On Saturday October 20, 2012, I went to see my team Bristol Rovers defeat Torquay United 3-2. My enjoyment of the game was ruined by a half-time presentation of a banning order by a club official to former director, and my friend, Kevin Spencer. And the reason for the banning order? “Consistent criticism” of the club. In the view of the chairman, Nick Higgs, Kevin Spencer’s opinions were sufficient justification for stopping him attending matches at the club he had supported since he was a boy.
My views on how the club was progressing, or rather regressing, were little different from Kevin’s. The club was losing money hand over fist, a revolving door had been installed at the manager’s office and the only way was down. However, criticism, most of which was constructive, was not acceptable in that era and a fan was banned for having an opinion. But he wasn’t wrong.
18 months and four managers later, Bristol Rovers, unbelievably, were in the Conference.If those of us were in any way vindicated by the confirmation that the governorship of the football club was not the best, and indeed worthy of consistent criticism, there was no sense of satisfaction that the nightmare scenario had come true. There was no “I told you do”.
We made efforts to rescind the ban on Kevin Spencer. I wrote to and met Nick Higgs but was unable to persuade him to change his mind. I wrote twice to former director Chris Jelfs who did not bother to reply. I contacted the puppet ‘fans director’ Brian Seymour Smith who told me, somewhat unhelpfully, that it was “a matter for Nick (Higgs).” There seemed no way back, until last week the club was sold to the Al-Qadi family. Cut to this weekend and the new owners have given Kevin an amnesty. The ban is over once and for all. And it’s not just the ban that is over.
The old arguments are over too, now. The boardroom split of 2006 brought caused much division, not least the ascent to the chairmanship of Nick Higgs. The unbanning of one person is the end of that division, because no other division remains. No one who stepped away from working for the club before the split, whether as a director or as a volunteer, will ever again want to get involved in what some people call ‘the politics’. I am pretty confident we all feel that way and there’s more to be said about that.
I have always said my mistake was getting involved in matters away from the pitch. I was a very minor player in what was happening in those days, but I got caught up in the middle of it and was hurt in the aftermath. I took sides – and I don’t regret the side I took, despite the ugly consequences that followed – and that affected me as a person and as a supporter. What was I thinking about? I started watching Bristol Rovers in 1972. As I had said before, my only concern then was whether the team won. I had taken my eye off the ball. Because I had taken sides, there were consequences, at least one of which I cannot refer to publicly for legal reasons. For some time, I was embittered about this and then Kevin Spencer was banned. I had one easy decision to make: I would not attend another game at the Memorial Stadium – nor watch Bristol Rovers anywhere else – unless I could walk in to our home ground side by side with my friend.
Until last week, I believed I had seen my last Bristol Rovers game. My self-imposed solo boycott (although there were a number of other Gasheads who did the same as me, albeit with less self-publicity!) had seen me miss the glory of promotion back to the league and even things like being treated to an afternoon on an executive box to celebrate a certain PA man’s 20 years in the job. That PA announcer, whom I shall refer to only as Nick D, is also a close friend and if I am being honest – and I always try to be honest – I was devastated. But principles, not matter how skewed and self-defeating, are principles and mine don’t bend like the wind. I would have done the same thing for any friend in similar circumstances. Sometimes, it felt like an exercise in self-harm, but hey ho.
Now, I am very excited, and slightly nervous, about returning to see my club play again. I know I will, generally speaking, be among friends but I also know there remain others, hopefully not for too much longer, for whom I have little or no respect and were part of the mindset that separated some of us, physically and emotionally, for our club. I am old enough and ugly enough not to have to worry about seeing some of these people and, more than that, I still feel I was on the moral high ground for all this time. Others can concern themselves with their own consciences.
I appreciate that this banning malarkey was of little or not consequence to most supporters and in all honesty I can say ‘and quite right too’. They remain focused on their team, not the tawdry background activity. I can only speak for myself and, maybe, some close friends who feel liberated from many years of lethargy and inertia at Bristol Rovers.
This, at last, does feel like a new era at the football club. No more ‘politics’ for me, no more protest meetings and support groups, no more internet forums and no more fretting about things which I cannot affect, like virtually everything that happens off the pitch.
I can only but thank new chairman Steve Hamer and president Wael Al-Qadi for starting over, wiping the slate clean and taking us, united, to a better place. That is all I ever wanted for Bristol Rovers – to be the best they could be – and nothing else.
My one regret from all of this sorry affair is the Kevin’s much loved father did not live to see his son receive an official amnesty from the football club. That cannot be undone now, but it is a salutary reminder that actions can have consequences well beyond their intended reach. Mr Spencer senior will have known, as do I, what a fine man his son has become and someone I am very proud to call a friend.
Up the Gas!