Football Cities: Bristol
After Ben Woolhead’s analysis of the Toon on Wednesday and our call for a non-league start up to challenge the artificial hegemony of MK Dons yesterday, the third post in our Football Cities series sees us very pleased to welcome a brand new writer to The Two Unfortunates. Will Jones runs the Bristol City blog, To The Left of Ross and here provides a thoughtful analysis of how soccer fits in the de facto capital of the west of England. Will can be followed on twitter at @will_totheleft.
A case for solidarity
When you’re a Bristol City fan who happens not to live in Bristol, there’s a conversation you end up having two or three times a year. It comes about when you mention the team you support to a new acquaintance or work colleague who happens to follow football. They’ll take an interest, cast around for facts about football in Bristol, and finding very little will eventually say:
“Wouldn’t it be better if the two clubs merged? Wouldn’t you be more successful that way?”
You smile, decide not to alienate someone this early in the conversation, make a non-committal remark and move on to the latest from the Premier League.
But on the face of it, for all the unromantic pragmatism of this regularly-made suggestion there’s an apparent logic to it. Bristol is after all a city without any particular history of football success. Yet, as the eighth-largest city in England, surely it can support a Premier League side. Couldn’t the problem possibly be the lack of a unifying team for the entire city to rally behind?
You only need to look across the Bristol Channel to see why people might have this idea. Both Cardiff and Swansea have reached the top flight in recent years; fleetingly and unimpressively in the case of the Bluebirds, impressively and apparently for keeps in Swansea’s case. Cardiff is of a similar size to Bristol, indeed a counterpart city in many ways. Swansea is significantly smaller. Yet their sole representatives have had success in the twenty-first century well beyond anything managed by the twin representatives of Bristol. In fact, apart from the rugby stronghold that is Wakefield, the largest town other than Bristol not to have been represented in the Premier League yet is Brighton — and the Seagulls are top of the Championship at time of writing.
This idea of a consolidated force becomes a little seductive in this light. One club carrying the city’s flag, part of the civic identity; a club for those who may not care to choose City or Rovers and instead support Manchester United.
All of which is well and good. But it assumes that all that’s holding back Bristol football is the presence of a surplus club between Somerset and Gloucestershire. I think there’s rather more to it than that.
The successful imbalance
Bristol, after all, is not the only two-club city. It’s not even the only city of a more modest size with more than one league club. Excluding London, which as a city-state runs by different rules and has many football clubs, there are six further two-club cities; of which Bristol is unarguably the least successful. There’s not a correlation between two clubs and mediocrity — there’s a correlation between Bristol and mediocrity.
After all, it’s the only city with two league clubs not to have had a team in the top division since the 1970s. It’s the only two-club city which has never had to organise a victory parade for a major domestic trophy (no, I’m afraid I can’t count the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, the Auto Windscreens Shield, or the Freight Rover Trophy. Partly because they’re all the same competition). It’s the only two-club city never to have hosted a match in a major European competition (again, I’m afraid I can’t count the Anglo-Italian or Anglo-Scottish Cups in this category).
You wouldn’t expect Bristol automatically to do as well as vast cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or even Sheffield. But Nottingham and Stoke? These are smaller cities than Bristol, arguably just as provincial, but they’ve had real success — Nottingham Forest having even won the European Cup twice, although there was a certain alchemy beyond the geographical at work there.
Why, then, have Forest and Stoke City been able to do what neither Bristol City nor Rovers have come close to achieving? What’s the difference between the cities?
What strikes me is that it could only ever have been Forest or Stoke City in those towns — it could never have been County or Port Vale. These are two cities with one major side, and one minor one. Perhaps this hasn’t been true throughout the entire history of league football, but for a significant amount of time it has. In Nottingham and Stoke, there is a bigger side and a smaller one, while Bristol has historically had a much finer balance.
