Now the diggers are moving in at the site of Bristol Rovers’ new Colony Farm training ground, there is only one question on the lips of Gasheads: ‘‘When will work finally start on UWE Stadium?’’ Rumours an announcement was imminent were stoked by a recent Bristol Evening Post piece. Social chatter suggested the announcement, allegedly due to be revealed after the Millwall game, could be bad news. President Wael al-Qadi and chairman Steve Hamer have boxed clever regarding the status of the proposed 21,700 all-seater facility in North Bristol since they took over the club. Planning permission was secured years ago, but with an August deadline looming for the deal to be signed and sealed, it looks as if the board will go right to the wire before committing to the project. UWE, if and when it’s built, will be the fourth ground I will have watched Rovers grace. The club needs a new home – and quickly.
With everything else going on a new stadium would be the icing on the cake. But I have reservations about moving away from the Memorial Ground – because I despise what I describe as ‘Lego Stadiums’. You know the type I mean, think Colchester, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury and Doncaster. I would even tar Northampton, Burton, Scunthorpe and Bournemouth with the same brush.
So many clubs have built new grounds recently. A few thousand concrete blocks piled on top of each other around a patch of grass, a few pretty coloured seats bolted on and Bob’s your Uncle, there’s your new church, fit for worship on a Saturday afternoon. Years of memories and tradition buried forever as clubs ‘takes a step forward’ and ‘move with the times’ to a ground my six-year-old could build a mock-up of before heading off for school of a morning. Even the new Wembley is a glaring example of how building a new stadium can kill the atmosphere of big games even in front of a full-house. Look at the problems West Ham have had this season. Admittedly, the Hammers hierarchy were in a rush to move into their new home before the fact they managed to secure the £752m stadium for less than you’d pay for two Gareth Bales, became public. But none the less, there are lessons to be learned. Lifelong Hammers fans who spent their Saturday afternoons cheering on the Irons from the North Bank or the Chicken Run at the Boleyn Ground found they had been scattered around the new stadium, far away from fellow supporters who they stood shoulder to shoulder with for 30 years or more.
Trouble flared when those fans, who always stood – and had no intention of sitting during games as the belted out ‘Bubbles’ – took their places in sections full of families, older fans and tourists keen to soak up the atmosphere of the Olympic Stadium and snatch a few selfies to take back home with them. Oversights like this not only cause discord within the stadium, but they unsettle fans – the people who ultimately in my opinion, clubs will always belong to. The Rovers board will have to make sure they get things like this right first time when UWE, or another suitable site, lands at the top of their agenda. For example, the new stadium needs to have a singing end. I actually hate that term, it makes it sound as if we are entering a school choir competition. But fans who have season tickets for the North Terrace at the Mem, which is a special place from which to watch games regardless of your age, gender, creed or colour, have to be given the opportunity to be allocated seats together in one particular end. There is no point having a home end which houses a couple of thousand ‘noisy boys’ away in one far corner, another couple of thousand in the opposite corner and another 1,000 here, there and everywhere else.
We need to make the home end at a new stadium as much like the North Terrace as is humanly possible. It has to be made clear to supporters, some of whom may be buying season tickets for the first time, as the club’s supporter base grows, that one end is to have a ‘terrace-like’ atmosphere. And when the seats have been sold for that end, start allocating supporters who want to sing spots in sections alongside that end, if they want to be there obviously. That way the home support will appear to wrap around that end of the ground, and with filled in corners the massively vocal Gasheads among us will envelope a large chunk of the stadium and create a sea of blue and white and an impressive level of decibels. We can’t have and don’t want to have a West Ham-style scenario. I know people will say they want the whole ground to be full of Rovers fans every week, not just in one end. But noisy fans create an atmosphere, not the rank and file – unless the board are going to hand out 21,000 free cardboard clappers at home games like Leicester did at the King Power. The club’s owners need to ensure they consider such things.
How would they make this happen, you ask? I think there needs to a full and effective consultation with groups of supporters as soon as we know UWE is going ahead. Let’s avoid the mistakes other clubs have made, let’s create a stadium which is built with our club in mind, not a template ground like so many of the new builds are. On Talk Sport yesterday, Crystal Palace first team coach Kevin Keen was discussing their win over Arsenal on Monday. He said the atmosphere at Selhurst drove the players on. He went on to describe Selhurst as a special place because it’s an older ground where the fans are very close to the pitch, and while he acknowledged modern stadiums can look fantastic he added older grounds, which were built specifically for football are hard to beat in terms of the noise and atmosphere.
If we are lucky, the introduction of safe standing may come just as UWE is being built, which would alleviate some of the issues I have raised here. Although it’s my understanding safe standing would mean an increase in capacity of the new stadium, which would therefore require additional planning permission and larger exit stairways, concourses and toilets. (If this is incorrect, I apologise, like I said, it’s just my understanding.) The board will also require a clear vision of where the club is going, not on the pitch, because that is there for all to see, but off the pitch. Who do we want to be sitting in the remaining 10,000 seats, given that we can currently comfortably accommodate around 11,000 at the Mem, but often only get 8,500 or 9,000. We can’t sit back and hope that the tens of thousands of Gasheads who come out of the woodwork for Wembley play-off finals will just turn up. Some hard work needs to be going on behind the scenes. Will the other 10,000 we are hoping to attract be ‘proper fans’? If so, how is the club going to market BRFC to these potential new supporters? There is a difference between supporters and customers. ‘Customers’ won’t make the new stadium an intimidating place for away teams and fans to come to.
Sorry to mention the other lot down the road, but in my opinion they have given us a master class in how not to grow your supporter-base. I know dozens of people who bought C**y season tickets because there was a free shirt on offer, and rarely go and watch football OR rugby, let alone both. Some of those who do go say they aren’t particularly bothered if BS3 win or not, because they’re ‘not really football fans’. Their approach seems to be similar to that of Sports Direct, offer punters everything cheap, chuck in a few freebies, and they will come in their droves. But that smacks of desperation, and even short-term greed. I don’t see the point in building a big, brand new stadium and filling the seats with absolutely any Tom, Dick or Matty? Rovers have to ensure we do not become a ‘bums on seats’ business. That’s not what our club is about. It never has been. The North Terrace is full of real fans, real Rovers fans. The Mem is full of real Rovers fans week in, week out. If we move to a new ground it MUST stay that way.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons