Firstly, from a footballing point of view, Rovers season has never really got started. They sit in the bottom reaches of the league and have entirely failed to live up to the promise of last season’s post-Christmas revival. As we approach Christmas it looks like the season is already a write off.
There is definitely promise in the young squad and at times we can look very good. The problem is that apart from those glimpses we are awful. Last season away to relegation candidates Dagenham we won convincingly 4-2 and the team was cheered from the pitch. This season’s repeat fixture saw relegation candidates Dagenham out play us for most of the match and secure a pretty comfortable 2-0 win. That was also the match when the fans patience seemed to crack and there were some ugly scenes as the players left the pitch to boos and abuse from sections of the travelling support. John Ward’s team are a shadow of the side which picked up 33 points from 17 games at the start of 2013 and are struggling to score a goal, keep a clean sheet or figure out a first 11. Injuries have forced Ward to resort to uninspiring emergency loans, scrambling to save the season.
More worrying for Rovers however, than poor performances on the pitch, is the current battle over the planned new stadium. Two groups have gone head to head over plans to build a supermarket on the Memorial Ground site and this week that battle wound up in the courts. A judicial review into planning permission was approved; seeing the immediate and long term future of the club turned on its head.
The wrangle over the stadium move is an issue of what to do with the current stadium site which had been earmarked for redevelopment into a supermarket, thus part-funding the new stadium build nearby. Green Party councillor Daniella Radice and the group ‘TRASH’ (Traders and Residents Against Sainsburys Horfield) are staunchly opposed to the plan, citing Traffic, Air Quality and Retail Impact as damaging potential factors for the neighbourhood. The Gloucester Road, atop which sits the Memorial Stadium, is packed full of independent traders and is the longest traditional high street in England. The fear is that this thriving community of traders will be damaged by redevelopment. ‘TRASH’ has petitioned for a Judicial Review into the planning application of the supermarket in the hope that the review finds the supermarket redevelopment against the better interest of the area. The petition for review has raised over 6,000 signatures.
As the TRASH campaign gathered steam many Rovers faithful and the club itself sat by and watched. This was not enough for some and a few plucky fans took it upon themselves to raise a counter petition ‘Bristol is not Trash’ accusing ‘TRASH’ of obstructing the area from moving forward with much needed development. Another accusation was that the ‘TRASH’ group were operating with some questionable financial motives, claims strenuously denied by the group. The counter petition cites the need for development in Bristol and the current lack of a decent Stadium holding the city back. Many hundreds of potential jobs created by both supermarket and stadium are also a factor in the argument. ‘Bristol is not Trash’ received the backing of MP Charlotte Leslie who campaigned alongside fans and brought up the matter in PMQ’s urging David Cameron to prevent the abuse of Judicial Reviews. Almost 6,000 signed, so it had seemed that all was in the balance.
On Friday 15th the Judicial Review put forward by ‘TRASH’ was approved by a high court judge and a lengthy and costly review process will begin, scrutinising the legality of the planning policies. A successful review will mean the scrapping of the supermarket plans and as a result the scrapping of the proposed new stadium for Bristol Rovers. A failure will see plans go ahead and Rovers begin work on the new Stadium. Whatever the outcome, Judicial Reviews are lengthy and cost a lot of cash. Any conclusion to this saga is looking distant and a rift in the amicable relations between the club, its fans and local traders is widening. With calls among fans for a boycott of businesses which support ‘TRASH’ and supporters of the petition railing against the club this can only be damaging for all parties.
I will reserve too much debate on the ins and outs of the wider community in North Bristol as this site is about the football. From that point of view this Judicial Review spells trouble. Rovers have invested heavily in a playing squad over recent windows, paying big wages. This is largely based around the promise of the new stadium and the financial potential locked within. That expensive squad is now one of the highest earning in the league and the budget is more on par with a smaller league one club where Rovers see themselves. An expensive squad on paper which looks far from it on the turf is a problem in itself. Pair that with a now very uncertain future and Rovers fans are very worried indeed.
Now that this review has been approved, Rovers can at the best expect significant delays in undertaking the stadium project and at worst be back to square one and seriously out of pocket. In a season where the football had been poor eyes will be drawn away from the pitch toward the high court where the most important result of this or any recent season will be decided.
Written by Rob Skeldon, We Are Going Up’s Bristol Rovers Blogger
Rob tweets @Blackthorn_End