“Bristol Rovers were playing at home, parlez-vous…Bristol Rovers were playing at home, parlez-vous.” That was the song we used to sing at school in a playground ditty about German troops crossing the line in World War Two (or was it WW1?).
Bristol Rovers and homes – a contentious issue. I remember quirky old Eastville, with its greyhound track. They moved to Bath City’s Twerton Park when they lost Eastville and then they landed up at the Memorial Ground, the home of Bristol Rugby Club.
If all goes to plan, Bristol Rovers will be playing at a new stadium before too long, but the original concept, for Sainsbury’s to purchase the Memorial Ground and for Rovers to move to the proposed 20,000-capacity University of the West of England stadium seems to have hit a roadblock. The supermarket chain pulled out of a deal and although the club is appealing, the saga rolls on.
Rovers claim that the club’s very future is at stake, and you can understand why they would want to leave the Memorial Ground behind, although it’s not an unpleasant place by any means, but it’s definitely not à la mode.
What’s also unusual about a trip to the Memorial Ground is the odour that seems to pervade the entire stadium. At first, it seems as though something’s a bit rancid, but then you realise, everyone is devouring Cornish Pasties. No sign of a burger or hot dog, thankfully, but the plat de choix for Bristol Rovers fans is definitely the good old pasty. And they seem to sell hundreds of them. Coupled with the rhotic dialect, known locally as Brizzle, you are in no doubt that you’re in a very distinct part of the country.
Rovers are back in the Football League are being in exile in the Conference (now National League) for a single season. They secured promotion via the play-offs, beating another League old boy, Grimsby on penalties at Wembley.
I’ve often thought that Bristol, as a city, could create a really big club if it tried. With a population of 450,000ish, the potential of Bristol is considerable. But the two football clubs, City and Rovers,
City averaged 12,000 last season and the last time Rovers were in the League, they drew 6,000-plus to the Memorial Ground. A combined team could draw 20,000 people, which, admittedly, is no Old Trafford, but it could deliver regular Championship football to a city whose motto is “Virtue and Industry.”
However, the rivalry between the two clubs (they haven’t been in the same division since 2001) is such that nobody is going to entertain such a project.
Judging by the passion on the terraces – yes, they still have them – and the noise the fans make, there’s enough energy at Rovers to make “the Pirates” or “the Gas” a going concern. The fans are highly appreciated at the club, so much so that they have retired the number 12 shirt to give it to the supporters. In the programme, the 12 is listed as “Gasheads”.
Interestingly, Barnet, Bristol Rovers’ opponents on the day Game of the People visited the club, and partners in promotion from the Conference in 2014-15, have done likewise and devoted the number 13 shirt to “The Bee Army”.
Barnet are back in the Football League after two seasons in the Conference. It’s the third time they have won promotion to the League and to many people, they still have the air of a non-league outfit. But this time it could be very different. Their new ground, the Hive, is in its second season and this has given Barnet a much more polished look. Underhill, their old home, was distinctly non-league.
Anyone who cares for the traditions of the game will appreciate Bristol Rovers’ strip of blue and white quarters, almost unique in British football. Barnet ran out in another nostalgic kit – amber and black hoops, their traditional kit that has not been seen since the 1950s, apparently. So there we were, watching two teams dressed in football stripS straight out of an early edition of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, without the artist’s enhancements.
Both teams had started the season reasonably, given they had both stepped-up from non-league. Rovers had won their last two games, both away and by 1-0, at Yeovil Town and Luton Town. At home, they had lost their opener with Northampton Town 0-1 in front of an impressive 8,712 crowd and were beaten by Birmingham in the Football League Cup 1-2.
Barnet had won one of their three league games, their previous fixture against Northampton, but they had won at Millwall in the League Cup and had a difficult tie at Wolves coming up.
Bristol Rovers: Chapman; Leadbitter, J. Clarke, Lockyer, Parkes, Brown; Sinclair, Lines, O.Clarke; Harrison, Easter.
Barnet: Stack; Hoyte, Dembele, N’Gala, Johnson; Vilhete, Weston, Togwell, Gambin; Akinde, McLean.
I quickly recognised Rovers scurrying wide midfielder, Stuart Sinclair, who had played for Arlesey Town in the Southern League. Barnet, meanwhile, had a couple of reasonably well known players in their ranks in Gavin Hoyte, a tall defender who started out with Arsenal, and Aaron McLean, who I also recalled from his early days in non-league football.
You have to give credit to Bristol Rovers’ on-pitch tannoy man, who tried gamely to whip up enthusiasm for the game. “90 minutes of non-stop noise equals three points,” he pleaded, and the crowd did its best to deliver.
They had plenty to cheer about early on, though, as a second-minute corner by Chris Lines was played back to Lee Brown to rifle in a long-range left-foot low drive.
For most of the first half, Rovers were on top, adopting a shoot-on-sight approach. Barnet were quite poor until the final stages of the half when John Akinde and Mauro Vilhete had efforts saved.
The half-time break saw an old favourite, Dave Staniforth, rolled-out for a chat. He had sponsored the game and was well received by those that remembered him (these guys always are…). The club also introduced its academy youngsters to the crowd and they all marched out in uncomfortably-fitting suits and no socks. “These lads are the future of Bristol Rovers,” insisted our hard-working pitchside host. You knew he meant it and also that Rovers have good intentions, but invariably, these lads will end up at Chippenham Town, Yate Town or, if they are lucky, Bath City. It’s laudable to try and breed your own talent, but very few clubs manage it effectively. You have to wish them luck.
Barnet improved just after the interval, but it was Rovers that dictated the pace of the game, with Sinclair particularly impressive. The locals liked Sinclair and just a few feet away from us, somebody seemed to be apeing his swashbuckler’s appearance of pony-tail and ragged beard.
Sinclair had a goal disallowed, but in the 77th minute, Rovers got a deserved second, Matt Taylor’s shot was blocked and span away from the defence and Jermaine Easter sent the rebound into the net. 2-0.
Barnet pulled a goal back in complete silence, apart from the “Bee Army” gathered in the corner of the ground, which, incidentally, included flags from Sweden, Norway, Wales and the Netherlands. Barnet’s scorer was Curtis Weston, who shot home from inside the penalty area.
But Rovers were not finished and in the 87th minute, Lines found Taylor in the area and he finished in style to make the final score 3-1. It was the first time Rovers had scored more than one goal in a game this season and a fair scoreline. The gate was also healthy at 7,107.
It had been an entertaining afternoon. Rovers manager Darrell Clarke has his team playing some attractive football and they will win more than they lose this season. And the atmosphere had been excellent. Rovers are up and running. They’re “cooking with gas”, as we say.