Bristol City 1 Ipswich Town 0
Saturday 17 March 2018
Unexplored territory for John (both Bristol and the ground) and for me, the first visit to Ashton Gate since I saw City lose 1-0 to Port Vale there in September 1988.
I moved to Bristol as a child in the mid-Seventies, spent a lot of time there in the mid-Eighties, and lived in Redland and Clifton through 1988 while doing casual work at Avonmouth Docks (I was sufficiently moved by this to buy a Portishead album, an action I bitterly regretted). The city holds a lot of memories, almost all of them good. So today was a bit more than a ground visit – it had elements of sentimental journey about it. Was my heart yearny? Maybe.
For fans of my age, it’s hard to separate Bristol City from memories of the Seventies when they played in the First Division – the club’s first stint at that level since 1911 and their last to date. Despite rarely troubling the top of the table, Alan Dicks’ sides played expansive football. To this day Robins stars of that era such as Peter Cormack, Geoff Merrick, Gerry Gow and Trevor Tainton have a cachet disproportionate to the team’s success. Possibly this is because City, more than any other club of that era, embraced NASL-type razamatazz at their matches. Fans at Ashton Gate were treated to a bizarre range of pre-match and half-time entertainment, while their programme covers were the stuff of legend. This seems to be a tradition they’re eager to maintain.
Sadly it all ended in tears with relegation in 1980, accompanied by the inevitable jokes about “Dicks out” – a sad finish to a managerial career at City spanning 15 years. From then on the decline was swift, two more successive relegations leaving City in the Fourth Division. Things were very nearly far worse, as in February of 1982 the club almost folded altogether. That it didn’t was partly due to the higher-paid players walking away from their contracts, and this group – Tainton, Merrick, Chris Garland, Jimmy Mann, Julian Marshall, Dave Rodgers, Gerry Sweeney and Peter Aitken – have gone down in folklore as the Ashton Gate Eight. Their treatment, both in Bristol and in the media, was not universally generous at the time. But now a plaque outside the ground commemorates a very real sacrifice by far from highly-salaried men with mortgages to pay.
For older City fans, however, the hero was always John Atyeo. Most teams had their one-club men in days before the maximum wage was abolished, but even among this breed Atyeo broke the mould. The statistics are impressive enough. 351 goals in 645 appearances across 16 seasons, and 6 England caps as a part-timer in the Second Division. Bids from the likes of Chelsea, Spurs. Liverpool and Milan, had they been accepted, would have made him England’s most expensive player. But, rather like a Southern Tom Finney, it’s the essential humility of his story that makes Atyeo a special case.
Atyeo signed semi-professional forms on 14 March 1951. Or rather his father did. Harry Dolman, City’s engineer chairman between 1949 and 1964, walked along the main railway line from Dilton Marsh in Wiltshire to the signal box where Atyeo senior worked to secure the signature of an amateur who was also attracting interest from Portsmouth. It came with caveats, principally that John should be allowed time to complete his apprenticeship as a quantity surveyor. This meant he only signed as a professional in 1958, and in the event spent just 5 seasons as a full-time footballer before again turning semi-pro in 1963 to enable him to qualify as a maths teacher. Teaching became John’s career following retirement from football. He was well-liked by his pupils and colleagues at Kingdown School in Warminster and eventually became deputy headmaster.
Snow was falling all around, down to the Knob from the North or the Pest from the West or whatever the current cold snap was called. But we weren’t playing or having fun, it was bloody freezing. For all this, after the Norwich fiasco today’s was a trouble-free affair. We crossed the Avon before leaving the M5 and followed the quiet side of the river to Bedminster, where the good people at the cricket club let us park for £5 instead of the £10 demanded by the rob dogs a few yards up the road. There was even time for a quick visit to Brunel’s masterpiece en route. Which on this occasion was more like a fridge than a bridge.
I loved going to City in the 1980s. It was a nice walk from Clifton, down the hill, across the river and the railway tracks and through Greville Smyth Park. Third Division football meant the park had ceased to be a battleground, and the biggest worry was the fierce dogs guarding the gypsy camp by the bridge over the Avon. Despite the Robins having fallen on quiet times the Gate retained the feel and scale of a top flight ground.
