February 2011 and Ian Holloway brings his Blackpool side to the home of Bristol City. Holloway is pretty much Mr Bristol Rovers. A Pirates fan all his life, he both played and managed the club. He is adored by Gasheads and hated by City fans. The appearance of the former Rovers captain would usually spark a wall of noise, boo’s, whistles and hate. Except for this time, it’s different. This time there is a ripple of applause. Holloway comments after that as a proud Bristolian it moved him and he remarked that he wants his relationship with City fans to improve. There are endless arguments on the forums. Some say he is a Rovers legend that hates us and should never receive anything less than a reception of pure vitriol. Others say he is the only Bristolian to have managed in the Premier League and this achievement should be recognised. Other former Rovers players come to Ashton Gate and get a boo but nothing on the scale that usually greets Holloway. So how did it come to this?
Ian Scott Holloway was born in Bristol and grew up on the ‘Banjo Island’ council estate in Cadbury Heath which is deep in Bristol Rovers territory. He attended Sir Bernard Lovel school which also boasts cricketer and staunch Bristol City fan Marcus Trescothick as a former pupil. SBL was a secondary school with a good reputation. John Barnett taught Ian Holloway at SBL and tells me that ‘I taught him in Year 9. Bright, bubbly and keen. The whole family supported Rovers. He was pretty clever and picked up French quickly’. This contrasts somewhat with the image of Holloway as something of a clown and the Bristol City fans nickname for him of ‘Hollowhead’.
Holloway may have always been a Rovers fan but he did get the opportunity to sign for Bristol City in 1980. The Robins were a much more attractive proposition at that time as they had only just been relegated after a four-year spell in the First Division which had seen players such as Norman Hunter, Joe Royle and Terry Cooper pull on the red shirt. Holloway told the Bristol Post that he turned down City because they kept telling him what a great player he was going to be whereas Rovers told him he would need to work incredibly hard to make it as a professional. This appealed to him much more and he attributes this environment at their former Eastville home as to what made him the player he was. City have always been seen as the aristocrats. Playing an attractive style of football despite representing the more working-class south of the city. Rovers are more about hard work, dedication and a more physical game. North of the River Avon where Eastville resided is the part of the city that contains its most affluent neighbourhoods, although that can’t be said for Eastville itself or some of the surrounding areas.
Rovers fell into financial problems and Holloway was sold to Wimbledon in 1985. One year later in 1986, Rovers left Eastville Stadium after the lease expired and they failed to agree on a new contract with the greyhound company that owned it. Rovers couldn’t afford the increased terms of the rent on offer. This was not the first time finances had plagued Rovers and in fact, it was due to such troubles that they originally sold Eastville to their landlords back in the 1930s. They began a ten-year exile in Bath playing at Twerton Park as a tenant of Bath City. This led to the popular Bristol City chant that there is ‘only one team in Bristol!’ and jibes along the lines of ‘squatters’ and ‘Homeless Rovers’. This was the period that the term ‘The Gas’ became popular. Originally an insult by City fans due to the smell of the gasworks that lay adjacent to Eastville, their new home in Somerset also had a gasworks in the view from the stadium. Rovers fans took the name to their hearts.
Gerry Francis was appointed manager of Rovers as they adjusted to life outside of Bristol. He re-signed Ian Holloway from Brentford and he became a key member of his side. Francis favoured a long-ball game with big strikers and tough players. Rovers gained a reputation as a side that was difficult to beat and they played on this image with the sparse surroundings of Twerton Park. Even by the standards of the 1980s the facilities there were poor. This created something of a siege mentality and the team started to do well, just missing out on promotion in the play-offs in 1988-89. It was to be the following season where Ian Holloway’s relationship with Bristol City fans would start to deteriorate rapidly.
The 1989-90 season was a good one for Bristol football with both sides being promoted. City had a wonderful side playing exciting attacking football with wingers and a dream strike partnership in Bob Tayor and Robbie Turner. Both sides were near the top of the table all season, with City holding the advantage until an unfortunate injury to their talisman Bob Taylor who scored an incredible 34 goals and was one of the main reasons City was doing so well. The Robins even knocked First Division Chelsea out of the FA Cup. However, on 10 April Taylor got injured after completing a hat-trick against Crewe and the goals dried up. City hit a bad run of form and Rovers started chipping away at their lead. So it was that the stars aligned that the Bristol derby at Twerton Park would determine who was promoted and barring a collapse, the title would be pretty much secured. The scene was set on a Wednesday under the lights.
Holloway has spoken of how his phone would not stop ringing all night the evening before the game and that these were calls from City fans making threats as to what would happen to him if Rovers won. Rather than putting him off his game the next day, he has spoken of how this just motivated him and the other Rovers players even more. City simply didn’t turn up. They were awful and were comprehensibly beaten 3-0. Rovers were promoted, and as the team and their fans celebrated, the City fans rioted. Objects were thrown onto the pitch and City manager Joe Jordan had to approach the away end to appeal for calm.
It was at the Rovers title parade that Holloway truly became a City villain for life. The open-top bus wound its way through north Bristol and upon halting in the Rovers heartland of Kingswood, Holloway made a speech “We’ve had to put up with some crap from all those shit heads haven’t we?” I want you all to play a game with me tonight that’s called find the City fan! 3-0 3-0 3-0 3-0!” Shit head is a derogatory term for a City supporter. The Rovers fans lapped it up as Rovers vice-chairman Geoff Dunford smiled. Perhaps this could be excused after the phone calls he received the night before the derby? City fans, whether they were aware of this incident or not didn’t think so.
