Exile over for the Rovers

Phil Shaw on the Bristol team who are finally back on home ground
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The Independent Online
After a decade in exile, Bristol Rovers' return to the city whipped up a storm of controversy, albeit of the kind usually qualified by the word "tea-cup". The green, green grass of their sixth home, the Memorial Ground, was an issue in itself. And then there was the curious case of the elevated crossbar.

Had this Second Division fixture not finished in an unsatisfying 1-1 draw, one of the rival camps might have overlooked the teething troubles at League football's 125th "regular" postwar venue.

Instead, there was much debate over the discrepancy between a surface suitable for football and the requirements of Rovers' rugby union landlords, as well as suggestions that the bar must have been fixed with the handling code in mind.

"The ball's sticking because the grass is too long," Ian Holloway, Rovers' new player-manager, explained. "So you either wet the pitch or you cut it shorter. That's what we'll do before the next game." The 15-a-side boys prefer it lush, someone warned. "Bugger rugby," replied Rovers' first Bristolian manager.

Yards away, Paul Jones stretched towards the woodwork for the benefit of the media. "It's four inches too high - I'm 6ft 3in and I can't reach it," the Stockport keeper said, pointing to the spot where Lee Archer's early header for Rovers went in off the underside.

A 25-yard equaliser by John Jeffers, the visitors' first goal since April, was also high enough to pass for a conversion. "I noticed the size of the goal before the game," Jones' opposite number, Andy Collett, said, "so I told the lads: 'Keep your low shots high today'.''

A sense of humour, preferably of the gallows variety, has long been a pre-requisite for all involved with Rovers. After losing Eastville, their home since 1897, they took up "temporary" residence with Bath City at Twerton Park, 13 miles away. When a fourth bid for planning permission foundered, they turned to the rugby club. Bristol, facing up to professionalism, could not afford to turn their noses up at the revenue generated by a 21-year lease.

Rovers, as Simon Inglis observes in his essential book Football Grounds of Britain, never unpacked their suitcases at Twerton. Bristol City supporters derided it as Trumpton; one of Holloway's predecessors dubbed it the Azteca Stadium. The Memorial Ground, a mile from their spiritual home, is a Maracana in the making by comparison.

It is not among rugby's more picturesque settings, like Bath or Pontypool. Behind one goal there is only trees and high netting. Facing it is an open terrace, 15 rows deep, which will test the devotion of many next winter. But the cantilever stand offers excellent sightlines, and a new structure is rising opposite. Despite talk of the clubs sharing a purpose- built stadium at Severnside, Rovers may be disinclined to uproot again.

The Evening Post even claimed that they now enjoyed "a range of electronic wizardry without which no modern ground is complete''; it can only have meant Bristol's modest scoreboard. Not that the "Gas-heads", as the faithful style themselves after the gasworks that overlooked Eastville, were complaining.

A near-capacity 6,500 turned out, and for once "football's coming home" sounded relevant; 10 years of Twerton never stopped them dreaming. Holloway's assistant, Geoff Twentyman, admitted the emotional atmosphere had affected some players.

"Overall we should have done better for those people. It's a big pitch and the ball doesn't roll because it's so lush. We've got to get used to it, as well as the angles and the backdrop. But when the new stand is finished it's going to be a very good football ground.''

The rugger buggers might take issue with that description. However, with Saracens and Enfield also co-habiting, and Wasps getting into bed with Queen's Park Rangers, commercial imperatives appear likely to get the better of petty parochialism.

Goals: Archer (12) 1-0; Jeffers (73) 1-1.

Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): Collett; Martin, Tilson, Clark, Lockwood; Gurney, French, Holloway, Archer; Miller (Parmenter, 63), Beadle (Low, 70). Substitute not used: Higgs (gk).

Stockport County (3-4-1-2): Jones; Flynn, Gannon, Bound (Jeffers, h-t); Connelly, Bennett, Ware, Searle; Cavaco (Todd, 78); Mutch, Angell (Armstrong, 59).

Referee: T Lunt (Ashton-in-Makerfield).

Bookings: Bristol Rovers: Beadle. Notts County: Mutch.

Man of the match: Mutch. Attendance: 6,380.

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