I’m not sure exactly how long before my birthday it was but I’m guessing it was a few days or so before. 34 years is a long time and the memory can fade but I remember the exact moment vividly. I was seven years old and my eighth birthday was approaching. We went to my Aunty Jan’s house and she gave me my birthday present. It was soft and I opened it up. I was amazed. It was a Bristol City scarf. ‘Bristol City Ace Of Clubs’ it said. I couldn’t believe it. A City scarf. Amazing. She told me to put it around my neck which I did and at this point, a small flimsy piece of paper fell on the floor. They told me that it was my ticket for the next home game and that Uncle Dave was going to take me. We’d be in the Dolman Stand. I still have the scarf and it was probably the best birthday present I ever had.
Bristol City was lying in the play-off positions in the old Third Division in the spring of 87. I had no idea at the time but just seven years previously they were in the First Division. I had always assumed we were just a lower division club and no more. Watching Liverpool win the double the previous season and clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal seemed light-years away. When City was relegated in 1980 it was a huge fall from grace.
By 1982 the Robins were in the Fourth Division after suffering three successive relegations. The First Division days were mostly spent battling against relegation but a 13th place finish in 1978-79, the season I was born wasn’t bad. The four-year spell that started in 1976 had some highlights, with notable wins over the aforementioned Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. But when Gary Collier was lost on a free transfer to Coventry City in 1979 the board panicked and started handing out ridiculously large contracts to prevent this happening again. One was as long as 11 years and on First Division wages. As the team sunk and crowds declined the club fell into a huge financial mess.
3 February 1982 is one of if not the most important date in the history of Bristol City Football Club. The club was just hours away from bankruptcy and was only saved when eight players tore up their contracts and accepted redundancy. These players were – Geoff Merrick, Chris Garland, Trevor Tainton, David Rodgers, Gerry Sweeney, Jimmy Mann, Peter Aitken and Julian Marshall. I’ve listed them all by name because they should never be forgotten. Without them there would be no Bristol City, I would not support the club I do and there would have been no first match for me at Ashton Gate at all.
I often wonder who my team would be now if the club had gone under. Bristol Rovers? I shudder at the thought. Liverpool? This was entirely possible as like most kids back then I loved their all-conquering side. So my first match could have been at Anfield but you know what? I am so glad that didn’t happen. I’m Bristolian, not scouse. I’m from the great port of the south-west not the great port of the north-west. Trophies are overrated. The beauty is in the struggle.
The effect of the financial meltdown on City was huge. A new club was formed out of the ashes of the old. Caretaker Roy Hodgson in his first managerial job in England couldn’t stop the then-record third successive relegation. City was penniless and without eight first-team players in an age when squads were vastly smaller. The effect on the Ashton Gate Eight as they became known was arguably bigger. Geoff Merrick joined the 3 million unemployed on the dole. He never played league football again. Trever Tainton lost his business. A business that he had been running while he was playing football so he had something for his retirement. This was an age when players earned not much more than the man in the street.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic COPA 90 made a documentary on Bristol City. It was made in the week leading up to the Fulham match that was to mark the 125th anniversary of the club. The film was sadly canned as that was to be the last match with fans for what felt like forever, and the UK, along with most of the rest of the world went into lockdown. The film featured board members, legendary players, podcast creators and magazine editors.
It also featured me and I was interviewed in the Three Lions pub. The first question I was asked was how long I had been a City fan and why I chose the club. It was a good question. I didn’t necessarily come from a family that meant I was destined to support City. I loved football as a kid but my Dad was a Geordie that didn’t like football. He is proof that they do exist. Music and science was his thing. My Mum was a Bristolian but football wasn’t her thing either. Her Dad, my Grandfather was a City fan from Taunton in Somerset but he died when I was three years old. I remember him but we were never allowed to get to know each other. My paternal grandfather died before I was born one year after England’s 1966 World Cup triumph. He liked football but being from the north-east his influence was more likely to have been of a Magpie rather than Robin persuasion. My cousin Steve was a big City fan but when I was a kid he was a teenager. No chance of him taking a small child to Ashton Gate to stand on the Eastend with him and his mates. After all, this was the 1980’s.
My first memories of interest in City started on my street. In the mid-eighties, there were loads of kids there and everyone loved football. This was in the early days of computers and games consoles hadn’t really arrived from Japan yet. We were the last generation where being outside and playing football was the ultimate. There weren’t as many cars on the road as today and so it was easy to play the game on the street using a wall and gate and fence posts as the goals.
These games would last for hours until we were called in for tea and would only stop to pause when the shout of ‘car’ went up. Although this was a rarity. The ages of the players would range from me at age 6 up to Steve and Andrew who would have been 11. No one supported Rovers. This was south Bristol after all and so it was all about City. I knew from the older boys of the existence of a team called Rovers but they were the enemy I was told. I thought about the name too. Bristol City. Well, Bristol was a City and was where I was from. It sounded from the name that they represented our West-Country home. Rovers sounded like some kind of travelling band or a dog. Little did I know that they would soon be leaving Bristol for Bath. Also, City played in red and it was my favourite colour. Rovers played in blue and that was a colour I never warmed to. Liverpool was the best team in the land and they played in red. It could only have been City for me.
Once the club was saved in 82 it was in a complete mess. Following the departure of Roy Hodgson, The Robins turned to former player Terry Cooper who had recently been sacked after a disappointing spell at Bristol Rovers. Cooper was player-coach and he needed to be with a now threadbare squad. City won the first game of the 82-83 season with a 2-1 win against Hull City but results turned sour. The team was full of kids such as teenagers Rob Newman and Andy Llewelyn.
The club was penniless but Cooper turned things around and dragged the club into mid-table. The following season saw City promoted in 4th place in the pre-play-off days. There was a carnival atmosphere at Chester where promotion was secured. There was more City than home fans in the ground and it reverberated to the song ‘City, wherever you may be, we went down 1-2-3, we’re coming back through all fucking three! We’re going down in history!’ Sadly though for City that final jump to the top tier is yet to be achieved.
In that promotion year, Bristol Rovers were beaten in the FA Cup at Eastville. A rare occasion where City was the underdog. At 1-0 down Cooper brought himself on and dragged his young side to a 2-1 victory. In 1986 City reached Wembley for the first time in the final of the Freight Rover Trophy. Bolton was beaten 3-0 and Cooper cried tears of joy remarking that he had played for England but this was the best day of his footballing life. This coming from a man who had also experienced titles with Don Revie’s legendary Leeds United. It was clear how huge a job he had done. He had taken over a club on its knees, got them challenging for promotion from the Third Division and led them to a Wembley trophy. He had also joined the board as a director remarking that financial prudence was paramount. He was not going to be the man to bankrupt Bristol City and it was so important that future generations had a club that was still playing at Ashton Gate.
My memories of the match itself are just snapshots. Uncle Dave picked me up in his car and I remember being a grey day with incessant rain coming down. He bought me a programme which I still have that featured the celebrations of the Freight Rover win the previous year on the cover. We descended the steps up to the Dolman Stand and took our seats in block B. 14 years later I would have a season ticket in that very block and it was where the rowdier elements of that stand would congregate as it was close to the away fans on the open terrace below to the right. The Fulham fans, small in number were sheltering under umbrellas as the rain continued to drop.
For the record City lined up as follows – Waugh, Newman, Williams, McPhail, Llewellyn, Fitzpatrick, Owen. Harvey, Morgan, Walsh, Jordan, Honor. I can remember three main things from the game. Despite searching high and low there doesn’t seem to be any footage of this game on the internet. Even someone who compiled highlights of City’s season that year on YouTube didn’t bother to include it. My first memory is the noise. I had never experienced anything like it when City would attack. Often the roar of the crowd would make me jump. The Eastend, City’s main home terrace made one hell of a noise despite the 8,551 crowd, but it was a different game in the ’80s in so many ways and the atmosphere even in the Third Division was quite something and has been lost with the gentrification of English Football.
I also remember a young Paul Parker, playing for Fulham that day clearing the ball over the Eastend and the huge cheer that went up when it bounced over the other side and into the car park. The closest City came was a shot from my hero Alan Walsh hitting the underside of the bar and bouncing out without crossing the line. So no goals in my first game but I was hooked and wanted to go again. We headed to the club shop and Dave bought me a Freight Rover Trophy winners rubber that I proudly packed into my pencil case for school on Monday. I didn’t know it at the time but City was just weeks away from winning the area final of that year’s Freight Rover against Aldershot, booking another final at Wembley. This time City’s name wasn’t on the trophy with David Moyes missing the crucial penalty in the shoot-out.
Legendary Scottish striker Joe Jordan was leading the line for City in my first match and Cooper had brought him to the club intending him to be his successor. After City had missed out on the play-offs several times, Cooper stepped aside in 1988, recommending Joe finally take over. It’s not an understatement to say that Terry Cooper played a huge part in the club’s rebirth and revival. It was such a pity that he couldn’t take that final step to the Second Division which is par for a club like us but he still played a part as it was Joe who finally managed it with a promotion in 89-90.
As for Uncle Dave who took me to my first match, I don’t recall seeing him much after that. He and Aunty Jan split up and he was gone. Although I’m sure I saw him in the ’90s on another rainy Saturday afternoon. By this time I had a season ticket and was going to City every week. He was coming down the steps of the Dolman Stand in his flat cap as we were after the match that day in 87. I heard he passed away sometime in the 2000s. I’ll forever be grateful to Aunty Jan for getting me that ticket that has led to a habit of watching City ever since. She’s gone too, dying suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. I still have my season ticket even though I live in Seville.
This year also marked the passing of Terry Cooper. I felt quite moved by his death as he was my first City boss. It felt that another person from my childhood was gone. As you get older and time marches on this becomes a more frequent occurrence. Following City has brought more disappointment than highs but that’s fine. It’s not about the team winning matches or the club being successful. It’s about your community, shared experience, the roar of the crowd. Ashton Gate has changed beyond all recognition since the 1980s but sometimes when I’m there my mind drifts back to my first game and I can see the rain, smell the cigarettes, hear the Eastend and see Alan Walsh hitting the bar.