Football Cities: Bristol

Posted by on Oct 9, 2015 in Football Cities | 13 Comments
Football Cities: Bristol
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Paul Townsend

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.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League


  1. Ben
    October 9, 2015

    Great article. A handful of comments:

    1. Being a sizeable single-club city is no guarantee of success either – see my piece on NUFC that kicked off the series!

    2. I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘Bristol Sport’. Sounds not dissimilar to Sir John Hall’s vision of Newcastle United Sporting Club (encompassing the city’s football, rugby, basketball and ice hockey teams). That flopped because there just isn’t the same level of interest in the other sports as there is in football. The concept might work in Bristol, as I think I’m right in saying there’s more of a passion for rugby, for a start. That said, how is it that Bristol Rovers have been excluded? By their own volition? If not, are they miffed to have been left out (and potentially left behind)?

    3. ‘The impressive Cardiff Bay development’: hmm. It’s OK for a stroll along the waterfront and the odd council-funded event, but I’m not sure that a load of overpriced chain restaurants/bars and acre upon acre of bland, characterless residential development (including many unoccupied flats) is necessarily something to be admired/aspired to!

    • Will
      October 9, 2015

      Thanks Ben

      1. Absolutely agree that there are no guarantees – and I don’t know that being a single-club city would do us any good. In any case I don’t wish ill on the Rovers and wouldn’t want to see them fold!

      2. Bristol’s certainly as much a rugby city as it is a football one – given more words to play with I’d have touched on that, I think. Rovers aren’t involved because the common link is Steve Lansdown, our majority shareholder (de facto owner) and also the owner/shareholder of those others mentioned. Effectively he’s spent the last decade or so buying up Bristol sports teams and has now amalgamated them within one limited company. I think the more thoughtful Rovers fan is certainly concerned about the implications, but I suspect within FA rules there’s no way they could be involved even if either fan base would accept it.

      3. I take your point about Cardiff Bay, but whether it’s to your personal taste or not it’s another major project that got delivered. I think it’s important to the city as well – it’s part of the overhaul of Cardiff which saw it get so many TV series (losing Casualty and Being Human to Cardiff upset me almost as much as them making the Premier League the day we got relegated. I don’t even watch Casualty but it was a Bristolian totem) and generally increase its ‘soft power’. Every episode of Torchwood certainly seemed to include extended fetishisation of the area – it’s shiny enough that it gives good telly.

      • Gary Powell
        September 6, 2016

        You’re wrong about rugby. Though the sport is popular in Bristol, the city is not ‘as much a rugby city as it is football’.

        I’m not sure what the figures are or indeed if this is still the case, but around 7 or so years ago Bristol had more people playing football in amateur leagues than any other city outside of London. And that’s not % of population, that’s sheer number of people.

  2. Dan Martin
    October 9, 2015

    Good article.

    I’d say that a good City would have a far bigger effect than a bad Rovers (or vice versa).

    The crowds drawn by both clubs to finals at Wembley and Cardiff show that there is enough support there for either club if it is successful (possibly both, but we don’t know how many people went to both City and Rovers finals), but the typical league attendances show that the Bristolian public simply isn’t interested in the endless slog of a mediocre league campaign. They like football and enjoy a big day out, but they don’t love their clubs unconditionally like the inhabitants of other cities do.

    Reaching the Premier League could have a huge impact on City. The increased profile and revenue would instantly propel them a million miles away from Rovers. I do have my doubts about how long it could be sustained for, but the global reach of the Premier League would mean they no longer relied exclusively on the fickle Bristol public for support.

    The problem for City is that the gap within the Championship is becoming huge and they are on the wrong side of it. It is becoming the case that the only way to reach the Premiership is to have recently come from it. Clubs who have no parachute payments and crowds of 15,000 find it very hard to compete at the top without gambling money they don’t necessarily have. Bournemouth may show it can be done, but I suspect that may be more a case of an expensive gamble that paid off than anything else.

    Merging the two Bristol clubs would therefore do very little to surmount the problem facing City. It can already be shown that the support is there for a successful club, but there is no reason to assume that those people would be drawn to a merged club without success and there’s equally no reason to think that adding the resources, players and staff of Bristol Rovers to those of Bristol City would make any significant dent in the gap between City and the top of the Championship. The most likely result would be to end up with one club bouncing around the bottom end of the Football League instead of two.

  3. Paul Binning
    October 9, 2015

    Dan, couldn’t agree more with all of that. I think City hold the record attendance for both the JPT and play off finals at Wembley and to take 42,000 last season was remarkable.

    That ‘injection’ of a season or two in the Premier League may well add 5k to our gates, I guess, for a few years.

