Just a week shy of Gloucester City AFC’s 130th anniversary the club’s future has been thrown into doubt with the news that plans for a return to Gloucester are emphatically on hold until further notice. Safe in the anonymous mid-table of the Conference North the club take on Altrincham tonight at their current adopted home, 11 miles down the road in Cheltenham and while a decent battle is expected on the pitch the thoughts of those in the stands are likely to be elsewhere. After almost six years in exile and five years of promises that ‘the club will be home soon’ the club has come up against a brick wall, without a sod on any new ground being cut.
To recap for those who might not know, City’s ground was engulfed in flood water in July 2007, along with much of the county, when the River Severn burst it’s banks. It was the third major flood in a decade and water rose up to the cross bar. Remember that meme when the England game was called off because of the rain – that was Meadow Park. The City Council formed a special cross party group and worked with the club to find some way of bringing them back to the city, guiding them through the planning process. Various sites were mooted and dismissed, ultimately it was back to Meadow Park or nothing. The group was suspended, on officer advice and the club was told to get the plans in. They were submitted in December 2009 and promptly “put on hold” as the application was incomplete. The plans went in properly over a year later and were supported by hundreds of letters from fans, former players and Sport England. It looked like an easy win, a new ground on a site which is designated recreation land, industrial units to pay for it and a huge flood defences to protect the ground from further flooding (and allow it to be insured).
Everything was looking positive, the plans were finally going to be considered by the council. The meeting, last September, went quickly enough – councillors supported the idea of a new stadium, with employment land to find the club in principal but there was a problem. The associated flood work, which on paper should bring 125 properties along the river out of flood risk, needed more work. Councillors voted that they were “minded to permit” subject to more flood reports, their reasoning being that while £1million of flood defences might work on one stretch of the river it may cause other issues up or downstream, a serious concern in a city which suffers flooding every year (although ironically Meadow Park has not flooded since 2007). A new working group was formed, but fast forward six months and it appears that everything is crumbling down to dust.
In a very rare interview with the Citizen club owner Eamonn McGurk said:
We’re not going to abandon it. We are just revisiting what we want to do and we want to bring the club home.
If there is some joined-up thinking and everyone has the same desire then it will happen. But at this present moment I have genuine fears. My commitment is my commitment. But I can’t speak for everyone else. A lot of people want to bring Gloucester City home and I am just one of them. I am only just one person in that piece. My brother Brian has worked tirelessly, Paul Duncliffe (planning consultant) has worked tirelessly and the supporters trust of the football club has worked tirelessly. I understand that politicians both locally and in government have worked hard as well but at the moment it has not been enough. And because of that it’s time to re-evaluate.
A statement from the council is expected today. It is telling that the news broke on a winter morning, as Gloucester woke to gloomy grey skies, hanging low over the decaying remains of the former home of Gloucester City AFC. Seagulls swirling above an overgrown mess which once housed arguably the best playing surface in the Southern League. The ground is a sad, sad sight these days, used to store recycling bins on the pitch while the stands slowly rot. Meanwhile the first team have been on tour, playing one season at Forest Green Rovers, two at Cirencester Town and about to agree to a third year at Cheltenham Town FC.
The youth and development set-up and the ladies team, who also used Meadow Park are playing all over the county too. The reserves ground-share with two football clubs and a cricket club, constantly on the move, and have been denied promotion twice due to their lack of a permanent base. Gloucestershire Schools (previous alumni include Lee Mansell, Wayne Thomas, Stuart Fleetwood and Grace McCatty) no longer have a major stadium in the city for cup finals. Add in the fact that a generation of fans is already growing up not knowing that Gloucester has a football club as well as a rugby club and five years and seven months away seems an awful long time.
The Supporters Trust are, perhaps unsurprisingly, crushed by this news – especially finding it out from the local paper. The chairman, Lee Mills, said: “We are extremely disappointed to hear that plans for a new community stadium for Gloucester City Football club are on the verge of collapse. The Trust have not been informed of this development personally by the clubs owners prior to the newspaper article and as a major backer we call upon the owners of the football club to release a full statement to the supporters as to why this situation has come to pass. We would also like to seek clarification from Gloucester City Council as to their position on the matter. The Trust would like to reassure its membership that it will do everything it can to seek the necessary answers and help Gloucester City Football Club move forward.”
Having raised more than £500,000 for the club in the past decade, many of the members play an active role on match days but still the Trust was left in the dark. An emergency Trust meeting is planned for tonight, Supporters Direct have been contacted but there are many many questions left unanswered. This season has had many highs for City fans, the first appearance in the First Round Proper of the FA Cup for more than 20 years, midfielder Tom Webb reaching a landmark 500 games in a Tigers’ shirt, but then there are lows to match, swirling like the ever present seagulls at Meadow Park grabbing the fans ankles and clawing them back down to earth and the cold reality that Gloucester City are not coming home any time soon.
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