Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Bristol City should abandon its new stadium plans. For now.

Before I begin, let me disclose that I am a Bristol City fan and former season ticket holder. Cash flow permitting I intend to buy a new season ticket in the summer, irrespective of which division the club finds itself in. I was at Ashton Gate a few weeks ago to see a seven successive defeat keep the club rooted to the bottom of the Championship. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Over the weekend, I saw us trounced and humiliated by Wolves. Once again, the club finds itself in a relegation dogfight. Whether there’s any fight left in the dog remains to be seen. At this stage, and from what I’ve witnessed this season, I’m not particularly hopeful.

Which brings me on to the question of the proposed new ground at Ashton Vale, going as smoothly as these things normally do: legal wranglings, judicial reviews, and squabbling over wasteland, which as if by magic, has been miraculously declared to be worthy of “village green” status. Fans have been left angry and probably a little bewildered. So far the only beneficiaries have been, surprise surprise, the lawyers. The club is in for a long, arduous battle.
But, all this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. When the club first tentatively launched its plans for a new stadium, back in November 2007, already five years ago, its fortunes were in marked contrast to where they are today. Newbies in the Championship after promotion the previous season, and playing with that lack of fear that newly promoted teams often play with. The buzz around the place was palpable. They began November of that season in second place, losing only once in their opening 14 matches. With only eight games to go City were top. In the end, they finished fourth, losing to Hull in the play-offs final at Wembley. A horrible day. I was there.

Subsequent years later, an argument I heard countless times in the bogs at Ashton Gate – yup, you get to hear a lot queuing at the urinals -  is the club over-achieved in its first Championship season.

Expectations were rampant the following season. Typically when it comes to football, blind faith, a belief that anything is possible, took over: “we missed out on promotion last season, but you wait. This year we’ll be stronger and hungrier. We could almost taste the Promised Land of Premiership football, but were it not for one match, we’d be there, entertaining the likes of Man Utd and Chelsea at The Gate.” Or so the conversation went.
The then manager Gary Johnson did nothing to dampen the hype, targeting a top two finish. The club finished 10th. The following season, 10th again.  Then 15h. Last season 20th, only avoiding relegation thanks to a run of one defeat in ten. The stats don’t lie. Almost every season Bristol City have done worse than the previous one. Even the cup runs, often a needed distraction, had ended before they had even begun.

In short, the club isn’t in the best of health. Unsurprisingly, average home gates have tumbled. From just over 19,000 in 2007/08, dipping below 14,000 last season. Football can sometimes be a fairly predictable sport. Outside the Premiership, a club in poor form over a sustained period can expect a significant reduction in attendances.
Is this really the best time to be moving home? Football is littered with examples of clubs whose eyes have been bigger than their stomachs. Okay, that probably includes most clubs. But some have been more foolish than others. Darlington FC comes to mind as being the biggest disaster. Coventry another. Relegated from the Premier League in 2001, they moved in to a new 32,000 capacity ground four years later. They are currently playing League One football, with fewer than 9,000 attending a recent home match. There are others. However, I do accept that in Coventry’s case, its proposed move took place whilst they were still in the top flight. Bristol City’s wasn’t. It hasn’t been in the top division since 1980.

If it gets its way, it could soon be City fans rattling around a half-empty stadium. Do they really want to join the growing list of plastic, soulless, identikit, stadiums, named after some corporate non-entity, with match days resembling a day out at the American Football? Sponsored stands, with music blaring after goals scored. Heck, I’m surprised some clubs don’t hold up a sign telling fans when to clap and when to boo. Football panto for the over-sanitised generation. To be fair to the club, it has worked closely with the supporters trust in ensuring the new ground wouldn’t be like all the rest.
I’m not saying the club should give up altogether and never move. I was as excited as the next City supporter when plans were announced and images of the new stadium released. No doubt, even in the Championship, the first few home games would attract a near capacity crowd. But then the gloss would wear off as reality bites. 12,000 spectators in a spankingly new 30,000 seater stadium would start to look and feel depressing. The shine doesn’t last forever. This is a problem for football and its fans in general up and down the country. Short-termism always wins the day. And for that, fans need to accept a large chunk of responsibility. Wide-eyed optimism can soon give way to relegation, administration, or even liquidation.  

Moving now isn’t the right time. I have no doubt that at some point in the future it’ll happen. Ultimately, it’s what happens on the pitch that matters. The rest can take care of itself. And objections to a new ground will find themselves drowned out if Bristol City are playing Premiership football. Until then, the club should concentrate on avoiding relegation to the graveyard of English football.
This article was first published on thisisbristol on Tuesday 4th December 2012

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