Today’s announcement by Bristol Rovers chairman Steve Hamer that the club would not be appealing against the decision of the High Court to confirm Sainsbury’s decision to pull out of a deal to buy the club’s Memorial Stadium was legally correct and represented the final nail in the coffin of the failed old guard at the club. The years of obfuscation, the constant misleading of loyal supporters, a decade of amateurish autocracy all wrapped up with incompetence and bluster – all over.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that had not Wael Al-Qadi not come riding to the rescue, Bristol Rovers would have been in serious trouble. Not a minor blip, but an existential crisis. One of the first actions of the new board was to pay off the ‘Wonga’-type loan the club had taken out to fund the legal action against Sainsbury’s, all over an agreement that the chairman Nick Higgs publicly described as “watertight”. We now know this loan was part of a shit or bust effort by the owners. The club simply had to win the court case because no one had a clue how the loan could have been paid off, never mind how to pay for a new stadium.
Still got sympathy for Nick Higgs and the former financial director Toni Watola? You shouldn’t have. Read back to Watola’s evidence from last year’s court case. He said it would be a ‘catastrophe’ for the club if Sainsbury’s did not go through with its development of the Memorial Stadium site. “In the long term, I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that losing the UWE site could be catastrophic to the financial wellbeing of the club,” added Watola. And then it got even more interesting. “Damages are unlikely to be an adequate remedy for the club.” In other words, if Rovers ended up with less than the amount they wanted from Sainsbury’s, it would not be enough. Winning the case was “key to the club’s long-term financial success and ultimately may be crucial to its survival.”
So there you have it. Bristol Rovers was not safe in the hands of Higgs and Watola. They gambled its very existence and but for the white knight of Jordan, they almost gambled it out of existence. Damned by their own words.
Steve Hamer’s announcement is merely confirmation of what we had all long suspected: that Higgs and co were flying by the seat of their respective pants. They even went to 10 Downing Street with the local self-publicist MP Charlotte Leslie and Supporters Club representative Paul ‘Swampy’ Seaton to persuade the prime minister David Cameron of their case. Indeed, Leslie asked Cameron a question in the Commons and the well-known Villa – or is it Hammers? – fan leapt to Rovers’s support. Higgs and co even persuaded the country’s top politician that Sainsbury’s were in the wrong when, in the eyes of the law, they weren’t. And let’s not even mention those Gasheads who vowed never again to shop at Sainsbury’s.
Higgs left the club when the new owners took over and it didn’t take them long to invite Watola to take a long overdue retirement. Funny that. Antoni Josef Watola was virtually unknown to most Gasheads and disliked by the rest, a fitting epitaph to a man known to those who crossed him, not in a nice way, as “the smiling assassin”. I’ll bet he’s not smiling today. Good.