COMMENT: Bristol Rugby supporters must try to look forward despite painful prospect of moving south
WE now know – as if the outcome was going to be any different – that Bristol Rugby will, in the near future, share a stadium with Bristol City, whether at Ashton Vale or a redeveloped Ashton Gate.
For Bristol City supporters, it must at least be reassuring to know that, if the plans for Ashton Vale are rejected out of hand this autumn, there is at least now a definitive, viable and detailed Plan B, which involves bringing the club’s current stadium up to a capacity of 26,000 at a cost of £40 million.
A simplistic way of looking at that is to see a redevelopment costing £8,883 per seat (capacity will increase by 4,503) – yet the wider ramifications are greater: the potential opening of an Ashton Gate train station being one of many examples.
More importantly for Steve Lansdown, though, is that the stadium would be used significantly more often than it is now; he would not have to spend a penny on rent for Bristol Rugby; and the redeveloped Ashton Gate would include such features as money-spinning corporate facilities. Amazingly, City’s ground currently has no hospitality boxes from which to watch matches.
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Some City fans may question how Ashton Gate has suddenly become suitable for redevelopment, when the site was once deemed too small, but the fact is that majority shareholder Lansdown had to act in the event of the Ashton Vale project being turned down.
A difficult planning process – and that is putting it mildly – has left the multi-millionaire frustrated time and time again, so it is only sensible to announce detailed plans of an alternative at the earliest opportunity.
Whether or not the alternative now looks a more attractive option than the Ashton Vale project itself is a subject for debate. But it would have made no sense for City to wait until the outcome of the October inquiry on Ashton Vale before revealing their back-up plan.
An interesting side-plot to the whole Ashton Vale/Gate affair concerns Bristol Rugby. Many of their supporters are not happy about the impending switch to the south of the city. First and foremost, they are not happy with having to leave the Memorial Stadium, which has been their home since 1921 and was built to honour the memory of Bristolian rugby players who died during The Great War.
Yet, as I have written before and as harsh as it may sound, the real time for outrage was in 1998, when the rugby club’s then board lost the ground to Bristol Rovers. Ever since, the spectre of having to up sticks at Rovers’ whim has been very real. And, with Rovers selling their ground to Sainsbury’s, the rugby club has no option to move out – most probably by the end of next season. The harsh reality is that, before too long, the scene of Bristol Rugby’s greatest triumphs will be home to fruit and veg, frozen food, checkouts and a lot of orange branding.
One option would have been to move in with Rovers at their new ground at Stoke Gifford, maintaining the north Bristol connection (even if Rovers’ new home is technically in South Gloucestershire) and playing in an arena with blue seats.
But it would still be an all-seater stadium (one of the main concerns of Bristol Rugby supporters when it comes to moving to Ashton Gate) and, while it may only be two-and-a-half miles from the Memorial Stadium, whereas Ashton Gate is five miles away, would it really feel like home? Really?
The reality – and apologies if this sounds like going over old ground – is that the rugby club have been between a rock and a hard place for 15 years. The minute Lansdown became the club’s majority shareholder a year ago, it was inevitable – with Rovers long having set the wheels for a new stadium in motion – that the rugby club would end up with City.
The benefits for Lansdown are that he won’t be paying rent for the rugby club – to Rovers, or anyone else – and that his new stadium, whether Ashton Vale or Ashton Gate, will be in use at least 14 times a year more than it would if City were the only team playing there.
That does not mean there are not, and will not continue to be, significant concerns. One Horfield-based Bristol Rugby supporter contacted me recently to suggest he would not be watching his team at Ashton Gate – if that is where they end up – because “it’s too far away, parking’s a nightmare, and I don’t like sitting down”.
It can only be hoped that the rugby club can find ways to placate its hardcore, north Bristolian support-base where some of their concerns and fears are concerned.
A park-and-ride, or at least some kind of bus service, to home matches would be a start, as would some features within the new stadium that represent the rugby club’s history: framed pictures of former players, that kind of thing.
Maybe even a dedicated rugby area within the ground is an option – it would certainly be well received – although expecting City to install blue seats is akin to expecting Liverpool or Manchester United to do the same. And, of course, a permanent memorial to the local rugby men who fell while serving their country would not go amiss.
Any transition to a new stadium is painful, particularly when you are leaving behind your spiritual home, and even more so when you are moving into a home that is not your own, regardless of the term “partnership” that is currently being bandied about.
But, for Bristol Rugby, there is an also an opportunity: an opportunity to entice new supporters, an opportunity to make a fresh start, and an opportunity, as chairman Chris Booy has said, to play in the biggest and best club rugby stadium in the country.
It will not feel the same as owning and playing at the Memorial Stadium – but the reality is that nothing will. The damage was done in the past but the rugby club must look to the future.