Rovers may have won the Third Division but City fared better the following season. Joe Jordan left for Hearts in September and City just missed out on the play-offs. They may well have made them if the Scotsman had stayed but he saw the Edinburgh club as a stepping stone to the Scottish national team job. Jordan himself has remarked that this was a mistake and that he feels he could have taken City to what would become the Premier League. Rovers struggled and Francis left for QPR in 1991 and took Ian Holloway with him. So that was that for now. Holloway was in the First Division and London and City remained a Second Division side. Rovers were relegated in 92-93 and City in 94-95. It would be in 1996 that Holloway would next play against City.
In 1996 Rovers played their last match in exile in Bath at Twerton Park. They started the 96-97 season back in Bristol at the Memorial Ground that was the home of Bristol Rugby. Along with a new home they also had a new manager. A player-manager no less and it was their former hero Ian Holloway.
The first Bristol derby of the season was on 15 December. Joe Jordan was back as City manager and both sides were back in the third tier. City was 11th in the table and Rovers 15th. The previous season’s derby at Ashton Gate had led to chaos as the match was not all ticket and a huge crowd descended on south Bristol. As a result, many City season ticket holders were locked out as the club had not taken into account season ticket holders and had allowed the stadium to reach capacity. I was there that night and the capacity must have been breached as many fans were two to a seat. City was dire and Rovers won 2-0 with two Peter Beadle goals. The evening quickly turned violent with many clashes between rival fans in the streets of Bedminster and Southville after. The logic being that if City couldn’t beat Rovers on the pitch then the fans would off it. So the match live on Sky was already filled with tension. Despite City often finishing higher than Rovers from 1984 onwards, it was The Pirates that regularly won the derby. The previous season’s last derby at Twerton Park was a 4-2 City win and the Robins only victory there in 10 years.
City took an early lead with a superb goal from Paul Agostino. Tension was high and the atmosphere electric. It was heated on the pitch too with Rob Edwards being sent off and Holloway receiving a reception of pure hatred from the City fans. Despite City being the better side, following Edwards sending off Rovers came back into it, and in injury time and in front of the Rovers fans, Peter Beadle tapped in an equaliser. Rovers fans spilt onto the pitch in delight. This was too much for some City fans and quickly they entered the pitch from the Dolman Stand. Some approached the Rovers fans looking for trouble, but incredibly a large number headed to the Rovers players. As pandemonium ensued they ran for the tunnel. Some got hit but most escaped unscathed. Ian Holloway was the prime target and managed to getaway. Joe Jordan, who happened to be celebrating his birthday, was dragged into it again with Holloway shouting ‘for god’s sake Joe do something!” Police horses cleared the pitch and the match ended. Mass fights continued into the night with the Rovers end being subjected to bricks and coins being thrown. Sky viewers watched on appalled and it was the main item that night on News at Ten. Former City manager Russell Osman commented in the Sky studio that while such behaviour could not be condoned it showed the strength of feeling between two clubs in a city that is rather forgotten about when it comes to football.
The front page of the Bristol Evening Post the next day was scathing printing images of those wanted by the police in connection with the pitch invasion. It also carried the headline ‘Holloway – I thought I was going to die!’. While the scenes could not be condoned it was felt by City’s fan base that this comment was rather overblown. Overblown or not and despite the despicable behaviour of the City fans, Ian Holloway was still public enemy number one in BS3.
Rovers finished 17th that season and City made the play-offs after sacking Joe Jordan and appointing former Rovers manager John Ward. Despite being reasonably successful with Rovers, Ward was always fairly popular with City fans and so his appointment was welcomed. Holloway got his revenge over City in 1999 with a 2-0 home win but that was the last league victory that Rovers would enjoy over their rivals up to the present day. Leading the table for most of the season, Rovers went into freefall for the last 10 games and finished 7th. This was still above City and remains the last time Rovers have managed this. Following the slide, Holloway was sacked and turned up at QPR.
His managerial career has been full of ups and downs since. Relegation with QPR, promotion with QPR. A spell at Plymouth followed and he subsequently took charge at Leicester City. His first match in charge was a 2-0 win against his old friends Bristol City but Leicester was relegated to the third tier for the first time in their history under his tenure. He left the club and it appeared that a patchy managerial career was over but the best was yet to come.
He took Blackpool to promotion to the Premier League on one of the smallest budgets in The Championship. The achievement was impressive and despite a good start the leap for a club like Blackpool proved too much and they were relegated after one season. This brings us back to the beginning and Holloway leading his tangerines side at Ashton Gate.
If he thought that his reception would lead to an improved relationship with City fans then he was wrong. Upon returning once again with QPR in 2016 he was greeted to a chorus of boos and was serenaded with the following song from City’s ‘Section 82’ part of the ground ‘He’s only a poor little Gashead, his face is all tattered and torn, he made me feel sick, so I hit him with a brick, and now he don’t sing anymore.’
Subsequently, he has continued praising City telling Talksport in 2019 “The job that Lee Johnson is doing with the help of his wonderful chairman and the ground there is geared towards being a Premier League football club. Our young people in this area in the South West, it’s criminal we haven’t had it. We had it for one season when Bristol City got to the First Division but then they plummeted as they ran it terribly, it all went horribly wrong.”
Four seasons in fact Ian but I see your point.
Only in February of this year he told The Bristol Post “City fans might find it hard to believe, but if Rovers can’t reach the top flight, nothing would please me more than for Steve Lansdown to take his club up from the Championship. “
Despite recent attempts to cool things between him and the City fans, Ian Holloway remains public enemy number one at Ashton Gate with only one rival for the crown. But that’s another story…….
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