Sadly diminished in intensity since First Division days, Ashton Gate’s East End could still be a febrile bearpit if occasion demanded. This it did on New Year’s Day 1988, when City faced a mundane Brentford side in the Third Division and went in at half-time trailing 3-0. Manager Terry Cooper threw on his sub, player-assistant manager and former Leeds team-mate Joe Jordan. Roared on by a simmering five-figure crowd and galvanised by the snarling, toothless Jordan hurling himself into tackles that would be illegal today, the team rallied to 2-3 and very nearly pulled off an unlikely draw. It remains the best impact substitution I have ever seen.
The Gate was characterised, back then, by the number of tobacco adverts – something else that wouldn’t be allowed today, but in those days totemic of one of Bristol’s traditional industries. They adorned the three covered sections of the ground – the East End, the Williams stand, and the Dolman. This last was a great slab-sided thing built in 1970. Dolman played a leading role in its design, and also that of the grounds iconic “drenchlighting” system. His massive pylons with their brooding, inward-leaning lamps dominated the Bristol skyline for forty years.
Into the present, and, despite being in the same place, the East End is now confusingly called the South Stand. The 1920s roof I knew lasted until a couple of years ago, but has disappeared as part of a major redevelopment enabling a groundshare with Bristol Rugby; in its place is a seated tier, sweeping round from the rump of that same Dolman to the enormous new Lansdown Stand where the Williams used to be. The old Open End was replaced a while back by the now very modestly-sized Atyeo Stand.
The South Stand holds a “singing section” but it wasn’t doing much singing today. The liveliest part of the ground, and I use the adjective guardedly, was the quadrant of unreserved seating we were in. Here the fans stood up, sang, jumped around and generally enjoyed themselves. It felt like the spiritual incarnation of the old EE, and it was quite brilliant to hear songs celebrating the Ashton Gate Eight – “they tore their contracts up so we could go on”.
After that game in 1988 we exited the ground to find a disgruntled fan had put a brick through the window of the home dressing room (which in those days was temptingly exposed to the main car park). All the singing sections in the world won’t bring that passion or lawlessness back to our football grounds – the world has moved on too far. Is that a good thing? Probably.
Flesh and wine
Our tried and tested “dive into the nearest pub to the ground” method came up trumps and soon we were propping up the bar in the snug and cosy (ie rammed to bursting point) Coopers Arms. Initial pleasantries over – a Stasi-like grilling by the landlady establishing that we weren’t from Ipswich and weren’t going to trash the place – everyone was very friendly. Especially the Germans.
Ashton Gate is very big on the whole fanzone experience. Out the back of the Lansdown Stand there are about a million of those massive food vans selling “gourmet” stuff, which I think is down to the ground also being a rugby venue (the Barbour brigade like that sort of thing). So needless to say I ignored all those and for a fraction of the cost bought a lamb and mint pasty from a trailer parked round the corner. Very good it was too. Premier cru pie.
In one corner, a much-lauded Bristol City team, fresh from League Cup glory (they beat Manchester United but that didn’t get a lot of publicity, so you may have missed it) and eyeing a play-off place. In the other: Ipswich, in Mick McCarthy’s sixth season and playing the sort of exquisite attacking football commonly associated with the Barnsley maestro. Djuric’s neat goal, stooping to head in a Kelly cross of the kind usually described as “wicked”, was a rare highlight. So adventurous was Mick’s approach to this one that he made a substitution in the fourth minute of added time in a bold attempt to break up his side’s attempts to equalise. It worked. Fortune favours the brave.
Teams and goals
Bristol City: Fielding, Pisano, Wright, Magnusson (Hegeler 71), Kelly, Brownhill, Pack, Smith, Paterson (O’Neil 83), Reid, Diedhiou (Djuric 56). Unused subs: Walsh, Wollacott, Diony, Kent.
Ipswich: Bialkowski, Spence, Carter-Vickers, Chambers, Webster, Knudsen, Ward (Celina 83), Skuse, Connolly, Sears (Morris 94), Waghorn. Unused subs: Hyam, Crowe, Gleeson, Drinan, Kenlock.
Goal: Djuric (64)