I posted the header photo on both my Facebook and twitter feeds this week. It attracted a few comments – my views are not widely sought at Bristol Rovers Football Club, nor should they be! – but one, from a Gashead, stuck in my head, something that happens when someone speaks a truth, or something approximating the truth. The reply said this: ‘Don’t get your point. The feeling is the same no matter who’s in the boardroom, you love your club regardless, shame you seem to have fallen out of love!‘
Firstly, and incidentally, it isn’t my point: it’s Sir Bobby Robson’s point but it’s one with which I heartily agree. It is also a very old fashioned point of view, one where someone discovers their forever club and the processes involved. I still think it happens, where sons and daughters latch on to the team their parents support. But it is different these days. Pay TV, the internet in general and social media in particular have changed the rites of passage. Where people usually supported their local teams, gentrification has occurred as it has in everything else, football has become part of the tourism industry and the historical familial and geographical connections people once had with their teams has diminished. As someone well past the first flush of youth, and most of the flushes beyond youth, Sir Bobby’s vision of the football club still resonates strongly with me.
I think the person who didn’t get Sir Bobby’s point has a point. After all, I tolerated various incompetent owners at Bristol Rovers since the 1970s and my love for the club still remained. I might have wanted the board of directors sacked, something it’s impossible to do, but I still got behind the team. Why did I fall out of love with BRFC?
My big mistake was to get involved at the club. I was no major player in the various projects to improve and modernise the football club and to make it sustainable in the long term, as well as encouraging an element of fan ownership and so influence, but when our dreams were crushed back in 2006 when the board split in two, my feelings towards the club changed forever.
My emotions were tinged with bitterness, too, because I chose the wrong, that is to say losing, side of the debate. The owners fought off attempts to bring the club into the 21st century and the supporters either didn’t buy into making the club better or simply didn’t care. The victors, the old guard, were so petty-minded they had me removed from my programme column and, so it is alleged, from a local newspaper column I shared with someone else. (I have no way of knowing if the latter is true, except to say that the sports editor at the time took me out for a coffee and told me it was.)
At that point, the alternative argument ran that ‘no matter who’s in the boardroom, you love your club’. The trouble back in the late 2000s was that I was beginning to fall out of love with BRFC, a process later made even worse when a close friend and former director was banned by the owner from the ground for making ‘consistent criticism’ of the club. Just imagine he’d been guilty of inconsistent criticism? Anyway, I concluded that if he was banned, I would want no part of the club. If he couldn’t attend matches, then I wouldn’t either. It was an entirely personal decision and, so far as I can tell, no one else made a point of staying away. It was my own way of expressing solidarity, even if I was cutting my nose to spite my face. (To be fair, if I did that, I wouldn’t look any worse.)
All this means that I did start to fall out of love with my club. It happened to an old friend years ago when, after an incident when he was volunteering at the Memorial Stadium he woke up one day and found he had lost what he described as the ’emotional attachment’ to Bristol Rovers. That was how I felt, too.
And yet, despite all this, I do care. Despite being the biggest financial investor the club has ever seen, I am still not convinced by the ownership model of the club, which is basically a fabulously rich Jordanian plugging the huge financial gaps, seemingly forever and a day. Whilst Gasheads gushed with approval for al-Qadi’s financial contribution to the club, I still see no plan, no vision and no suggestion that, other than by luck and chemistry, the club will move to another level. Yes, it’s great that al-Qadi is committed to funding the club – where would it be without the family’s generosity? – but with not a single Gashead anywhere near a place of influence at the club and the entire board of directors on the payroll, who’s looking out for the fans?
I don’t ‘seem to have fallen out of love’ with BRFC: I have fallen out of love with it. There’s no getting away from it. Perhaps, one day the feelings of love and passion for ‘my team’ will come back and maybe they won’t. There’s still something there, otherwise I wouldn’t talk or write about it, but one thing is for sure: no football team will ever dominate or take over my life like it did before.
al-Qadi and his hired hands won’t be around BS7, or wherever Rovers end up playing, forever. Those who, as Sir Bobby Robson, said ‘fell in love’ with their club are the spiritual owners and they will be there forever. That’s the basis of Sir Bobby’s point. I agree with him and I always will.