Andy Howard, the excellent BBC TV reporter, says he believes that redeveloping the Memorial Stadium is the preferred option of the Bristol Rovers board, now that the UWE project has collapsed. The owners want the club to own its ground. What is to be said about this change of heart and what does it mean for the future of the club?
The first thing for me is that the decision doesn’t change or affect my life in any serious way. The chaos and mismanagement under the Nick Higgs regime, which was basically Nick Higgs doing his own thing, had a profound effect on the way I think about the Rovers. I became deeply disillusioned with the club over a decade ago and it is only now that the Higgs era is a miserable footnote in history I have started going to games again. I don’t think about the club morning, noon and night as I used to do, when we lose it no longer wrecks my weekend and I don’t feel like I must miss out on everything else in life in order to go to every game. I go when I like and I like it when I go because I feel I am once again welcome there and I am back with many of my friends. But when something happens like this, I can still sleep. I am a happy Gashead.
That the UWE stadium is no longer going to happen represents the end of yet another dream that the Rovers will get a brand new shiny state of the art stadium. I don’t believe this represents a bluff by the new owners because, since they took charge, they have been straight with supporters, as opposed to the way things used to be. I take the club on its word. I do not know all the reasons why they have concluded the stadium can no longer proceed but I accept that the club could not do a deal with UWE that would be fully in the club’s interests. It’s dead in the water. Now I have argued long and hard that for the club to progress to a higher level, the Memorial Stadium as it is will not be good enough. The way it is now isn’t good enough. The bars are tatty and dated, there is no shape nor symmetry about the ground, the facilities are rubbish. It’s also in the wrong place. The Mem as it is means League One forever. No one knows better than the owners that League One forever, in a ramshackle old ground is not exactly a statement of ambition. There is no alternative to redeveloping the Mem. Which brings us back to what does it mean for the future of the club?
What it means to me is that the club is trying to build a stadium fit for the Championship. That is an honourable aim since it has spent a considerable amount of time in the league below that. The Championship is a huge league and you will need more than a 12,000 mostly standing ground to stay there. With the requirement for seating, redevelopment is a necessity (and I hate sitting at the football). Staying at the Mem means an end to the dream of Premier League football which I have to say is a dream I have never had. That ship sailed 25 years ago, leaving smaller clubs like ours behind. Nick Higgs talked briefly and, I have to say laughably, about the club eventually playing in Europe. Unless he meant pre season friendlies in Spain and Portugal, he was wrong about that one.
And now cards on the table time from me. I supported the UWE project but I didn’t want the stadium to be called the UWE stadium. We are Bristol Rovers, not some offshoot from a jumped-up polytechnic. As long as we actually owned the ground, we owned the freehold and were able to generate money from the ground during the week, what was not to love? If, as it seems, none of this was possible, what was the point? We’d move from being a football club with no money playing at a dilapidated old rugby ground to a football club with no money playing at a bright and shiny new stadium playing lower league football. Now that the UWE appears to be dead in the water, there is a choice of trying to find somewhere to build a new ground (where? I can think of anywhere) or tarting up the Mem.
We will hear more in the days, weeks and months ahead but I would like to see some serious thought about redesigning the Memorial Ground (you heard: Memorial Ground), letting fans have some input and getting on with it as soon as possible. Under previous owners, the story of the UWE collapse would have been dragged out of the boardroom so praise the current owners for fronting up straight away.
I have no real desire to see Rovers in the Premier League which is probably just as well because it isn’t going to happen. I want to see the club run properly and sustainably and I would like to see supporters rewarded for many years of loyalty.
Anyway, a new season is here now. There is nothing supporters can do about what happens off the pitch but we can do our best to influence what happens on it. The UWE stadium dream has died. Move along, nothing to see here.