As Bad as Things Got: Bristol Rovers – 16th August 1980
There were flowerbeds behind the goal there, once.
It is fairly commonly assented in England that supporters prefer to be closer to the action. There are no pitches in the Premier League surrounded by athletics tracks at present, and even in the world of the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium was widely praised for how close to it many fans were. It hasn’t ever been thus, though. Brighton & Hove Albion left Withdean in 2011 and Rotherham United ended their four-year stay at the Don Valley Stadium a year later.
Athletics isn’t the only sport to have co-existed alongside football, though. Some went to the dogs. Wembley Stadium hosted regular greyhound meets from December 1927 until December 1998. This was so important to their revenue that, even during the 1966 World Cup finals, one match – a match from England’s group, between Uruguay and France – had to be moved to White City Stadium after they refused to reschedule one of their regular meets. In its heyday in the 1940s, crowds of 70,000 were commonplace.
And then, a couple of hundred miles from London, there was Eastville. Bristol Rovers had moved into the stadium, just to the north-east of Bristol city centre, in 1897, with a 500-seater stand and a new name, Bristol Eastville Rovers. The middle name only lasted one season before being cast off, and in 1899 they joined the Southern League, winning its Western Division in their first season. In 1920, they became founder members of the Third Division South, and the following year they purchased Eastville for £2,500.
Greyhound racing landed, fully formed, in Britain in 1926, with the formation of the Greyhound Racing Association, a group consisting of an American, Charles Munn, who brought an oval track (albeit on grass, for many years) and the concept of the mechanical hare with him, a Canadian, and two British investors. By December of the following year, there were more than 40 tracks in the UK, and Bristol had one of them; Knowle Stadium, which opened in July 1927. However, the Bristol Greyhound Racing Company leased Eastville from Rovers, and with greyhound racing having become instantly popular, their success grew rapidly.
By the start of the Second World War, though, the same could not be said for Bristol Rovers. After getting into the Football League, they didn’t leave the Third Division South in their first twenty seasons, and only finished above tenth place in the table on four occasions. A 7th placed finish in 1934 was the best that the club had to show for two decades of League football, and at the end of the 1938/39 season, they finished at the bottom of Division Three South.
The club was in a sorry financial state by this time, and in 1939 chairman George Humphreys agreed the sale of the freehold to Eastville to the Bristol Greyhound Racing Company. This caused ructions behind the scenes at the club. Humphreys had acted independently in selling the club’s biggest asset, and this had understandably angered other board members. The club even tried to get the sale reversed, only to find the new owners uninterested in doing so.
By this time, though, League football had been suspended, and fate was forcing their hand. With debts having risen to over £20,000 – £1.315m in 2020, adjusted for inflation – the club had no option little option to proceed to allow the sale. In 1940 Eastville was sold for to the Bristol Greyhound Racing Company for £12,000, with Rovers staying as tenants on a 21-year lease.
The years after the war, however, were kinder to Bristol Rovers. In 1953 they were promoted to Division Two as champions, after having finished two points clear of Millwall and Northampton Town. They also reached the FA Cup quarter-finals twice throughout the 1950s, in 1951 and 1958, and beat the Busby Babes 4-0 in the Third Round in 1956. The fans adopted the Lead Belly song Goodnight Irene during this period, as well. At the end of the 1961/62 season, though, Bristol Rovers were relegated back into the Third Division.
Changes came throughout the 1960s. Upon renewing their lease on the ground in 1961, the club immediately set about improving Eastville with new terracing and a new cover with a huge totaliser clock mounted on it at what became known as The Tote End, whilst in 1968 the grass track was replaced with sand. Better times returned in the early 1970s. In 1972, they beat Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley to reach the final of the pre-season Watney Cup, where they held Sheffield United to a goalless draw before winning the subsequent penalty shootout 7-6.
The following season they were promoted back to the Second Division, a point behind champions York City. Although life in the Second Division was a struggle for Rovers, though, they managed to keep their heads above water once there. Despite one of their better known performances of the 1970s coming when they were on the end of a 9-0 reversal at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur in 1977 that happened to be caught by the cameras of Match of the Day, they were still in the Second Division by the end of the decade.
Bristol Rovers finished the 1979/80 season just one place above the relegation places in the Second Division. It was the second time they’d done this since their return, they hadn’t finished above 15th in the table over these six years. For all of that, though, they started the 1980/81 season with two draws and a penalty shootout win against Exeter City – who would reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup that season – in the League Cup, followed up with a 1-1 draw at home against Orient on the 16th August 1980. It was by all accounts a bad tempered match, with Orient’s Stan Bowles claiming after the match that Rovers defender Don Gillies had tried to break his leg with a tackle. But it was another decent result.
The following afternoon came the news that Eastville’s South Stand had caught fire. The fire was discovered by the general manager of the stadium, Clarke Osbourne, who was working in the club offices at the time, but it soon blew almost out of control. By the time the wreckage could be surveyed, a large amount of the stand had been destroyed while the dressing rooms were knee-deep in water from the fire engines. All of the club’s trophies had been lost, as had a large amount of equipment. Chairman Graham Holmes described it, completely unsurprisingly, as a “disaster.” It was estimated that more than £1m of damage had been caused by the fire. The cause – and speculation has circled for years on that subject – was never officially established.
The club had to decamp to Ashton Gate for five weeks. Their first match after the fire was ominous, a 4-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers. Their second match was an away match at their temporary home, a goalless draw with Bristol City. In total, though, Bristol Rovers played five “home” matches at Ashton Gate. They won once, a 1-0 win against York City in the League Cup, which saw them through on away goals, but the other matches yielded four draws – one in the League Cup and three in the league. Unbeaten, but without a league win.
The stand was condemned and demolished, leaving an open terrace on one side of the pitch and portable cabins being used as dressing rooms. Rovers returned to Eastville on the 4th October with a 1-0 home defeat against Cambridge United which largely set the tone for the rest of the season. They recorded their first league win a month to the day later, against Watford, but didn’t win again at home until Valentine’s Day. A mini-revival at the start of March needed to be sustained, but it only lasted for two matches and Bristol Rovers were relegated into the Third Division having recorded just five league wins all season, and just 23 points. One place, albeit seven points, above them were Bristol City, who’d been playing First Division football just over a year earlier.
Matters on the pitch were tragically out-stripped by matters away from them during the 1984 pre-season. Winger Mike Barrett struggled with fitness during a training session, and after being taken to hospital for tests he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died just two weeks after his diagnosis, on the 14th August 1984 at the age of 24, six weeks before the birth of his son. Barrett had started in non-league football, but the season before – a season which saw Rovers finished in fifth place in the Third Division, their highest league position of the 1980s – had turned down a transfer to Gillingham because he wanted to stay with his hometown club.
Meanwhile, the club’s relationship with its landlords had become increasingly fractious. When the club had come to renew their lease at the end of 1979, they had found the Bristol Greyhound Racing Company to be extremely hostile. The owners, who’d added speedway to the stadium’s roster in 1977, would only agree a short-term lease, with the club having to move out by May 1982. Desperate, Rovers negotiated a £40,000 a year agreement to share Ashton Gate with Bristol City – which was met with anger by both sets of supporters – but when City went bust in May 1982, the new owners doubled the rent, and the club was forced back to negotiate a five-year contract at £50,000 with them instead. With the club’s offices based at their Hambrook training ground, during the week the only person on duty at Eastville from Bristol Rovers was the groundsman.
By 1986, Rovers’ future at Eastville had become untenable. A combination of the 1980 fire and restrictions put in place after the Bradford fire had reduced its capacity from 38,500 to 12,500, and Rovers were by time losing £2,000 a match by playing there. They still had a year left on their lease when they left, but the stadium owners were unperturbed by this. Upon their departure, a fourth greyhound meet was added to the stadium’s schedule, making it one of the busiest in the country. It was said to be worth ten times per annum what they’d been receiving in rent from Bristol Rovers.
The club started negotiating with Bristol City again, but this time City wanted more than £60,000 a year in rent and there still wasn’t any enthusiasm from either side towards the two clubs sharing Ashton Gate. Rovers even considered moving the 35 miles to Gloucester, where non-league Gloucester City were just about to open their new stadium. In the end, an unhappy compromise was reached. Unable to find a home in the city of Bristol, Rovers moved 13 miles to play at Twerton Park, the home of another non-league club, Bath City.
At £20,000 a year plus a cut in gate receipts it was affordable, even with the club having to put in money to bring the ground up to the standards of the Football League. The tenancy was agreed for seven years, with the option to review after four, but they ended up staying for a decade before returning to the city to share the Memorial Ground with the rugby club. Two years after arriving, they purchased this stadium from their landlords, and they remain there to this day.
The new meet in 1986 may have brought more money into this particular stadium, and American football also briefly arrived there in the short-lived form of the Bristol Bombers, but that couldn’t mask the fact of greyhound racing’s serious decline. In 1950, there had been more than 100 greyhound tracks in the UK, but by 1986 this number had more than halved. The Tote End was demolished upon Rovers’ departure, but despite Eastville being busy, the sport’s decline continued apace. The 1960 Betting & Gaming Act had legalised off-course gambling for the first time, which affected the number of people attending, while concerns about animal welfare grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Along with rumours of doping and race-fixing, the public perception of the sport changed drastically throughout this period.
By 2020, when Belle Vue Stadium in Manchester, the first in Britain, was closed and sold to housing developers, there were fewer than twenty left. Knowle Stadium closed in January 1961, after having been sold for housing. The Bristol Greyhound Racing Company changed its name to the Bristol Stadium Company, and in 1997 the last meet was held at Eastville. The stadium was sold for development and replaced with an IKEA superstore. The entire greyhound racing operation was moved to Swindon. Clarke Osborne, who’d discovered the Eastville fire forty years earlier, is now the chairman of Torquay United.
Eastville’s heady mix of aromas, from the gas from the nearby gasworks which gave the supporters their nickname and the dogs that would eventually push the club out of their home, made it a distinctive venue to visit. But while there aren’t any football clubs sharing their homes with greyhound racing any more – when Wimbledon got planning permission to return to Plough Lane, the greyhound stadium was demolished to make way for them – there is a fundamental truth about stadium ownership in the Bristol Rovers story.
Separation of club from ground seldom benefits the club itself, and it’s notable that, once Rovers were settled in the Memorial Stadium, they set about purchasing it from the rugby club almost immediately. It may not be the ultra-modern football stadium of the 21st century, but it is at least home, and that counts for a lot after the insecurity that Bristol Rovers had been through over the two decades prior to moving there. The fire of August 1980 was a disaster for the club at the time, but it would also have ramifications that would impact upon Bristol Rovers for years afterwards.