Let me start this post by saying that I do get why Bristol Rovers supporters will be celebrating promotion back to the Football League. The cynics, and obsessed Bristol City fans, can point out that it’s an odd thing to be celebrating Rovers’ lowest ever finish in the football pyramid, but I would point out that it was a great achievement by manager Darrell Clarke and his players to return the club to league football at the first year of trying. And there is no amount of praise that will ever do justice to Clarke’s outstanding management.
I certainly do not blame Clarke for taking Rovers into the Conference in the first place. He found himself rushed into the hot seat when John Ward unaccountably decided with a handful of league games to go that he wanted to become a semi-detached ‘director of football’ and the board of directors unaccountably let him. The Rovers descent into non league football was a direct result of poor governorship and woeful decision-making by those at the top of the club over a long period of time. It was a shocking waste of the foundations laid by Paul Trollope and Lennie Lawrence who, barely eight years ago, had taken the club to the final of the Paint Pot Trophy and a successful League Two play off final. Instead of crashing out of league football, the club with its staggeringly loyal support base, should long ago have been challenging for a place in the Championship.
I did not expect an immediate return to league football. I did not see a single game last season, but history showed that it rarely happened. I expected a slow rebuilding job with the club getting back to the league in a few years. It turned out that the hurried appointment of Clarke the previous year would turn out to be an inspired one the year after. The new manager not only had to rebuild the playing side, he also had to do it with half the budget John Ward had been given.
It is hard to forgive Ward for the mess that he left, but it’s even harder to forgive those who allowed him too long in the job when it was obvious he no longer had it. Whether he walked near the end of the season for personal reasons, or because he did not want a catastrophic relegation on his CV, we may never know, but the absence of leadership at the top of the club, which has been a fundamental issue for years, surely played a part.
Today’s big celebration will be richly deserved for the supporters who embraced non league football when they could have stayed at home. It’s their day in the sun. But I noted with horror that one of the flags at the Memorial Stadium says, “Back where we belong”. If this means, back in the football league where we belong, then fair enough, but League Two is plainly not where Bristol Rovers belong. Rovers do not automatically deserve to be in League One, at least, but don’t tell me that League Two is “where we belong”. Throughout much of my life, Bristol Rovers was a League One club and recently, under the Dunford family, a Championship club playing at a non league ground in another city. That illustrates to me the mess the club has been in for years. If the Rovers of Twerton Park could stay in League One with some ease and even climb into the Championship, you can see that it was simply unacceptable to allow the club to plunge into the Conference whilst playing in Bristol at a ground they own. It is the measure of the disastrous years of failure under the current board. This is not me being bitter and twisted: it is a matter of fact.
When the fans arrive at the Mem today, the board should stand in a line and personally thank each and every one of them for their part in seeing the club returned to league football. And the chairman Nick Higgs should now apologise for his much-repeated comment that “Without the board there would be no Bristol Rovers”. For all I know, Mr Higgs may have played a vital role in this year’s promotion, but by the same token he will have played his part in Rovers abject failure too and he needs to acknowledge that.
Having said all that, I have once again tried to build bridges with the football club, as have others who are either banned or are no longer welcome. And there have been signals that the owner would like to finally move on from the past. I welcome that. I have been in contact with Mr Higgs, not just to thank him and the club for the wonderful support they gave the family of Ben Hiscox following his tragic passing, but also to congratulate the club for promotion. He has said he will meet with me soon and when that happens I hope we can finally end the years of argument, despair and division.
Today is certainly not about the directors milking the glory and I hope they don’t (although I wouldn’t put it past the likes of Ken Masters to muscle in on the occasion). The supporters, sadly, don’t own the club, they have no say in how it is run, they are told what will happen and they are never consulted on anything. But they own the spirit of the club, they own the history of the club. To paraphrase Mr Higgs, without the supporters there would be no Bristol Rovers.
Have a great day today, Gasheads, but tell those at the top who took the club into non league football in the first place and squandered the legacy from the Rickie Lambert era that they you will not accept more years of under and non achievement.
Today should be the beginning of better days for Gasheads, not a return to the malaise that afflicted the club for too long.