couldn’t quite match the gates of rivals Bristol City. Therefore they decided to expand the ground – moving the end terraces back – to accomodate a dog track, giving them a steady income. Still, they struggled financially, and in 1939 sold the ground to the greyhound company to pay off their debts. That came back to haunt them in 1979, when the lease of the ground came up for renewal. They were not prepared to meet the demands of the greyhound company, and to add insult to injury, the main stand containing all the club records burned down.
Negotiations finally broke down in 1982 – and Rovers made a deal with Bristol City in stead. But then City went into liquidation, and the new earners wanted to double the rent. Rovers had to go back to the Greyhounds, before in 1986 setting up a deal with Bath City. They had 10 succesfull years there, but it was not in their hometown, and an 1996 they got the opportunity to join the rugby team at the Memorial.
Then the rugby club hit financial problems, and Rovers bought the ground to help them out – only for the rugby team to move to rivals Bristol City in 2014. Still, Rovers seemed to have found a way to turn the ownership of the Memorial to good use, as they made a deal with Sainsbury to buy it – and this would finance the building of a new stadium at the university grounds. Once the plans for the new stadium were approved, however, Sainsbury pulled out of the deal. And they are still battling that one out at the courts.
So – the big question – what is the home of a homeless football club like?
The fourth and final reason why I had to choose the Memorial was that my nephew is currently in Bristol as an exchange student. I took him to his first match in Denmark more than 15 years ago. It was quite memorable. We were standing on the end terrace enjoying a pre-match sausage with plenty of ketchup, talking, when a stray shot from the players warm-up hit us. The ketchup splashed all over us. We spent ten minutes in the Gents’ room trying to wash it off. But I never managed to get the red stains off my clothes. I wonder, what was in that ketchup. Now was the time to take him to his first match in England.
To take the food, and the ketchup, first, we went inside the small stadium pub/café to try Irene’s kitchen. It sounds promising – Irene’s.
In fact, Goodnight Irene is the anthem of Bristol Rovers. We read a quite funny story of how it came to be so. Back in 1950, Plymouth Argyle visited Eastville and brought along an accordion player, who played top hits of the day prior to the match. One of them “Goodnight Irene”. When Plymouth took the lead, they taunted the Bristol supporters with the song. But then Rovers hit three goals in 10 minutes, and now the Rovers fans sang “Goodnight Argyle” – and it stuck.
Alas, Irene’s cooking leaves a lot to be desired. You can understand the lyrics:
“Sometimes I live in the country, Sometimes I live in the town,
Sometimes I have a great notion, To jump in to the river and drown.
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight,
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams.”
But the atmosphere in here is good. I do my routine count of the first 100 people who passes by me. 91% male. 100 % white. The impression inside the ground is roughly the same.
We spend some time in the matchday souvenir outlet, chatting with staff and supporters. They are mainly interested in discussing Danish beer, but I want to know what they think of their “home”. “It is not our home”. The answer is quite clear. “Young fans might feel different. But Eastville is our home”. So to them, the deal with Sainbury cannot be solved quick enough. “We had some tremendous years in Bath, but it was their ground”.
Later, inside the ground, we chat with the Bristol supporter next to us. He agrees. It is not a home. It is not proper football ground. It is a rugby ground – that actually looks a bit like a cricket ground. He went to Eastville as a kid, but not long enough to develop a strong “home feeling”. Still, he is a bit mixed about the stadium plans. New stadiums are all the same. And they are all-seater. Here at the Memorial, you have terraces, in fact, of the 11.000 capacity, there are only 3.000 seats. And that you will loose in a modern stadium. And that is what football is about.
On the other hand, you won’t get families and corporate deals to the ground with the current facilities. And that is the way to generate revenue in the modern game. And that is what you have to do to survive.
Our new friend comes from a family that have been Rovers fans for generations. In fact, his father and sister are among the stewards for tonight’s game. He could never support another team. Not having a proper home does not come into the way of a strong club identity.
And there is a homely feeling to the ground. For instance, the programme seller. She met when we arrived before the match, and as she now sits in a programme stall, I choose that one for purchasing my programme. “Why are you taking those photos?”. “I am writing a blog on football grounds.” “Put a photo of me on that blog” – here you are!
We also see the players arriving. It is not like the big premier league grounds, where you are kept away from them by barriers and stewards. A girl is waiting for them with her family. She gets all the autographs – and ask the players for a hug afterwards. Almost all of them oblige.
It might be that it doesn’t look like a football ground with the random stands around the ground – but I really like it. Standing on terraces just generate a better atmosphere. PEople are chatting all over the terrace, standing next to their mates. In all-seaters, it is so quiet when the game is not calling for ooohhs and aaahhhs. Here, there is all the time the sound of talking and banter. Next to me, there is about 10 teenage boys. Jumping around, pushing each other, making fun. They wouldn’t have such a good time if they were seated next to each other in a row.
The away support is not very big. And it is hidden on a small terrace without roof on the other side of the big seater-stand. Down that end, there is very temporary looking seater-stand behind the goal. But a big gap right at the corner. It looks odd. And it doesn’t generate the bowl atmosphere. But still, the atmosphere in the north bank, where we are standing is quite good.
Unfortunately, we don’t get a goal to lift it further. I am really impressed with the football played by Bristol Rovers in the first half. It is quick, controlled, good movement, overlaps on the wings, direct aggresive runs from midfield – and they play themselves out of awkward situations at the back. And only a couple of time do they loose possession by poor control or passing. It certainly is above the League 2 football I saw last season, where the warming up for the defenders was heading or kicking away crosses. It is all quite delicate. One of the centre backs is perhaps not quite up to technical football at that level – I really identify with him! – but is very good at deciding, when he has to whack it up field. Only a couple of times in the first half, more often in the second. But the closest to scoring, is a shot from 10 yards against the underside of the crossbar.
In the second half, Notts County take the sting out of the match, and also create a couple of good chances themselves. So – perhaps – it is fair that they get away with a point.
We leave the ground and walk the long way back to the city centre. Only two other fans walk all the way.
It is strange how you come to sympathize and indentify with a club, once you visit and chat with their fans. Somehow, I got the feeling that perhaps not despite but because they don’t have a home – but a history of homelessnes – the Bristol Rovers fans have such a strong club feeling.
It is a far cry from the Premiership – and glory hunting fans. And maybe far better.