Articles in the mainstream media about football in Bristol usually follow a set pattern, invoking the same facts and opinions with eye-rolling predictability. Bristol is described as the English game’s ‘biggest underachiever’, references are made to the city’s population (535,000) and the area stereotyped as predominately a rugby region.
Some pundits, with all the knowledge and sensibility of Boris Johnson speaking about care homes, declare that Bristol would be better served by a merger of the city’s two professional teams (Bristol City and Bristol Rovers). Considering the violent scenes that overshadowed the last Bristol derby in 2013, this solution feels about as practical as using amputation to heal a paper cut.
The perceived problem is the lack of Premier League football in Bristol – it has been forty years since City played in the top flight and for decades there has been more chance of spotting Banksy than seeing either team appear weekly on Match of the Day. Some locals steadfastly believe that the city already possesses a myriad of attractions without ‘celebrity football’ and they would be right. However, it cannot be denied that Bristol City have been openly targeting promotion for years now, while Rovers have held aspirational aims of their own. At the time of writing, it feels as if both clubs have begun to stagnate again.
One perceived factor in Bristol’s underachievement is that the two professional teams are almost fixated on each other, the equivalent of two bald men fighting over a non-existent comb. City fans returning from defeat in the 2004 Play-Off final were greeted with banners screaming ‘Bad Luck City Scum’ hung by jubilant Rovers supporters over motorway bridges. After the aforementioned 2013 derby, then City manager Sean O’Driscoll proclaimed the victory celebrations were more fitting of ‘promotion rather than reaching the second round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy’.
The reaction to the transfer of Matty Taylor from Rovers to Ashton Gate in 2017, announced with the provocative Twitter hashtag ‘Welcome to Bristol’, made Luis Figo’s move from Barcelona to Real Madrid seem like a deal that suited all parties. Goalkeeper Steve Phillips, who moved in the opposite direction, was attacked in a local gym and has claimed not to have been into the city-centre for a drink in years. The infrequency of the fixture has not dimmed the hostility between the two sets of fans.
There has been a sense that City wish to rise above this. Over the last half-decade, they have successfully rebuilt Ashton Gate into a smart, modern stadium and owner Steve Lansdown has created the ‘Bristol Sport’ umbrella that also encompasses the city’s rugby and basketball teams. Walking around Broadmead, Bristol’s principal shopping district, it is impossible not to see digitised advertisement for home games and it has felt like the club are positioning themselves as the natural choice for any floating Bristolians. There is absolutely no mention of Rovers.
However, recent seasons have seen momentum on the playing side stall. From the high of late 2017, where the Robins beat Manchester United to reach the League Cup semi-finals, City have seen successive promotion attempts ebb away. Summer transfer windows have seen their best players poached by leading Championship and lower Premier League teams, from Bobby Reid to Adam Webster. While this does not necessarily spell doom, the impression is growing that City are falling back into the pack of the ultra-competitive Championship.
Former manager Lee Johnson had come under increasing criticism. Under his leadership, City had been prone to long winning and losing streaks and his tactics were accused of being overly-cautious. In January 2020, captain Josh Brownhill was sold to Burnley without an adequate replacement and the sentiment solidified that Johnson had taken City as far as he could. Following the latest run of defeats, the board announced his departure in early July.
Things are not much better at Rovers. Wael Al-Qadi’s 2016 takeover promised much, but four years on discontent amongst their fanbase has risen. The club remains stuck at the Memorial Stadium in Bristol’s northern suburbs and the saga surrounding the building of a new ground has reached farcical proportions.
Plans to build on the University of West of England’s campus were ditched in 2017 after protracted negotiations with South Gloucestershire Council. An interest has been declared on the site of the city’s Fruit Market, but progress remains minuscule. Even for a club with a history of homelessness (including spending ten years playing at Bath’s Twerton Park), the sense of frustration is palpable.
Attendances have declined over recent years, indicating a degree of apathy. The decision of manager Graham Coughlan to move down a division to Mansfield Town in order to be closer to his family’s Sheffield home killed any chance of promotion during the 2019/20 season.
While there has been talk of prioritising youth and re-engaging with the fanbase, it is hard to shake the feeling that Rovers are nothing but a club in purgatory. With the future of the next League One season currently in doubt and murmurings of disappointment over the ownership of the club, there may be tough months on the horizon for Rovers.
The population of Bristol has been accused of cynicism when it comes to its local football clubs – while both teams have taken substantial support to Wembley for showpiece matches, a sense of fickleness remains. Plenty of Rovers and City supporters also follow Premier League teams and the local pubs are packed for any standard Super Sunday. It can appear that people are waiting for something successful to support rather than be there before it happens.
A huge appetite for football clearly remains. It has been claimed that the Bristol Downs League is the largest stand-alone league in Europe, with all its matches across four divisions taking place across the same sprawling greenery. A fiercely competitive set-up, its most famous son is arguably former Arsenal and England captain Eddie Hapgood, who turned out for Union Jack FC in the 1920s.
The actions of the city council can often undermine any local enthusiasm. While neighbouring Cardiff have invested in projects such as the Millennium Stadium, councillors in Bristol have argued for years over the appropriate location of a large music arena. It can often feel like Bristol is actually a parochial town, with decisions made by a small group of wealthy, long-established families rather than democratically. While Cardiff builds, Bristol dithers.
With COVID-19 casting a long shadow across all sections of society, it can be claimed that the Bristol clubs may have missed their best opportunity for years to make substantial progress.