Eight days to break a Shogun marriage

Diary of a crisis club: It began with a fraught game and where it ends no one knows. Hugh Godwin charts a week in the life of a club fighting for life
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Saturday 10 May

Bristol arrive at the Madejski Stadium for their final Premiership match of the season, and possibly much longer. Bristol are bottom of the table by half-time and things do not improve. Craig Short, the local lad in the back row, scores two tries, but his side lose 41-21 to London Irish and are relegated. It could be worse. He could be Clare Short.

Sunday 11 May

All the talk has been of a merger between Bath, run by Andrew Brownsword, and Malcolm Pearce's Bristol. Now what do they do? How do they communicate? From Brownsword, the greetings- cards magnate: "I just dropped you this note to say/ There's no need to merge today/ Roses are red, violets are blue/ How about I sell half of Bath to you?"

Agustin Pichot, Bristol's brilliant Argentine scrum-half, has been this way before, when Richmond went bust in 1999. How was the dressing room yesterday, Gus? "Ah, sheet, mate, sheet." So his English is fine, but what do they call déjà vu in Spanish?

Monday 12 May

Pearce, whose solitary public utterance at the London Irish match had been "I'm finished with the press", announces a press conference for two days hence, at the Memorial Stadium. Helpful directions are provided to the "Bristol Room" at what used to be Bristol's own ground.

Sources say that one obstacle to a brighter future, the £151,000 compensation claim outstanding to Joel Stransky, was settled three weeks ago.

Tuesday 13 May

Jermain Defoe is castigated for his lightning transfer request at West Ham. No such grudges are held against Garath Archer and Phil Christophers, Bristol's England internationals, who announce they are joining Newcastle and Leeds respectively. Alex Brown, son of a former Bristol player, is going to Gloucester. That hurts.

Wednesday 14 May

Another day, another departure. Andrew Sheridan is off to Sale.

The Bristol Room is full for a 12pm start – three TV crews, assorted journalists, a lawyer from sponsors Mitsubishi, Geoff Dunford (chairman of Bristol Rovers FC, the rugby club's landlords), coaching and administrative staff, including Moya Tyler (widow of club stalwart Dave), and representatives of the supporters' association. About 50 people await Pearce's entrance. Bristol's high noon. Well, almost. The chairman enters at 12.15.

Peter Thorburn, the head coach, sits next to Pearce. They have not been this close for a long time. On the wall is the roll of Bristol's presidents and captains. Perhaps Sir Michael Hicks-Beach MP, the first president in 1888 and chancellor of the exchequer, will bequeath a few tips on public speaking.

Pearce could do with them. He makes a lead-balloon joke abut Dunford not having seen a crowd like this for a while, and berates the press for portraying him as a comic villain – oh no we haven't! And the message from rugby's Gloria Gaynor is, "Bristol will survive". Sighs of relief all round.

But that's not all. Rather inconveniently, someone waves the front page of the Bath Chronicle, claiming Pearce will buy two-thirds of Brownsword's 76 per cent stake in Bath. The man from Sky is rugby's Jeremy Paxman, asking Pearce nine times whether he is buying a bit of Bath. Pearce shifts uncomfortably, looks to his PR adviser. Somewhere in there is a strangulated "No". Now he is rugby's Tecwen Whittock. "I don't want to take over anyone," he mumbles.

Pearce is probably obliged to stay quiet. An individual must get out of one club before buying into another. Having run out of patience and things to say, he tries to run out of the room, but is detained by a complimentary appreciation of his five years at Bristol from the supporters' chairman. Pearce thanks him and departs. He always said he would leave in May 2003. It is 12.48pm on the 14th.

Thursday 15 May

Mike Rafter, captain when Bristol won the cup in 1983, has been the public face of the "5,000 Club", a fighting fund inviting advance season-ticket orders at £200 a throw. Rafter owns a sportswear firm but is paid by Bristol as a non-executive director.

Pearce says that "obviously" it would be good if the 1,500 applicants so far would allow their cheques to be cashed. From Bath today, a brief statement containing a stunning revelation: "We can confirm that Bath Rugby will be playing at the Rec next season in Bath Rugby colours."

Friday 16 May

Four Bristol players are named in England's squad to face the Barbarians. Well, sort of: two of them are Christophers and Sheridan. Felipe Contepomi is linked with Leinster and Gloucester.

Pichot will be going. Thorburn and his assistant, Jimmy Grant, are unsure. Some parliamentary successors of Sir Michael Hicks-Beach have organised a rugby think-tank, and invited the RFU's Francis Baron. MPs had previously tabled a motion objecting to the Bath-Bristol merger – see, democracy works.

Alan Morley, who once scored tries for fun on the wing, has joined with another ex-player, Nigel Pomphrey, to front a consortium.

They want Bristol run as a non-profit making organisation. Shouldn't be difficult. The Memorial Stadium, where rent is said to be £120,000 per annum, will be used next season. The £750,000 parachute payment from the Premiership will help; but to what extent is dependent on Pearce and existing debt. A supporters' trust is envisaged. More democracy! Short (Craig, not Clare) is mooted as captain of a squad denuded of stars, but still standing.

Saturday 17 May

Wot, no rugby? Phew.

Comments