With Bristol City near the foot of League One and Bristol Rovers only four points from the relegation places in League Two, this hasn’t been the greatest of seasons for the conurbation of Greater Bristol. Here’s our West of England correspondent Irene Goodnight – see what I did there? – to bring us up to speed with what may or may not have been going wrong at The Memorial Ground of late.
In December 2012 the Bristol Rovers Supporters Club Share Scheme marked its ten year anniversary, with fans contributing more than £1,000,000 since the launch. The hitting of seven figures was marked by celebrations on the pitch at half time of our home match versus Wycombe Wanderers earlier this season, with Andy Rammell – the striker bought with share scheme funds who saved us from relegation by scoring six goals in twelve games at the end of the 02/03 season –paraded round the pitch, and fans applauded for their efforts in transforming the club. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the scheme had revolutionised not only the fortunes of Bristol Rovers but also supporter involvement in how the club was run, yet the hot air coming out of the club with regard to these landmarks only tells half the story.
At the time the share scheme started, Bristol Rovers was firmly rooted to the bottom of the Football League, in severe danger of dropping out of it for the first time in since joining it as part of the League’s great post-war expansion of 1920. In addition to this the club was losing money had over fist, with warnings of financial oblivion if the club were allowed to fall into the conference. And yet ten years later, the club sit in twenty-first place in League Two, with losses for the last financial year recently announced as over £700,000 – up from £300,000 the year before.
Share scheme chairman Brian Seymour-Smith commented on the anniversary “No-one then [in 2002] could have imagined the progress that would be made thanks to the efforts of everyone involved”. Well Brian certainly wouldn’t have imagined it, as he only became a share scheme member eight years after the scheme was launched, when it was pointed out during his ultimately successful bid for election to board of directors as the supporters’ club representative that he didn’t appear on the list of members. But surely no-one back in 2003 would have imagined that the progress made would amount to three places higher in the League and steadily increasing debts year on year?
Nevertheless, advocates of fan ownership would surely applaud the fact that Bristol Rovers supporters have been able to purchase £1,000,000 of shares in the club, thus giving them a substantial say in how the club is run? Well actually the supporters’ club’s shareholding has fallen from around 7% in 2003, to 3.83% in 2013 – this being achieved through a number of share dilutions due to current directors converting debt to share ownership, and shares only being available to the supporters club at 1000% of the price paid by directors.
All of the above raises the question – what on Earth is wrong at Bristol Rovers? In spite of the problems, there are a few signs of progress at Bristol Rovers. In partnership with the University of the West of England, we have planning permission for a new 20,000+ capacity stadium on the outskirts of the city, attached to the university campus. This is subject to the sale of the land that the Memorial Stadium currently stands on to Sainsburys, with a judicial review pending on planning permission to build a supermarket at the ground where Rovers have played since moving back to Bristol in 1996. Critics of the current board would point to the fact that failure to build on the success of promotion to League One in 2007, an FA Cup quarter-final in 2008 and the money spinning sale of star striker Rickie Lambert in 2009, hardly inspires confidence in their ability to make the most of the opportunities offered by a move to a fancy new stadium and a unique partnership with one of the most ambitious universities in the country.
A boardroom split in 2006 saw a number of directors leave the board after presenting an ‘Agenda for Change’ to the majority shareholders. This agenda consisted of radical changes to the way in which the club was run, leading to a slicker and more sustainable operation that would create a roadmap for the club’s future success. This proposal also required that the majority shareholders take a step back from the running of the club though, in return for substantial investment by the lifelong fans behind the plan. The proposal was rejected by the majority shareholders before it even came to a board meeting, and the would-be boardroom reformers walked away.
The next few years actually saw a period of relative success in the history of Bristol Rovers, with the aforementioned promotion and cup-run under the stewardship of Paul Trollope and Lennie Lawrence representing the most success Rovers fans had seen since becoming Division Three champions in 1990. That this management team was appointed while the boardroom rebels were more influential went largely unnoticed by the majority of fans, yet the nagging feeling that the incumbents of the boardroom were riding on the coattails of Rickie Lambert’s goalscoring exploits just wouldn’t go away. Sure enough, relegation followed the season after Lambert left, and the all too familiar spectre of bottom division mediocrity – or worse – reared its head again.
In the period December 2010 to December 2012, the Board of Bristol Rovers Managed to appoint – and sack – five managers, with Dave Penney lasting just thirteen games in the infamous relegation season that saw four different men take charge in the dugout at various points. At the same time, one of the former directors behind the ‘Agenda for Change’ was banned from attending home matches indefinitely, due to ‘consistent criticism’ of the board across social media and forums, leading many to question whether the board were more interested in exercising personal vendettas than getting Rovers out of the trouble they found themselves in.
The rapid departures of Dave Penney, Paul Buckle and Mark McGhee seem to show that the current board of Bristol Rovers don’t have the knack of appointing the right man for the job, despite having one of the largest wage bills in the division. John Ward is the man in possession at the moment, having taken over with the club hovering dangerously close to the trapdoor of the football league. While an initial upturn in fortunes followed, escaping danger with ease, the club has since looked set to repeat the relegation struggles of previous years once again. With losses mounting and little improvement on the pitch, it makes you wonder just how many times Bristol Rovers can roll the barrel of the gun before the inevitable happens. Though the new stadium promises the opportunity for fans to watch their team in a stadium they can be proud of for the first time in a generation, the track record of the board makes you question whether it will be a non-league team, or worse, playing there.
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