Football: Holloway the fan turned main man

The Gasheads aim to put their foot on the gas in the FA Cup. By Steve Tongue
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"YOU'LL hear him when he comes," says Ian Holloway's secretary, Angela. Sure enough, within a few minutes, there is a clatter of 35- year- old legs on the stairs and whooping shouts, as predicted, of "Up the Rovers! C'mon the Gas!" "The Gas" are Bristol Rovers - after the huge gasometer that dominated their old ground at Eastville. On Saturday they play in the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time in 20 years, away to Barnsley, and Holloway, the fan who became player-manager, is as excited as any of the 4,000 other Gasheads who will travel north.

They would have been delighted, though not surprised, to see him in a tiny office at the club shop on Friday, refusing to sit in a red chair - Bristol City colours. Outsiders are regularly astonished by the intensity of feeling between the two clubs, in a city whose size and sporting enthusiasm deserves at least one club of greater stature. It is an integral part of the tension between them that City, who won automatic promotion from the Second Division last season, just before Rovers lost in the play-offs, have always taken it for granted that they should be that club.

"Their fans have always been very arrogant in that view," says Holloway, sounding more like a fanzine editor than a manager. "Even when I was a kid it always seemed to be supposedly the more fashionable club. Of course, they did get to the old First Division, even though it made them go bust."

Bristol born and bred, he wore the blue-and-white quarters with pride from an early age, training two nights a week as a nine-year-old, and went on to become a pro who has now totted up more than 400 appearances for the club in three different spells, at three different grounds.

Before Rovers were forced out of Eastville in 1986 for Twerton Park, Bath (or Trumpton, as it was known to contemptuous City supporters), Holloway joined Wimbledon, then Brentford, for a year each at a traumatic time in his family's life: he contracted glandular fever and his wife survived a diagnosis of cancer.

Gerry Francis brought him back to Bristol - or Bath, to be more precise - then took him to Queen's Park Rangers for five years, during which time he impressed as a gritty little midfield competitor at the highest level, despite further personal difficulties. He has three deaf daughters, who needed to move back to Bristol, so for three years he was commuting to London "having recurring nightmares about crashing on the motorway".

Another Rovers return, initially as player-coach, was a perfect solution all round, and in May 1996 he succeeded John Ward, who would later add another twist to internecine rivalries by becoming manager of City. Losing to Northampton in last season's play-off semi-final, having led 3-0 at one stage in the first leg, was a blow made all the more painful by City's promotion under Ward, and form this season has been less consistent than any manager would like: two 4-3 home defeats, but wins by 5-0 and 6-0, the latter away to Reading.

Goals are clearly not a problem. Barry Hayles, the striker Holloway signed from Stevenage for pounds 250,000, was lured away by Fulham's riches for something closer to pounds 2m, but Jason Roberts from Wolves, 21 last week, has taken on the mantle and developed a particular liking for the FA Cup. His six goals have helped see Rovers' young side past Welling United, Exeter, Rotherham and Leyton Orient and to within one match of their best-ever Cup runs: the quarter-final appearances of 1951 and 1958.

Holloway disputes the conventional view that they have been favoured with four lucky draws so far and now have a bad one. "I think we've had four banana skins, a couple of them away from home. Now we've got bigger opposition in Barnsley who'll be expected to win, with a very nice ground, and we'll be taking a lot of people up there to see if my players can rise to the occasion. I think it's a good draw."

The Orient tie last month brought a record attendance of 9,274 to the Memorial Ground, now in effect owned by Rovers, with Bristol rugby club, still contemplating a takeover of London Scottish, as their tenants. By the end of this week - just in time for a replay - capacity will be increased to 10,800 and the ultimate aim is a 20,000 all- seated stadium, either there or on a new site altogether.

Only a bone-head would dare to suggest that the city's prospects of top- class football - as opposed to the City's - would be best served by having one merged Bristol United playing there, but, unexpectedly, Holloway the Gashead is all in favour of Rovers and City ground-sharing. "I don't know anywhere where the rivalry is as strong, except maybe Rangers and Celtic because of the religious factor. But I think a wonderful new stadium that we shared would make sense: that's the way of the future."

With that, he was back in the imperfect present, the manager on his mobile phone. Rovers traditionalists will be reassured by his last audible words to the long-suffering Angela: "What's this red pen doing? I don't want that, get me a blue one..."