In Exile: Gloucester City’s Lessons In Groundsharing
As part of 200%’s series about Britain’s lost football grounds we look at Gloucester City, a club without a home ground since 2007.
Unlike many other club’s in their league Gloucester City own their own ground, its just they can’t use it at the moment. They haven’t been able to play at Meadow Park for almost four years. The Tigers weren’t the victims of property developers, megalomaniac chairmen or greedy landlords. It was the might of the River Severn, which forced them from Meadow Park in July 2007
Four years on and Gloucester are still enjoying a nomadic existence with their third groundshare about to enter its second year, after a season at the Forest Green Rovers’ New Lawn and two at Cirencester Town’s Corinium Stadium the Tigers are now playing at the Abbey Business Stadium, home of Cheltenham Town. A planning application for a new ground back in Gloucester is in but realistically the Tigers won’t be home for a year or so yet (I covered the plans a bit here and since then the update is, well…there is no update really.) Hayes and Yeading fans, preparing for a year of groundsharing as Beaconsfield Road’s revamp is finished will have transport laid on to Woking’s ground to encourage them to keep the faith during the season away, the Tigers’ Supporters Trust has done the same for City fans picking them up from outside the sad remains of Meadow Park, but getting to the new ground is just the half of it, groundshares are bloody hard work.
Matthew Phillips, acting chairman of the Gloucester City Supporter’s Trust, is in no doubt that the past four years have been tough for the club and the trust, he said:
“In our situation we’ve had no choice but to groundshare, it goes without saying that we wouldn’t have survived without it. It’s difficult going into a groundshare and even more difficult when you don’t know when it will end.
“There is no reason why a groundsharing team can’t be successful, Gloucester were promoted out of the Southern League after 70 years when we were playing at Cirencester, there is no reason why you can’t start doing things to make your club an attractive, commercially successful club when you get back. But winning new fans becomes 100 times more difficult for every year you groundshare.”
First off there is the cost of the rent – Gloucester pay around £45k a year to stay at Cheltenham which seems a lot but considering the ‘other club’ in the City, the one which plays with an egg shaped ball and gets all the local press coverage offered to groundshare for about a third of that per game it’s a bit of a bargain. Unlike Cirencester (‘home’ from 2008-10) the Abbey Business Stadium has the right ground grading and it is nearer than both the Corinium and New Lawn. Still £45k is a lot; Gloucester City Council helped out with a £20k grant last year, with the Supporters’ Trust also chipping in, it is by no means certain that either the council or the trust will be able to do the same next season.
It seems like even more when you consider the decimation of most of Gloucester’s revenue streams. There is no bar take, no money from functions and no cash from the burger van. Meadow Park used to have a nice little social club and the bar was always packed after a game – its not quite the same sitting in a bar decked out with the colours of your rivals, knowing the money goes to them and you’ve got a 20 minute drive home, the Cheltenham staff now wear Gloucester gear on match days, a nice touch, but with most of the fans heading home on the Supporters’ Trust bus straight after the game the bar is rarely packed out. For Trust fundraising events its pretty tough to turn a big profit when you have to fork out for a room or a venue and when the bar take isn’t yours to keep, unless you want a village hall – hardly ideal for a sportsmans’ dinner – your options are fairly limited. The club shop, almost entirely saved from the flood waters, has survived, just about – it now occupies a corner of the bar, with the merchandise stored at the back of the CTFC bar, at the New Lawn it was a table in the concourse and at Ciren, a temporary cabin which most people will know by a trademarked name. Unlike Hayes and Yeading’s arrangement with Woking, Gloucester don’t have their own stewards on match day, the rent includes the use of some of Cheltenham’s – stewarding, like the groundsman will be on the shopping list when the return to Gloucester is a bit closer to reality.
Attracting advertisers and sponsors is also a battle when you don’t have a ground, particularly when the country is in a recession and companies which were once happy to spend money on a corporate day out at the football are cutting back on jobs as well as jollies. Against the odds Gloucester have managed some match day sponsorship, launched a business directory and brought in some advertising. Every home game the teenaged son of Gloucester’s press officer spends around an hour putting up sponsor banners over the Cheltenham advertising boards, then another hour after the game taking them down. Rain or shine, he’s out there, battling with the Olbas Oil banners.
While Cheltenham Town have been overwhelmingly helpful in the past year – the corresponding Supporters’ Trust even allowing Gloucester to use the frost covers they paid for, providing Gloucester fans put them out – it is still a hassle when cup games are moved to a Sunday or a Friday because the landlords take precedent, thus reducing the potential gate and it isn’t the greatest advert to a potential sponsor, to come to a ground which, apart from a compulsory Blue Square Bet North sign, has no evidence of the club’s identity which they may or may not be buying into. For the first time in six years Gloucester had a budget cut last year, leading to the departure of two players, there is no question that money is very tight and with the departure of zero budget Redditch from the league it is likely the Tigers will be a contender for lowest budget in the Conference North next season.
Still attendances are up, year-on-year, but that is probably more to do with the fortunes on the pitch (Gloucester have finished higher up the leagues each year for the past six years) and the larger travelling crowds in the Conference North and there is little question that they could be much higher if the ‘home’ games weren’t a 20-mile round trip. The club still aren’t hitting the ‘break even’ crowd on a regular basis. It is hard enough engaging the plastic fans in Gloucester who’d rather watch a team in a city they’ll never visit on Sky Sports or even worse, the all-encompassing Cherry and White rugby beast, without asking them to take a trip down the Golden Valley to the home of your historic rivals. It’s pretty depressing being in a ground with a capacity of 7,000 when your average gate is around 350 – and, on another sad note, most of the goals scored by Gloucester this season have been in front of the Speedy Skips stand, in the end of the ground the fans aren’t allowed into, so there are plenty of pictures of players celebrating in front of empty, red and white stands, summing up some of the frustrations and sadness of the whole sorry exile.
But Matt Phillips points out, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, he said:
“Sometimes hardship can make you look at things from a new angle and due to being out of the city, Gloucester were forced to reassess how they engaged with their local communities.
“Out of the struggle has been born a new community football project, the Gloucester Football Revolution, which aims to reconnect with the communities which will one day hopefully constitute the club’s fanbase back in our home city.”
Gloucester were originally due to be back at the ‘new Meadow Park’ for 2011, but this date has slipped by a couple of years, the recession, the need for extensive flood alleviation work and the long, drawn-up planning process has extended the Tigers’ exile from the City, four years has passed by very quickly but the future and the return home seems to be far away for the fans.