Long before my 2016 trip to Bristol, on the southwest coast of England, people were confused as to my reason for being there.
It’s not that Bristol lacks interest – in fact, English people seem to all agree it’s young, hip, lovely and worth a visit. I had found the same thing the day before. It’s also next to the tourist mecca of Bath. It was, rather, that I was coming in to see the Bristol Rovers Football Club.
One Bristolian had said to me, “You know, there’s a bigger and better-supported club in Bristol.” He meant Bristol City, currently a division above Rovers. Another said, “I’m surprised you even know of Rovers!” My favorite was when someone said, “You’ve come all the way from America to see that lot?” Well, no; I’m on a tour, and a book project. Call me a Yankee Groundhopper if you will, determined to see all 92 some day, but for now raising my number to more than 80 with my visit to tiny League One Bristol Rovers.
The day started with a lovey chat over breakfast at my AirBnB in Montpelier. It’s among the reasons I prefer AirBnB to a hotel, getting to know the locals, gathering tips like the yummy Indian restaurant I never would have found the night before, and swapping tales and observations with the other travelers. They were all nice enough to get me going about my project and ambitions, so after 12 hours of sleep, some caffeine and a few ego strokes, I was ready for Game Day #1 of this trip.
Bristol Rovers are, indeed, a small club. They have never been to the top league in England, I think they’ve made exactly one trip to Wembley, and (although I find this charming) they are best known for singing “Goodnight Irene” at matches. (Apparently it started in the 60s when they taunted opposing supporters for leaving early.) They are also known for their nickname, The Gas, which was originally put on them as “gasheads” by their bitter rivals Bristol City because Rovers’ old ground was next to a dump and smelled horribly. Rovers took it as a matter of pride, and now in fact list themselves as “Gas” on their own scoreboard. They also sing, somewhat oddly, “When The Gas Goes Marching In.”
Their opponent today would be Port Vale, if anything a smaller club which one might call “the other club in Stoke.” They have also never been to the top league, though they did once make the FA Cup semifinals and have had two days at Wembley in smaller competitions. They were in League One at the time of my visit, but as of the 2018-19 season they are down in League Two.
I walked up Gloucester Road, a main drag from the center of town to the north, and clearly a path of future gentrification. Down the hill it’s artisan this and sustainable that, but up closer to the ground it’s still burger sheds and Poundland and traditional pubs like the Queen Vic, which was crawling with Blue and White and labeled “Home Supporters Only.”
I collected my ticket and my badge, and then also got a funny story. The man in the club shop, which was smaller than a box car, told me Rovers had been to America in the 1970s for a little tour. He said they played someone in Florida (the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I told him) and “somebody in one of the Portlands. Portland Timbers, is it?” I pointed to my hat and said, as this was in early 2016, “They are now known as the Defending MLS Champion Portland Timbers.” He snapped his head back and seemed genuinely surprised, as was I. So there’s a connection already!
The ground couldn’t be more neighborhoody, though I’m glad to say they left the one by the dump. They are now at Memorial Stadium, build to honor rugby players who died in the wars, and everyone likes to say it looks like a rugby ground. I have no idea what that means, but it does strike me as different from other footy grounds.
There is one stand all along one end, where the loudest fans sit, called the Thatcher’s Stand. Then there are two stands on each side, with seats above and terraces below, plus another seated section kind of tossed into a corner, an open set of terraces across the way for the away fans, and a stand in the other end which isn’t centered on the pitch and is covered on three sides with tenting. Everyone just calls it The Tent. With all these separate pieces, the whole ground looks a bit like they took it apart to fix something and haven’t put it back together yet.
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Beyond that, it’s stuffed into a neighborhood just off Gloucester Road, and truly had the feeling of everyone there knowing everyone else there. I love the small clubs, where the program seller knows the supporters, who know the ticket agent, and everyone knows the stewards, and someone from the terraces can call out to a ballboy by name to see how school is going. That actually happened. It feels like proper local football, and for me just makes a mockery of the Premier League with its fawning, obsessive media and melodramatic millionaires. Give me a League One tilt any day!
