“Ouch!” Excuse me, that’s a reaction to the splinters I have been getting in my nether regions thanks to this fence I have been sitting on since it was announced that Bristol Rovers had been sold to the Al Qadi family from Jordan. But getting off this fence is more complicated than I imagined. Let me try to explain.
For a decade or more, I have been convinced of the need to have football supporters in positions of influence at a football club. Indeed, I was involved for some years in a scheme at Bristol Rovers which sought such influence and indeed a degree of fan ownership. I am still convinced that fan involvement is A Good Thing but I have learned, sometimes painfully, that these are not the priorities of your average fan. I’d better explain what I mean by average fan because I do not want to suggest, in any way, that I am currently anything more than a less than average fan.
16 years ago, I found myself getting involved in actively supporting Bristol Rovers. Fundraising, promoting a scheme to purchase shares for the supporters, generally trying to make the club better. It came at a cost to me personally. When a close friend and former director was banned by the club, I took the decision to support him by not attending games myself. It was a personal decision and one I do not regret taking. If you cannot be loyal to a friend, what use are you to anyone? Who would ever trust you again? That’s how I feel anyway. I did not do anything special for the club and certainly much less than many others. I was an average fan who maybe got in too deep and got my fingers burned. That’s the way life is.
Meanwhile, back to fan involvement. Everything that has been tried at Bristol Rovers in terms of fan involvement, fan ownership and fan representation has failed. We have been down that road too many times and I am convinced that, at this club at least, this is a road that has ended in a cul de sac. The model of ownership accepted at the club has been one of local millionaires managing the club from day to day, propping it up with loans and by selling the better players. It is not an unusual state of affairs in lower league football. I saw no long term, sustainable future in such an arrangement, but for as long as the directors were prepared to lend the club money, we’d still have a football club. Now, the existing directors have decided also that the financial model of muddling along, of boom and bust, could not go on forever and they have sold the club to a family from Jordan who, if it is true what we are led to believe, are richer than God.
On the face of it – and deeper than just the face of it – I see the foreign ownership vehicle as being the worst option of the lot. There are stories of great success with foreign owners, as well as stories of financial catastrophe. What if they rip out the assets of the club – who will own the new UWE stadium, for example? – and do a runner? I am not saying they will, of course I’m not since I don’t know the first thing about the Al Qadi family, but these are questions people will be worried about. Or will they?
Nick Higgs has stated clearly and unequivocally that he would never sell the club to someone who did not have the interests of the football club at heart. As a lifelong supporter, he must be totally convinced that in the Al Qadi family the club is in a safe pair of hands. Now the deal has been done, we need to take Mr Higgs at his word. Because Bristol Rovers has no form of effective supporter representation – let’s face it: no supporter was consulted about today’s sale – there is simply no alternative to accept that Mr Higgs is telling the truth and that the Al Qadis are there for all the right reasons.
I do not know if there were other options open to the football club. There is speculation that other investors were waiting in the wings with other plans and different ideas and these may later come out in the wash, but even if they do, what will it matter? This is a done deal and it is not going to be undone anytime soon.
The important people in all this are the supporters, the incredible supporters who have been there through thin and thinner, always at tatty, dilapidated stadia, treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed shit) and generally taken for granted, but always there in huge numbers. Obviously, I do not have access into the minds of all these supporters but judging from initial reactions on social networks, by text and by telephone calls and by emails, the Al Qadis have overwhelming support from people who are willing to entrust them with the club’s ownership.
Tomorrow, Bristol Rovers play Morecambe and that will be the barometer of whether the sale of the club is as popular as I believe it to be. Will anyone raise their hand(s) and complain about potential financial ‘doping’ as some do about clubs other than their own, or will those who have doubts, assuming there are any, bite their tongues and simply dream of a brighter day? My firm belief is that Gasheads will give the sale of the club a big thumbs up tomorrow and if you are going I suggest you get there early because it is going to be a sell-out.
There is definitely an element of ‘be careful what you wish for’ when you wave goodbye to ineffectual and unsuccessful owners and say hello to new owners about whom you know nothing and I think there is certainly an element of relief that the tired old men of Box One have now gone.
This certainly is a new era at Bristol Rovers, an almighty step into the dark, which has shocked and thrilled supporters in almost equal measure. One thing I keep hearing over and over is that “this new lot certainly couldn’t do any worse than the last lot” and it is hard to imagine they could be. But the truth is that they could be better, they could be worse. Time alone will tell.
I have always said that I would prefer the owners of a football club to at least be local, rather than some distant millionaires. At this stage, I don’t really know how I feel about it, but I do know that I am pleased that Nick Higgs and most of the rest of the board, apart from the puppet Supporters Club directors, have stepped aside.
You may have noticed that I have still not fully extricated myself from the fence. That said, the Higgs years are mercifully over, there is no clamour among the fans for a fan owned club and maybe it finally is shit or bust time.
I’ve been more interested in matters Bristol Rovers than for some years. I didn’t expect that, so I completely understand why there is a sense of near euphoria thanks to today’s events. An old Gashead friend of mine said today, “I’ve waited 50 years for something like this to happen,” and I’ll bet he’s not the only one. I’m not going to piss on his celebratory fireworks and maybe, just maybe, the inside of that tent is beginning to seem a bit more inviting.