Bristol Rovers’ president Wael Al Qadi has wasted little time in confirming that the UWE stadium project is dead in the water. Because of “confidentiality clauses”, we may never find out just why it’s dead in the water and that’s a bloody nuisance since it is, on spirit at least, our club. I am guessing that these clauses were deemed confidential a long time ago. However, no Gashead can exactly be thrilled that we are not allowed to know. So, it’s pointless speculating and all we can do is take Wael at his word, which since he bought the club has been a word we can believe in.
Instead of building the UWE stadium, Rovers will instead redevelop the Memorial Stadium. This is fraught with difficulties, not least the presence of a vociferous local minority who will doubtless campaign furiously to prevent any kind of work that in any way affects their lives, even if it doesn’t really. But Rovers will need to address major issues, like the chronic lack of parking spaces at and around the ground and the less than satisfactory public transport links. And there will be the old chestnut of gaining planning permission.
Now, planning issues have not actually been an issue with Rovers. The City Council itself has given the go ahead to pretty well everything the club has applied for since we moved here from Bath. The problem has been that the club never got round to developing anything. How can we be sure that this will actually happen and if so, then how will it happen?
I am assuming money will not be an issue, so what will the owners do? Which parts of the ground are unfit for purpose? I would say pretty well all of it. If we are to aim for the Championship, we will need more seats and nothing but seats if we want to stay there. The Thatchers end will have to go, along with the tatty old rugby cub bar areas. The Centenary Stand covers a ridiculously short part of the length of the ground and the terraces are very much an afterthought. The Tent end – well that’s obvious, which leaves the West Stand. And do we rebuild all in one go or do we do it in sections?
Doing it all in one go would mean leaving for around two years and where would we go? Ashton Gate is simply not an option and have you seen Twerton Park lately? Cheltenham Town or Newport County seem to be the only alternatives but who, other than the real fanatics, would want to travel that far every other week? Not many. So we rebuild section by section which would take, at a guess, seven or eight years, maybe longer. The Mem would be a building site for the best part of a decade. Crowds would suffer with a reduced capacity it would not be done quickly enough for us to stay in the Championship, always assuming we got there. With planning issues, is it possible that the new Mem might not, even if it runs to time, be ready until 2027? So, am I critical of the new owners? No way.
What is the point in criticising Wael Al Qadi? If we do not know the nitty gritty of the failed UWE project there’s nothing to criticise him about. With no obvious sites available in Bristol or South Gloucestershire, I have the feeling that ship sailed maybe 20 years ago. The Filton airfield might have been ideal, as might the site of the former Rolls Royce buildings. But everywhere you look the options are narrowing, or have already gone. The Mem, Wael’s Plan B, could be all that’s left.
In saying that a new Mem would be good enough for the Championship, would it be good enough for the Premier League? Unless we had owners who were willing to subsidise, to financially dope, the club, no it wouldn’t. How would people feel about that, knowing that the dream, however distant, or Premier League football would be gone forever? Speaking personally, I couldn’t care less. I can’t afford to watch Premier League football now never mind in 2027, or whenever the work is finished and anyway, it means absolutely nothing to me in terms of the football I enjoy.
The UWE is dead and that’s that. Steve Hamer was not bluffing when he was interviewed last week. His response when the story broke was to come clean and all Wael has done today is to confirm the news. Whatever you think about how the story came about, you do know, don’t you, that Nick Higgs would have gone into hiding for weeks before conducting a slippery cliche-ridden interview with Radio Bristol. At the end of the day.
Move on, nothing to see here. In Wael we trust. If not, it’s probably best to find something else to do with your Saturdays.