I watched the Port Vale team coach pull in past the VIP parking area (six cars), the Press Room (another aspiring box car), and almost no notice from the handful of supporters milling about.
I was even charmed when I got four different responses from four different stewards as to where I was supposed to it. I had, as always, purchased my tickets ahead of time from the club website, but in this case it was less necessary than ever. At Bristol Rovers, one can simply drop a 20-pound note at the turnstile (16 for a junior) and walk right in! I had a little tour of the ground, looking for the Lower West Terrace, only to eventually discover it was better known as the West Enclosure. These standing-only terraces don’t exist in the top level of English football, but they do in Germany and the US (see Timbers Army), and I hope they come back to England. It’s so nice to just drop a 20 and go look for your mates on the terraces, as I saw many people doing.
It still feels quite communal and traditional, with several generations and both genders well represented among the standing folk. That they all clearly knew the stewards, players and ball boy by first name (he reports, by the way, that school is a bit dull) only makes me love it more. The ball boy, by the way, was the terraces’ Man of the Match, not only for cleanly catching a skied clearance (“Well held, son!”) but also for tossing a ball aside when it was a Port Vale throw and getting an annoyed look from their player, the wanker.
And finally, the teams came out — to the Rocky theme???
The game started and Port Vale, fourth in League One at the start to Rovers’ 15th, looked considerably better at first. They moved through Rovers’ defense with ease and precision, and it was no surprise when they went ahead – although all on the terraces agreed the keeper shouldn’t get beat near-post like that. It took the Port Vale supporters, at the far corner, a full second or two to realize the ball had gone in!
I was enjoying the banter, whether it was the fondness for the short, bearded, tattooed midfielder in blue and white, particularly when he won a header, or when a visiting player went down in front of us, looking for a foul, and could clearly hear our taunts of “cheat.” He laughed, nodded sarcastically, and jogged back into the fray. There were also such comical moments as one errant shot knocking a gutter off the stand behind the goal, and another more errant shot that cleared The Tent entirely and left the ground!
The hero of the terraces, at least in the first half, was Danny on the right wing, a tall lad with pace and some trickery which the fans believed in but he didn’t choose to show. I say this because, every time a midfielder got the ball, everyone yelled to look for Danny. Then when Danny got it, everyone yelled for him to “skin” the defender in front of him. He generally didn’t, although it was worth the excitement to have the ball come to him.
Late in the half, Rovers got a goal from a cross (not Danny’s side), and it turns out that would flip the game. In the second half they got a penalty, and I got a good video of what proved to be the winning goal:
Sadly, I stopped shooting just before they belted out the day’s best “Goodnight Irene.” Rovers almost got a third when the ball was crossed through the area, pulling out the Port Vale keeper, and the left winger for Rovers backed off and lofted a fantastic looping curler towards the far post … which it struck, sadly. Everyone agreed it would have been something had that gone in, but that it was a cracking effort nonetheless.
Halftime was worth mentioning, as well. They introduced some of the young players from the academy, and the host man couldn’t help himself from some commentary, such as “Joey seems to have broken up with his hairdresser,” or “He’s from Bath, but we’ll take him anyway,” and a local lad to whom he was about to give a big intro to when he realized the boy wasn’t wearing socks! “He’s apparently lost his socks,” the host said. “I hope his Mum isn’t here to see this.”
It ended 2-1 for the home team, and we all went home happy. Here’s the final whistle:
Actually, I more like dashed back to the AirBnB, grabbed my bag, hopped a local train for Temple Meads Station downtown, grabbed a ticket for the 1800 service to Paddington, and that’s where I sit right now, trying desperately to keep up with the writing part of this book adventure. Sometimes, and especially on an all-around winning day like I’ve just had in Bristol, you want to just dive in and savor it all without worrying about tasks such as actually writing the book.
Still, I am rarely more happy than at a football match or writing on a train. And just now the lovely gal in the snack car gave me a free coffee because the espresso machine was down. So, I can honestly say, as I whir along towards London with another game day waiting tomorrow, the trip is off to a fine start, and life doesn’t get much better than this.