It gives me no pleasure to admit that my prediction that Bristol Rovers would win their court case with Sainsburys was a million miles off the mark. I had no idea how things would go, but my gut feeling was that Rovers would win. That was my heart talking, not my head.
I did not expect to be as stunned as I am. For some time now, I have gradually lost my enthusiasm for the club, the footballing love affair of a lifetime appeared to be over. In any event, I appear to have convinced myself that Rovers would find their case upheld in court and soon the diggers would be in action at the UWE. And then they lost.
I no longer look at football forums so I have no idea how fans reacting, but I do follow social networks and they are full of doom and gloom. And so they should, for this is a devastating blow to the football club. I heard chairman Nick Higgs on TV this afternoon and he sounded and looked like a broken man. He talked unconvincingly about launching an appeal, referring to the positive legal advice he had received, but then it was not that long ago that the club said they had positive legal advice in their bid to sue Sainsburys. That didn’t work out too well, did it?
Loyal supporters understand exactly what today means to them. Barring an unexpected twist, the UWE dream is over. Rovers will have to go back further than square one and then start all over again, with a bigger debt and continuing losses. What do they do next?
Interestingly, the club statement says the club is still committed to building a new stadium, but note the words “a new stadium”, not the UWE stadium: this could mean nothing, but I am not the only one who picked up on it. Perhaps it’s too soon to think about an alternative location, but come on: where is left?
The Filton airfield about to become an enormous new town, as is Harry Stoke. The way things are going, there will be nowhere to build on and anyway, who’s going to pay for it? Mr Higgs admitted on the radio that there was no one standing in the wings brandishing a chequebook and why would they with the UWE stadium plans seemingly in tatters?
We could eventually come back to that old chestnut of redeveloping the Memorial Stadium but even that would require the usual trials and tribulations of going through planning and the bloody Green Party and the rent-a-quote fruitcake NIMBYS slowing things down and buggering it all up. What is it with these people who want to keep Bristol as a sporting and cultural backwater? Every time we take a step away from village green status, some Luddite tries to take us back to it.
Should Nick Higgs and the board resign, as some suggest? Mr Higgs effectively – actually, not that effectively – owns the club, other board members carry large numbers of shares. They’re not going to walk away unless someone buys those shares. Call for Mr Higgs to go until your heart’s content, but then what?
I’m afraid I have no answers to the problems at the football club. The UWE represented a potential solution, for sure, but if that’s gone the club needs a Plan B, although right now it is hard to see what Plan A is.
My dear friends who are shattered today deserve better than this and I hope they soon get it. I was a minor bit-part player in previous attempts to change the club and to make it better. In every single instance, we failed and there’s no going back. Two former directors held talks with Mr Higgs last year but that came to nothing. I’m afraid the reality is that there’s no one out there. And even if there was, my first question to them would be this: “Where the hell have you been all this time?”
In an ideal world, supporters would have a genuine stake-holding via shares and elected board representatives, unlike the current arrangement where the current puppet “fans representatives” sit in Box Number One, representing no one but themselves. If supporters want greater accountability and influence, they will need to organise because if they don’t, then nothing will change. No one will bring about change for them. But to do nothing except moan is pointless.
Sainsburys have no shame. Their cynical behaviour in this whole smelly business does them no credit, but the truth was that Rovers’ case was not, as Toni Watola described it, “watertight” because they lost. They did not “smash Sainsburys in court” as one director said they would some months ago; instead they took a mauling.
Make no mistake, this is a massive blow for Bristol Rovers. Supporters need hope for the future and a reason to believe. Above all, they need vision, they need leadership. It would be nice to think they would get all these things in the near future but I would not bet the house on it.