For some time now, a bunch of old Gasheads, including myself, have gone out on an occasional evening for a few beers. We normally talk about the good, and not so good, old days and moan about the current days. We talk, extract the Michael, crack a few elderly jokes and wish that things were better at Bristol Rovers. We were all pretty sure they would never get much better, with the club struggling far more than the owners let on, with the UWE stadium plan in jeopardy and the debts growing. Things, we were reasonably sure, could only get worse. Then, enters Wael Al-Qadi.
I have done enough bad jokes about Nick Higgs to last a lifetime and, indeed, to attract a ban from the stadium, but enough about Mr Higgs. I met him a few weeks ago with a dear friend of mine to thank the club for what they had done when his son had died. Mr Higgs was kindness itself. I was wrong when I listed his achievements at Bristol Rovers. There were two. One was the way they treated my friend and his family and the other was selling the club to Mr Al-Qadi.
Having blasted overseas owners over the years, I now find myself welcoming this one. Having criticised what some people called ‘financial doping’ at other clubs, I now find myself, entirely selfishly, hoping that the Rovers receive their share of dope!
The unexpected return of my passion of all things Rovers has coincided with both the departure of Mr Higgs and the arrival of Mr Al-Qadi. And it wasn’t just my passion. We all know that more than one of us saw our enthusiasm waning under the dead hand of Nick Higgs’ tenure as club chairman and owner. But a large table full of Gasheads round the pub table last night was positively buzzing. The attraction of some seriously rich men owning the football club was one thing, it was what they did with that wealth was the important thing and what we all felt was that the building of the UWE stadium was critical to the club’s future. If they do one thing as club owners, that stadium is paramount, it’s vital to everything that happens. But there was something else we all seemed to agree upon.
There was no feeling that the owners should go on a summer splurge and throw money on establishing a stellar squad. It might work and the club could probably afford it, but the unanimous view was that we would like to see the club develop in a sustainable way, putting down roots, re-building from the rubble. Even now, the manager Darrell Clarke has no scouting system to speak of. I suspect he’d like to finally bring in his own managerial team too, although he has managed well enough with the one he has been given. The future of Clarke is fundamental to at least the medium term, hopefully the long term too, at Bristol Rovers. He understands football and footballers and with the right guidance and support can surely go on to still greater things. We would like Clarke do have a fundamental role in reshaping the future of the footballing side of the football club.
Off the field, the club needs substantial change. I know some people enjoy the Ragbag Rovers image and will be reluctant to embrace change. Well, that’s just too bad. No one who has been to a Rovers game at the Mem can be anything other than embarrassed by the shambles of the Memorial Stadium. Everything from the dismal selection of beers, to the toilets, the rubbish viewing facilities, the hopeless PA system – the list goes on forever. We may need to sacrifice some of the things we have learned to love at the Rovers, such as the homespun Supporters Club heroically volunteering for jobs that really should be carried out by professionals but it has to be. Unless people fancy a lifetime of League Two and crap facilities, change must come and only Mr Al-Qadi and his family can bring it about.
From heading to the football divorce courts, I now see hope of reconciliation. We all do. Some who have carried on going, despite the actions of the owners, through those who have drifted away right through to those who have deliberately stopped going. A Jordanian family has given us all our club back.
All we have ever argued for was that the football club be better run. Nothing more, nothing less. We lost that argument in the Higgs era, but it no longer matters. The past has finally passed. The club will never be like it was in the past, few of us who were involved in what others called ‘the politics’ will ever get involved in anything ever again. That, I can safely say, is as sure as sure can be. We will be there to cheer on the Rovers and to let the owners, the management and the players to do their best for the football club.
I am never going back to the football forums, I won’t even attend Supporters Club AGMs or club meetings, unless they have been specifically called by the football club for positive reasons. I cannot deny that the past was painful at times. No way would I want to go back to those days again.
Finally, I am happy for my friends at Bristol Rovers. Many of the employees, the matchday volunteers and mainly all my friends on the terraces who have, one way or another, dreamed of a brighter day. They’ve got it now. We need to let the family and their new directors plan a new way ahead and rely on and trust in their judgement. I’m looking forward to going back now.