The worth of the FA Cup remains a perennial debate. Ask Wigan fans torn between a one-off Wembley slap-up meal and losing the daily bread and expensive butter on offer in the Premier League. For Bristol and its two clubs this weekend at least offers a break from their toils in the league, a chance for much-needed new beginnings.
City, squatting in the League One drop zone fearing successive relegations, host Watford in the third round at Ashton Gate tomorrow. Rovers play in the second round, travelling to Crawley Town to complete their replay, the first attempt having been washed out. The weather left both sides idle on New Year’s Day; City saw their position worsen as Crewe Alexandra and Notts County both won. In League Two, Rovers remain a point above the dotted line.
Bristol’s footballing divide is bridged by a common struggle. Both clubs are failing on the field and desperate to secure their futures off it, each ensnared in their own saga over where they will play in coming seasons. Had England staged the 2018 World Cup, Bristol was to be one of the venues; this is a city with footballing potential.
“Things are never as good as you think they are when you are winning and never as bad as you think they are when you are doing poorly,” said Jon Lansdown, City’s managing director and son of the club’s owner, in October in defence of manager Sean O’Driscoll.
O’Driscoll was dismissed in November. He had been in charge since January, when Derek McInnes was sacked; McInnes had been there little more than a year after the departure of Keith Millen, whose 16-month tenure appears an age in comparison with that of the man he replaced. Steve Coppell quit City after two games in August 2010. Two years earlier, City were one game from the Premier League, beaten by Hull City in the play-off final.
For Watford’s visit, prices have been cut to £10 for adults in an attempt to entice fans into Ashton Gate. The ground is at the heart of this sorry tale, as it is with Rovers. City have been looking into a new home for the best part of a decade and while they have been house-hunting their current one has suffered.
“When you turn up, as we did over the Christmas period, and there’s no toilet paper, blocked loos, the televisions don’t work in the main concourses,” says Stuart Rogers, chair of City’s Supporters Club and Trust, “you have the feel of a club waiting to do something good but while it is waiting, a lot of the day-to-day running costs appear to have been pegged back. The fans’ experience has been pretty poor.”
In years gone by City have freely spent money provided by their benefactor Stephen Lansdown, but the arrival of Financial Fair Play and the realisation that a wage bill of over £18m was unsustainable have meant cutbacks and Lansdown Junior’s “five pillars”, a blueprint to encourage prudence.
Supporters remain to be convinced and allied to events on the field – 21 league games without victory over the tail end of last season and the start of this – it is a grim time, although back-to-back wins in the league, the first for nearly a year, have raised hopes.
The club, having declared record losses last year, will soon decide whether to spend £40m increasing Ashton Gate’s capacity to 27,000 or £92m on building Ashton Vale, a stadium for 30,000.
Their current average attendance is 11,653, though they took 36,000 to the play-off final at Wembley, as much as Rovers did for their League Two play-off final in 2007.
Rovers, relegated back to League Two in 2011, also want to build, planning a 21,700 stadium in partnership with the University of the West of England funded by the sale of the Memorial Ground. Rovers’ average attendance is under 6,000 but the club believes a new ground means more fans – chairman Nick Higgs talks of a “huge armchair support” in the city and insists any new home has to be “future-proofed”, taking an optimistic view and looking to what Swansea City and Brighton have done.
It is not a view that encompasses Conference football. “Staying in the league is massively important,” says Higgs.
Rovers too began the season slowly but have picked up. In John Ward, who succeeded Mark McGhee at Rovers a year ago, and City’s latest appointment Steve Cotterill, both clubs have managers schooled at their respective levels. Their employers need them to do their jobs well if the off-field pieces are ever to be fitted together.