Bristol Rovers 1 Gillingham 1
Saturday 28 April 2018
To start with we weren’t planning to go here at all, because Rovers looked set to move out of town (to a site at the University of Western England, at Filton). Then that fell through and we started to warm to the idea of visiting one of the quirkier grounds in the League. Then earlier this season we actually set out to go, but it was raining so we went to Cambridge instead.
To start at the beginning (my beginning) there was Eastville. A mile or so from the present ground and now an IKEA, it sat right beneath the carriageway of the M32. (In more dissolute times it wasn’t unusual for fans to watch games from the hard shoulder.) My great-aunt lived near Stapleton Road, so many a Sunday tea in the 70s was spent within sight of its floodlights.
Eastville is what cements Rovers, in my mind and in Bristolian history, as the city’s working-class team. A genuine multi-use stadium dating back to the 1800s, as well as Rovers it hosted, at various different times, greyhound racing, speedway, athletics, cricket, concerts, American football, circuses, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Rovers were the original owners but, being in financial difficulties, sold it to the greyhound company in September 1939. Presumably everyone had other things on their minds, but that decision came back to haunt them in 1986 when high rents drove them out.
The ground is best remembered for three things: the flowerbeds that adorned the open spaces within the touchlines, the smell of gas (Stapleton gasworks stood behind one goal, and to this day Rovers are colloquially known as The Gas) and the celebrated Tote End. The “Tote” was the totaliser, used to display the dog race results: this was a grim, dark terrace much beloved of 70s bovver boys, and in later days some severe fencing made it even more intimidating. Eastville is not remembered with great affection by many visiting fans, and not just because the away end was a bleak open terrace and the wind would whip dust off the greyhound track and straight into your face.
The writing was on the wall for the old place when, in 1980, the South Stand burned down. This was the largest structure at Eastville, and held all Rovers’ playing equipment and offices. At a stroke the fire (of the kind usually described as “mysterious”) made Eastville ultimately untenable as a football ground. Accordingly, between 1986 and 1996 Rovers played home games in Bath, an awkward exile at a venue that makes their present home seem luxurious. Ironically this coincided with some pretty good times on the pitch, as the team recaptured their 70s status as a solid 2nd Division outfit and put plenty of “bigger” sides to the sword. Twerton Park’s sloping pitch, tight touchlines and cosy terraces helped make it even less popular with visitors than Eastville had been.
After alarming the good folk of Keele last time out, we were back today to our usual car-swap spot in Cannock, where the residents have presumably come to know and perhaps even to like us. We swung into Bristol at around 1 and parked up in a quiet street within sight of the floodlights. Admittedly they belonged to the Gloucestershire cricket ground, but hey.
The Memorial Ground belonged to Bristol Rugby Club. Rovers initially moved in as tenants, and then bought out their erstwhile landlord when they got into financial problems. Sound familiar? The rugby club have now moved out and share Ashton Gate as part of the redevelopment there. Oh, do keep up.
As a consequence of the ground’s oval-ball heritage, and the reluctance of Rovers to invest because they thought they were leaving, it’s singular to say the least. Most of its capacity is terraced, and the terraces are neat enough: however, because half are open and the rest are fronted by a forest of pillars, fans are faced with a 70s- style Hobson’s choice between seeing the match or staying dry. The ground is near capacity for most games and so, in another 70s throwback, it was thronged by one o’clock as fans turned up early to secure a ticket, a decent place to stand, or both.
We’d invested in stand tickets, although “stand” is overdoing things a bit. The small number of seats available in the side stands apparently sell out a year in advance, so Rovers have done their best to fill the gap with a couple of those structures made out of stripy canvas and scaffolding that you see at country shows and the like. It was OK as far as it went, in that we could see most of the action, and the prices clearly take account of the spartan facilities on offer. And anyway, once upon a time all grounds were like this and we loved them for it.
Flesh and wine
This is the part of Bristol where The Young Ones was filmed, and the lunchtime drinkers in the Wellington were doing their best to create the same spirit of anarchy. This really is an excellent boozer. None of your no drinking outside rules here: the punters are free to sit out front and watch the world go by, there’s a decent selection of beer and they sell meat pies over the bar. Today there was a definite end of season vibe, and home and away fans were mingling pleasantly while getting happily shitfaced. As we left, a Rovers fan dressed as a dog was barking loudly while debagging a fan dressed in full Gillingham kit. Once in every lifetime.
This was Rovers’ last home match, so we were treated to the customary lap of thanks afterwards: but first we had to endure a poorly-refereed encounter with a combative Gillingham side. Rovers played the better football, Gillingham displayed the better “game management”. Not much really happened until the 86th minute, when Dom Telford headed home from his own rebounded shot to general celebration and relief. All this achieved however was to encourage Gillingham to contribute to the proceedings, and half-hearted defending allowed Elliot List to snatch a stoppage time equaliser. Goodnight, Irene.
Teams and goals
Bristol Rovers: Slocombe, J Clarke, Lockyer, Craig, Brown, Bennett, Lines, Sercombe, Moore (Broom 74), Nicholls (Telford 59), Harrison (Gaffney 60). Unused subs: Broadbent, Bola, Smith, Mensah.
Gillingham: Holy, O’Neill, Zakuani, Ehmer, Garmston, Byrne, Wagstaff, Reilly, Martin, Parker (Wilkinson 68), Eaves (List 75). Unused subs: Hessenthaler, Ogilvie, Nugent, Hadler, Nasseri.
Goals: Bristol Rovers: Telford 86. Gillingham: List 93.