Of course, success can itself polarise cities. Forest no doubt picked up fans in winning the European Cup who would have been uninterested a local side without elite-level success. And young football fans in Stoke can go to the Britannia and see a higher level of football than they can at Vale Park. But the evidence appears to show that success may entrench polarisation, rather than create it. In smaller cities, polarisation appears to create the conditions necessary for success.
Nottingham Forest didn’t suddenly improve relative to Notts County in the mid-1970s. In fact, since the Second World War, Forest had only been in a lower division than County for two seasons — 1949-50 and 1950-51. Other than that, the two teams were (sometimes) in the same division and (more commonly) separated by at least one promotion. Not long before Clough took over, yes, Forest were relegated to the second tier where they joined County, but that was very much the exception rather than the rule. After all, they’d won the FA Cup as recently as the late 1950s — County hadn’t done the same since the 19th century.
(Interestingly, once Notts County did close the gap, reaching the top-flight to join their rivals in the 1980s and 90s, the two clubs ended up slumping away together. However, the polarisation was ultimately retained — the two haven’t shared a division since 1996 and Forest are by far the better placed for a top-flight return one day.)
The story in the Potteries is similar. Stoke are much the bigger club since WWII, top-flight regulars from the 1960s to the 1980s, winning the League Cup and reaching two FA Cup finals while Vale yo-yo between the bottom two divisions. While the two spend most of the 1990s in mid-league mediocrity, Stoke’s transformation to Premier League stalwarts does not take place until after they have established themselves a clear division ahead of Vale, and in fact their promotion is matched by Vale’s relegation to the bottom tier. Polarisation enhanced by success, yes, but crucially preceding it.
Of course, we don’t quite see this pattern in Manchester or Liverpool, huge cities which can support two successful sides. Sheffield, however, could arguably benefit as a city from more polarisation; instead it has two clubs of roughly similar size who have slowly fallen away from the upper tier and now spend their time in the two middle league divisions.
So where does that leave Bristol?
The Western poles
Between WWII and the end of the second millennium, there was frankly very little to choose between City and Rovers. Awarding 1 point for a season in the highest division and 4 for a season in the lowest, Bristol Rovers average 2.6 per season and Bristol City 2.5. Those results are, admittedly, arrived at through quite different histories, with Rovers plodding between the old Second and Third Divisions while City soar to the First Division and crash to the Fourth, but the two sides average out much the same. Indeed, until 2012, the Bristol rivals had never been more than a division apart.
But the averages in the twenty-first century are very different; and that’s largely down to Bristol Rovers, whose relegation to the new League Two in 2012 was what broke the two-division mutual headlock of the two clubs. Since 2000, City’s average score has barely shifted (at 2.6 it is in fact very slightly worse, although the current Championship season will improve it) while Rovers’ has collapsed to 3.7. Bristol Rovers haven’t been in the Championship so far this century, and they’ve spent most of it to date in League Two, with an ignominious season in the Conference also to their name.
What we are seeing appears to be a new polarisation in British football. The fact that it comes about entirely through the ineptitude of Bristol Rovers rather than the success of Bristol City isn’t relevant. Yes, the blue-and-white club have been appallingly run for much of the past thirty years, a farrago of ground moves (into and out of Bath, into the ground of Bristol Rugby which they made their own and are now desperate to leave), poor managers (including one season in which four men — Paul Trollope, Darren Patterson, Dave Penney and Stuart Campbell — had a crack at the job, and unsurprisingly saw the club relegated at the end) and board-level chaos. But this, according to precedent in other mid-sized cities, creates an opportunity for Bristol City.
It’s an opportunity that the Bristol City board appears to be trying to take. Whether the owner and chairman are aware of this theoretical window of opportunity isn’t clear, but if the strategy really was “polarise the teams and become the dominant club in Bristol” then the club’s actions would make just as much sense as they presently do.
