COMMENT: Bristol Rovers look to the future, while rugby club remains burdened by the past
THERE was a mixed reaction in Bristol to news that the sale of the Memorial Stadium to Sainsbury's had been approved, paving the way for Bristol Rovers to move to a new stadium on the outskirts of the city.
And that is without getting into the issues regarding how trade on Gloucester Road will be affected.
On one hand, the news is exactly the kind of thing sport in Bristol needs – even if the new 21,700-capacity stadium itself will technically lie in South Gloucestershire.
For too long, as I have argued repeatedly, Bristol has failed to punch its weight in a sporting sense – not only in terms of performance but infrastructure and facilities.
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Rovers moving to a new stadium is a significant step in the right direction in terms of dragging the city out of sport's dark ages – even if they still have plenty to do on the field to ensure they do not end up with the best stadium in the Conference.
Instead, Rovers will no doubt look to similarities between their current state and that of Swansea City a decade ago. The Swans, who narrowly avoided falling out of the Football League, had a new stadium on the horizon – and it is probably fair to suggest they have done rather well in the past ten years.
A new stadium alone will not turn Rovers into this decade's Swansea – but it is a fine starting point. It will project an image of an ambitious club, possibly give them an edge in persuading certain targets to sign, and help improve the overall perception of sport in Bristol. As long, of course, as they do not become another Darlington where the football is concerned – falling down the leagues like a stone despite having a Premier League-standard stadium.
For Rovers supporters, who never really felt at home at the Memorial Stadium, this week was a significant moment in the club's history; not yet a turning point but it may one day prove to have been such.
"It's like winning the Champions League," said Bristol Rovers chairman Nick Higgs. "We've achieved what we set out to do and it's probably the biggest day in the club's history," he added, clearly eager to avoid hyperbole.
The future, of course, will judge the significance of the decision to allow Rovers to sell their ground and move to a new one in Stoke Gifford. But there was always a sense that they would only ever stagnate the longer they stayed in Horfield.
Yet while Rovers and their supporters rightly celebrate, and while the sporting landscape in Bristol looks set to change in the name of progress, spare a thought for the supporters and current board of Bristol Rugby. Spare a thought, too, for history and tradition.
The rugby club have played at the Memorial Stadium since 1921. The stadium itself was built to honour the memory of rugby players who died during The Great War. The fact the rugby club will have to find a new home is a travesty – yet it is a historical travesty and one that was sadly inevitable.
The minute the rugby club – on the verge of financial ruin at the time – ceded ownership of the ground to Rovers in 1998, it was always going to be a matter of time before this week's news would become reality. That it has taken as long as 15 years is perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
The relationship between the rugby club and Rovers has, at times, been an uncomfortable and awkward one, no more so when the rugby club had to shelve plans to spend a season playing in Newport after the Memorial Stadium development plan stalled.
But relations are cordial now – and it is not Rovers' fault that the rugby club became what they did under Arthur Holmes in the middle of the 1990s. It is not Rovers' fault that years of financial mismanagement led to the rugby club losing their most prized and cherished asset.
There is not a huge lot Malcolm Pearce, Chris Booy, Steve Lansdown or anyone else could have done to prevent the inevitable from happening.
For Rovers to progress, they have to move out of Filton Avenue, something which has been clear since those plans to redevelop the site – backed by funds from building student housing on the ground – failed several years ago.
But that does not make it any easier for rugby supporters to take. Their club's options now would appear to be to follow Rovers to their new home to the north of the city, or move firmly under owner Lansdown's umbrella at Ashton Gate, and then, one would hope, Ashton Vale.
But neither would be the same; neither, at the start anyway, would really feel like Bristol Rugby. The Memorial Stadium is part of Bristol Rugby – a central part of it.
And so it remains an almighty and scandalous shame that those tasked with running the club 15 years ago were unable to fulfil their most basic responsibilities as guardians and custodians and hold onto the club's spiritual home.
While Rovers look to the future with confidence and excitement, the rugby club sadly remains burdened by history.