On the 19th of February 2016, an unexpected press conference was called at Bristol Rovers Memorial Stadium, long before this date fans would make wisecracks about a “Middle Eastern millionaire“ taking over the club but few Gasheads – even in their wildest dreams – actually imagined it becoming a reality. So it came as nothing more than a “pinch yourself” moment when the grinning figure of Wael Al-Qadi started appearing on social media feeds and national news websites.
An instantly likeable figure from just his demeanour and clear knowledge of football, Al-Qadi or simply “Wael” as fans can be heard to affectionately chant from The Stadium’s Blackthorn End, announced that his family had purchased a 92% stake in the football club. Cue utter delight from Rovers fans everywhere and bitter scepticism from our counterparts on the red side of the city. A lot of worries were quickly dispelled when the newly installed club president announced his willingness for manager Darrell Clarke to retain his position as head coach of the first team squad – a collective sigh of relief for fans everywhere as Clarke was (and still is) a popular figure thanks to his successive promotions taking The Pirates near to the summit of the league 1 table.
Misguided foreign owners, unfortunately, aren’t a rarity in the current state of English football, one look at the managerial ins and outs at Massimo Cellino’s Leeds United or the proposed name change of Premier League survival hopefuls Hull City tells you all you need to know about how club ownership can turn sour. An exception to that rule, Al-Qadi has sensibly changed aspects of the club from top to bottom by going about his business in a careful and honest fashion, preferring to tweak certain parts of the club infrastructure instead of “splashing the cash” in the transfer market. A promotion at the end of his first season saw the Jordanian entrepreneur hoisted onto the shoulders of Gasheads parading down Gloucester Road, a willingness to interact with fans at any opportunity also attributing towards the new regime’s popularity.
“Evolution not revolution” has been the tagline for the new age of Bristol Rovers football club, and so far the ideology is slowly but surely bringing to fruition a number of required changes.
At the time of writing, the club has made forays into the transfer market to bring in young players both on loan and permanently, contrary to past managers deciding to bring in experienced but ultimately less ambitious signings. Looking back at the brief managerial stint of Mark McGhee is enough to make most Gasheads cringe, the now laughable acquisitions of Scottish journeymen Derek Riordan and Garry Kenneth oppose Clarke’s January buy of Middlesbrough defender Jonny Burn, youth and ambition seem to be the key for the manager and ownership – a combination which has worked wonders during the Al-Qadi’s brief but significant tenure.
Off the pitch the club are making strides as well, the mouth-watering prospect of the new stadium fans have been promised for near 40 years now seems to be edging ever closer and perhaps just as important is the acquisition of the site for a new 29-acre training complex. To be named “The Colony“ work on the site will begin imminently and fans will be hopeful of a modern state of the art facility for our youthful first team squad to train in the week. Chairman Steve Hamer has expressed a desire to take inspiration from Fleetwood Town’s new £8 million pound complex with the League 1 high-flyers having also recently acquired a new training ground.
In what is undoubtedly an exciting time to be a Gashead, I feel it is important to look back on our situation just several years ago, on and off the pitch, the club has made drastic developments in both revamping the playing squad and ensuring that our long-term future has been secured. Darrell Clarke and the Al-Qadi family have offered a breath of fresh air and brought a sense of clarity to the football club once again.
Despite the controversial departure of top-goalscorer Matty Taylor to Bristol City, the feel good factor is undeniable, Taylor may have ruined his legacy with The Gas but his move signals the start of a new chapter for Bristol Rovers. With Ellis Harrison riding high on his stunning four-goal haul against Northampton and Luke James now being given the game time to show why he was touted as “the next big thing” as a youngster at Hartlepool United, it would be foolish to rule out a run for the playoffs just yet, couple that with a new look defence that have now kept successive clean sheets for the first time since last year and we could be in for an exciting and no doubt interesting final stretch of the season under the guidance of Darrell Clarke and the Al-Qadi family.
Feature Image Credit: Futbolfanatic123 on Wikipedia