“You’re still a closet Bristol Rovers supporter, aren’t you?” asked an old friend I bumped into in my local one evening last week. “They’ll always be part of you.” The obvious answer to that is yes and no.
The ‘yes’ part is simple to answer. You don’t support a club for over 40 years without clinging on to those memories via the sepia-stained images etched into your psyche. And with that club, you meet and make new friends, many of whom will remain friends for life. Despite my self-induced exile from the club for over two years, I still keep in touch with many of them. And no one can take away the memories of the good times and the bad.
The ‘no’ part is more complex. My reasons for stepping aside from the club I once worshipped and to which I devoted huge amounts of energy and passion have been documented ad nauseum but having been ground down by disillusionment and occasionally despair I often feel several times removed from ‘my’ club. Not for the first time, I had no idea who Rovers were playing yesterday until I switched over from watching England beating Australia in the rugby union whilst listening simultaneously to Liverpool scraping home against Stoke. (Who said men cant multitask?) For the record, it was Welling, Rovers won 2-0 and I have no idea who scored, what the game was like and so on.
The fact that I feel moved to write about it suggests there is something still there, a small spark of enthusiasm for the club in which I had a considerable emotional stake holding. Well, you would think so. But whereas ten years ago, I could name and recognise every single player in the squad, as well as the reserves and youth team, today I would not recognise one single player. I have seen the names in the odd newspaper report, of course, because until recently I wrote for the matchday programme and it’s always a good idea to refer to them occasionally!
My lack of enthusiasm is plainly not shared by most supporters, especially with the team making a decent run at the play offs, at least. Success on the pitch is the only way to retain and increase attendances, even if it is in non league football. By non league standards, Bristol Rovers is a massive, behemoth of a football club and it should not be that difficult for even the most modestly gifted coach to achieve promotion, especially now that the board has completely loosened the purse-strings, providing resources that most managers in the Conference could only dream about. Even with my decreased knowledge of the club and the team, automatic promotion must surely be the first priority. The current leaders, Barnet, will not be able to match what Rovers will almost certainly do in the January transfer window, that is to bring in some genuine quality for a real run at the title. The play offs should be a given for the Rovers and for all the reasons given above anything less would be abject failure.
I see Bristol Rovers as a massive lower league club, as it has always been, languishing in non league football, solely and directly as a result of poor leadership and governance from the top; a wealthy autocratic charisma-free, ex businessman in the chair who thinks he knows a lot more about football than he really does and blames his failure on everyone but himself. in the good times, as these are for Bristol Rovers given the miserable recent past, it may seem churlish to criticise the top of the shop but nowadays I see a club with no heart. Certainly, the most passionate and loyal fans in the Conference, no arguments there. And with a young manager in his first big job who knows his way round non league football. The process by which chairman Nick Higgs appointed Darrell Clarke may have been chaotic, as many of the decisions made by him have been since he took the chair, but it looks like, for once, he has struck lucky. Even Higgs won’t be able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this time, you would hope, but given his track record you wouldn’t bet against it.
From what people in the game tell me, Clarke is the perfect fit for Rovers. As we know, he is an expert in non league football, unlike those at the club who took it there, and he seems to have a good eye for a player. As ever, I would like to think that the club will stick with him for the long term, as opposed to the usual short term-ism that has taken the club out of league football.
Chairman Nick Higgs isn’t going anywhere – and you can read that anyway you like! – and I won’t be going anywhere near the Memorial Stadium or the UWE for as long as he is anything to do with Bristol Rovers, except maybe to say goodbye! Personally, I don’t think Rovers will go anywhere with his dead hand at the tiller but to use one of his most-used words you can always hope. I think he is the man who has ripped the heart out of Bristol Rovers, especially with his clumsy attempts to convince us that without him and the board there would be no Bristol Rovers. Without the fans there would be no Bristol Rovers but without him there might just be someone with a long term plan and vision beyond boom and bust. In any event, I can’t believe a word he says these days. He won’t give a toss what I think but I won’t lose any sleep over that.