Two clubs in England's eighth biggest city are hopeful that new grounds can be a catalyst for a change in fortunes
There was rare cause for celebration a fortnight ago. When Bristol City beat Ipswich and Bristol Rovers won at Rotherham, on the back of Bristol Rugby defeating Leeds the previous evening, it was the first time since November 2006 that all three clubs had won on the same weekend.
Welcome to the sporting hotbed that is Bristol.
Described as "one of Britain's most cutting edge cities" in The Rough Guide, Bristol has long been one of the great underachievers when it comes to football. Anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of top-flight action in Bristol over the past three decades had more chance of spotting Banksy – the street artist whose graffiti decorates the city where he grew up – walking around with a can of spray paint in his hand.
It has been 33 years since Bristol, which has a population of 428,000 and is the eighth biggest city in England, hosted the country's top clubs on a regular basis and there is no sign of things changing any time soon. City, who last month sacked Derek McInnes as manager and replaced him with Sean O'Driscoll, are second bottom in the Championship, five points adrift of safety. Rovers are three points above the relegation zone in League Two, albeit in a much healthier position than they were before John Ward supplanted Mark McGhee as manager in December, when the club looked in real danger of slipping out of the Football League.
The picture is bleak but depressingly familiar and, given the respective histories of both clubs – Rovers have never made it to the top flight while City have spent four seasons (1976-1980) at the highest level since 1911 – it is no real surprise that some people are dismissive of the idea that Bristol can be considered a football city.
"That's something often angled but I don't think there is truth in it," says Jon Lansdown, Bristol City's managing director and son of Steve Lansdown, the multi-millionaire who owns the club, as well as Bristol Rugby. "We've got one of the biggest grassroots' leagues in terms of the Downs League, there is lots of participation in football in the city, and whenever you get a big occasion, the support is there and it's massive.
"There may be an element of cynicism in terms of they're waiting for something to support, rather than being there before it happens. But, to be honest, if you want it to be the other way round, you've got to give them a reason to come down. And the facilities and the matchday experience around that is what's going to bring that unless you hit the promised land [of the Premier League] and it does that a different way. So it's chicken and egg."
Football facilities are an emotive issue in Bristol. At a time when new stadiums have gone up all over the country, as well across the Severn Bridge, in Cardiff and Swansea, City and Rovers have faced major obstacles with their own plans. In City's case, there is immense frustration with the city council, which has made a pig's ear of dealing with the club's five-year battle to build a new stadium at Ashton Vale. "It's been really weak," Jon Lansdown says. "You don't want to bash the council but there is nowhere else you can look. If other places have managed to build stadiums, why haven't we?"
There is, however, some light at the end of a very long tunnel. This week City unveiled plans to redevelop Ashton Gate at a cost of £40m, which is seen as the fall-back option if the Ashton Vale project fails to come off. That news came on the back of Rovers announcing last month that they have been given the green light from South Gloucestershire council for a new £40m, 21,700-seat stadium in Stoke Gifford, which is a couple of miles from their current Memorial Ground home, and will be ready in 2015.
For Rovers, whose search for a new stadium goes back more than 30 years, it was a landmark moment. They have endured a nomadic existence, leaving Eastville in 1986 to become tenants at Twerton Park, home of non-league Bath City, for 10 years, before coming back to Bristol, where they now share the Memorial Ground with the rugby club. Despite everything Rovers have been through, including dropping into League Two, their supporters have been incredibly loyal. Against Barnet, in their last home game, Rovers pulled in a crowd of more than 8,500, despite the club being second from bottom at the time.
Ward, who had an earlier spell as Rovers manager, between 1993-96, before taking over at Ashton Gate, believes the new stadium can be the catalyst for change. "When I first came here, Rovers were at Twerton Park and I was shown some lovely surveyors' drawings and pictures of balloons over a brand new ground – the balloons are attached to the city [that hosts the international balloon festival] – and it looked great," Ward says. "Here I am, 16, 17 years later, still saying in two years' time we'll get this ground. But it really is going to happen now.
"At long last the club can achieve its own identity, maybe in a similar way that Brighton & Hove Albion have done, and say: 'Right, let's take this football club on.' At the moment, it shares with rugby, before it shared with Bath City, before that we shared with a dog track. And whether we were bosses, tenants or landlords didn't matter – we shared it. This new ground is going to be ours. But, in the meantime, there is a two-year build up. We've had to accept this position that Bristol Rovers are in and realise if we don't get this situation sorted out, we're going to have the best ground in non-league. And we've got to work hard not to let that happen."
Although the recent stadium developments offer fresh hope for both clubs, it would be naive to think that improved facilities will solve the underlying problems that have led to disappointing results on the pitch. The frequency with which Rovers and City have changed their manager in the past few years, allied to some poor signings, point to the absence of a clear strategy at the top.
In some respects, City's current position is more alarming because of their finances. They announced a club record loss of £14.4m for the period to May 2012 (that showed the wage bill had climbed to £18.6m), on the back of a £11.45m loss the year before. City finished 20th last season and 15th the previous year. The bottom line is that Steve Lansdown has been an extremely generous benefactor – City's debt stands at £41m and £35m of that is owed to their owner – but he has precious little to show for his investment.
"You can't say Lansdown hasn't put enough money in," says Bobby Gould, who played for both Bristol clubs and had two spells in charge of Rovers in the 1980s. "But the people that had that money didn't use it to the advantage of the football club. The people that have got the power at the moment need somebody with the knowledge of what is out there. Look what John Ward has done at Bristol Rovers. There's no substitute for that. That's knowledge."
After chasing the dream and coming close – City were defeated by Hull City in the 2008 Championship play-off final – there is an acceptance at Ashton Gate that there needs to be a major shift in policy, especially with financial fair play rules coming in. City want to think more long-term and hope to develop more homegrown talent and recruit players aged 24 and under. With O'Driscoll in charge, they may well have the man in place to make that strategy work. "I think they've come to the conclusion that having available finances is a great asset at a football club, but it's not the be-all and end-all," says O'Driscoll, who on Saturday comes up against Nottingham Forest, the club who so harshly dismissed him on Boxing Day.
There is one other solution to Bristol's failure to produce a decent team, although it is a suggestion that only tends to be put forward by people with no connection to Rovers or City. "Everyone says to you: 'Should the clubs merge?' But that won't work now," says Marcus Stewart, who is coaching at Rovers after a playing career during which he represented both clubs. "If it was going to happen, it should have happened when football first started in the city.
"We need to modernise. If we get a new stadium, we won't get promoted to the Premier League overnight but it's the start of a positive change and if City do the same with Ashton Gate it will be the same for them. You see Cardiff and Swansea with their new facilities and we're bigger than both of those cities, yet we're falling behind. We need to catch up with the times in terms of facilities and hopefully football will come with that."