Bristol Rovers supremo Darrell Clarke gets it. In responding to speculation linking him to the vacant Norwich City job he says this: “I want to continue here and keep working hard to get Rovers up the ladder even more. Everything about this club in the last three years has improved with a shadow of a doubt. That’s because I’ve been driving it and we’ve been driving it, the staff have been driving things forward to lose the ‘rag-arse’ Rovers tag that people associated with us previously.” “Rag-arse”, Darrell? Really? Yes, really.
I’m not familiar with this term but it is as good as any when comparing the era just gone by and the Al-Qadi/Clarke one. We always referred to “rag-bag Rovers”, some affectionally; others, like me, with frustration, embarrassment and anger. Some, I promise you, were at their happiest when Bristol Rovers was on its knees, showing off their sense of self-importance. “The team might be crap, the club might be technically bankrupt, but look at me: I’m a director elected by the fans, I know the chairman, he lets me sit in some board meetings, I watch the game from Box Number One and sometimes he tells me what decisions he has made. Usually, though, I find out when Geoff Twentyman announces it on the radio.”
We acknowledge the efforts of the Dunford family who rescued the club and the volunteers who helped keep it alive. Never forget and all that. The trouble was too many people were happy for that to continue forever and a day. Some were happy to maintain their big fish, small pond status, others were just grateful to survive. No point in dreaming.
I could understand rag-arse at Twerton Park. It was a tip and it wasn’t even our tip. We were not attracting 9k crowds then, except when we were achieving a miraculous promotion to the Championship. But rag-arse at the Memorial Stadium? Surely not? Well, it shouldn’t have been, but it was, until now.
You cannot read Clarke’s comments without reading things into them. If people regarded us in the manner described, then there had to be a reason why and the reason why at Bristol Rovers was those who owned the club. People like former owner Nick Higgs (how nice that sounds) who declared that “Bristol Rovers would not exist without the directors” which was a modest reference to himself. That was hardly a statement of ambition was it? More an admission that the club was up to its neck in the brown stuff but was able to survive due to the people that really mattered: people like him. Even if the financial aspect to his claim was true – and I’d say that claim was suspect enough in itself given the shambolic way in which they ran the club – then the real truth is that the club would not exist without its supporters. I have never forgotten Mr Higgs’ comment and any respect I ever had for him, which wasn’t much, disappeared at a stroke.
Clarke is right to say that the club has improved since he has been there, but he is too modest to say that certainly throughout his first two years the improvement was entirely down to him. Off the pitch, the club was running up unsustainable debts and there was no long term plan (many argued there was no short term plan either), just the usual “boom and bust”, “luck and chemistry” attitude that endured so long. In one short year, Bristol Rovers has made enormous steps forward.
His loyalty is hugely impressive too and I believe he is genuine when he says he wants to improve the club still further. Nothing would please me more if he became our Sir Alex Ferguson and brought decades of success to the club. If he carries on as he is, the offers will come and one day there might be one he cannot refuse. Almost every managerial reign ends in tears, usually for the manager, and no one will be more aware of this than Clarke. Many managers are unable to replicate the success they had at one club and they often fade out of football altogether.
I would like to think that Darrell Clarke will stay at the Gas for many years. There will be tough times along the way and when they arrive I’d like to think we all stay behind him.
And if Clarke has finally managed to jettison the club’s pathetic “rag-arse” image (and reality) we should be in his debt forever.