In recent seasons, the Bristol City identity has been partially subsumed into a wider brand called “Bristol Sport”. This new entity is responsible not just for City, but for Bristol Academy Women’s Football Team, for Bristol Rugby and Bristol Ladies Rugby, for the Bristol Flyers basketball side, for a futsal team and for a handful of local racing drivers. Season-ticket holders for each sport are given promotional offers to attend the others, allowing City fans to become Bristol Rugby fans, and crucially vice-versa. Bristol Sport is clearly trying to sell its portfolio as the natural choice for the Bristolian sports fan, thereby neatly removing Rovers from the local equation.
So Bristol has more than a decade of polarisation to its name. The larger club has a sound strategy, a billionaire backer, and an affluent, youthful city to draw fans from.
And yet it’s bottom of the Championship. Is Bristol City being let down by itself? Or is there something innate in Bristol which actively prevents the club being successful?
The conundrum of mediocrity
It’s clear that those responsible for Bristol City have made bad decisions, just as their equivalents at Rovers have. The outcome at Ashton Gate hasn’t been as catastrophic, but the mistakes are there for all to see. An initial play-off final appearance under Gary Johnson led to owner Steve Lansdown throwing money at the club in an attempt to push it one stage further and into the Premier League. But the money was spent, by and large, on the big wages demanded by ‘name’ players like Neil Kilkenny, Stern John and David James, and on tying willing but limited players such as Marvin Elliott and Jamie McAllister onto long contracts. It wasn’t spent on team building, it was spent on the understanding that success would almost immediately follow.
And when that failed, and Gary Johnson paid the price, the rotation of managers began. Steve Coppell, Keith Millen, Derek McInnes and Sean O’Driscoll all signed up to run around with a bucket of tar, patching up the holes in a ship missing a steering wheel and aiming straight at the brim of a waterfall. The 2013 relegation was City’s most inevitable for years.
So certainly the custodians of the club must take some blame. But it’s noticeable that the two Bristol clubs have had similar problems in the last decade, most notably the battle to build new stadiums. Both have entered into deals with supermarkets to buy the old grounds so that new ones can be built. Both have been thwarted — in Rovers’ case by the supermarket in question pulling out, in City’s by the cunning application by local residents of an obscure legal trifle. These things happen, sure. But twice starts to look like a pattern.
Again, Bristolians cast their eyes across the channel to Cardiff, in so many ways our dark mirror. The Welsh outfit don’t seem to have these issues (although they have all the off the pitch ones and more). They want a new stadium, they get it. Indeed there never seems to be an issue getting urban infrastructure in the Welsh capital, whether that’s the Millennium Stadium (while Bristol spends years arguing with itself about a giant music venue) or the impressive Cardiff Bay development. Bristol’s equivalent? A bridge with horns on (a very nice bridge with horns on, but still) and some city centre waterfalls which burble a bit.
Of course, as a regional capital Cardiff receives funding Bristol doesn’t. But the contrast remains stark — Cardiff decides to do things and does them. Bristol prevaricates, tangles itself up legally, and fails. Bristol can sometimes lack a certain drive, a certain passion. Even the football grounds are hidden away in nice residential areas, not standing proud, visible across the city like St James’ Park or Elland Road.
Bristol City hasn’t done itself too many favours in recent years. But worse run clubs have had success. That can’t be everything.
The time is now?
I don’t believe that it’s necessary to create Bristol United in order to achieve success, and it wouldn’t guarantee anything if we did (after all, Bradford City are the only league club in a much larger city, and it hasn’t done them much good of late). But I do believe that Bristol cannot sustain two successful sides. The only way sustained success can come to Bristol is for one side to eclipse the other, and it is evidence as much as it is bias which points to City being the likeliest contenders.
And this ‘window of polarisation’ won’t last forever. Indeed, with Bristol City struggling in the second tier and Bristol Rovers just three points from the League Two playoffs, it’s not impossible that 2016-17 might see the first league meeting of the clubs since 2000-01.
The Robins’ strategy of conquering the divided city is inherently sound. But unless the red club start to get the results on the pitch they need, unless they really start to achieve the success that is now open to them, the window will begin to close, and the two clubs will find themselves lost in the middle of the league forevermore, watching on as minor provincial towns take the shiny cups that could have belonged to Bristol.