    Ben, the Bristol Sport concept is a Steve Lansdown vision – our owner and long time fan, so Bristol City was its starting point. Borne out of wanting to utilise facilities at the ground more often than every other Saturday and modelled after a trip to Barcelona where their sports umbrella is impressive indeed.

    Take your point on Cardiff Bay (I live not far away), but Will’s point is valid. The investment and development in the Welsh Capital compared with Bristol in the last twenty years is a quantam difference

  4. Cassini
    October 10, 2015

    Another good read, but to be slightly pedantic, as is my wont, I think you mean “largest city” rather than “largest town” here:

    “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.”

    Bristol is a city, Wakefield is a city, and as of 2000, Brighton and Hove is also a city.

    You may enjoy this read:

    “And this is the nub of the problem. Merged clubs lose fans as well as gain them. If formed way back, “Bristol United” would probably have fared better than either City or Rovers have done independently, but there is too much history and animosity to merge now. The same goes for Sheffield. Instead, fans may as well enjoy the rivalry. Besides, who’s to question that intra-city competition has spurred on Everton and Liverpool, while sole-club status enabled successive owners of Newcastle United to coast?”

  5. supergas
    October 13, 2015

    you`ll never get rid of the gas !

  6. mark jenkins
    October 13, 2015

    We did get rid of the gas (ans the song goes) or rather they got rid of themselves; Despite a brief return to the league, NLBR have disgraced the good name of Bristol for so many years on the pitch. The sooner they go and fight it out with Eastleigh and Forest Green the better for all concerned and then the City revival will be multi-facetted; on the pitch, with a great stadium, entertaining again the west country public (and it’s many, many fans who travel every week from London and overseas) and preparin g to be what most of us want – The One Team In Bristol

  7. supergas
    October 14, 2015

    Dont fool yourselves when ever you say to anyone in this country your from Bristol they say are you Rovers or City ?You cant post online about either team without comments from the other team,Yes you have the upper hand on the pitch but with the amount of money you have spent in recent years compared to the amount Rovers have spent its clear to see why thats so and your lowly position in the championship can only be classed as failure,There will always be two teams in Bristol regardless of each clubs league positions,At England internationals there is as many Rovers fans as there are city in support, supporters from both sides will never allow a Bristol united club, yes you might have the bragging rights but Bristol will always be a two team city and thats a fact, even your chairman used to be a Rovers supporter and attend games at Eastville, Rovers have had their up`s and downs and spent a season in non league and 10 years in Bath but the very fact we survived both these events and have had numerous attempts at new ground builds end in disapointment and we still maintain a strong fanbase proves were going nowhere and you will never get rid of the gas.Bristol Rovers 1883 Bristols first and oldest professional football club will never die. #Bristol city 1897-Bristol city ltd 1982-Bristol sports

  8. supergas
    October 14, 2015

    The fact that your biggest attendance in recent years was the Bristol derby J.P.T. cup match speaks volumes…U.T.G.

    • HJones
      April 19, 2017

      The attendance was over 42,000. Bristol city brought 42,000 to Wembley. The significance is that city were allocated a second slot and brought more as Walsall undersold their capacity.

  9. Andy
    May 21, 2016

    Just come across this, good read but things have changed since. City stayed up, Rovers won promotion so 1 league between us and we now have new owners and a new stadium in the final stages of talks before work starts on it.
    Soon Bristol will have 2 teams in the championship and as biased as the article was I shall be now and say the blue half of the city will be the happier set of fans. We will be the ones heading for the top whilst Bristolsport Ltd continue to flounder in mediocrity.

  10. Huw
    September 3, 2016

    A good read – I’d never considered the polarisation angle before and there is a lot of truth in that. However I prefer to be more ambitious and aspire to Liverpool rather than Stoke.

    I wrote this at the end of a longer blog a while bakc that takes a different approach:

    Bristol and the unity of rivalry:

    Bristol is one of the smaller cities to have two teams, yet undoubtably the worst of all two team cities. A city not significantly larger, Liverpool, contrasts in almost every way. Putting aside the Liverpudlian — Mancunian divide, Liverpool itself at least has an identity as a two team City. It has rivalry — but it celebrates that rivalry. It plays with it. Bristol, with its failing teams and with fan bases broadly and increasingly divided by geography since the 60s, before which fans watched both teams and mixed during derbies, has no such identity. It has a rivalry, but one which doesn’t celebrate the fact it is a City able to hold two teams, but rather forever wishing it only had one. A two team City, in a similar way perhaps to Edinburgh, with an identity crises. City fans resent Rovers existing, seeing them as the millstone which holds them back from being the force they could and should (not might) be. Rovers on the other hand resent City as the bigger club and have an inferiority complex. At times the nightmare vision of City’s success eclipses the dream of a successful Rovers, coming as it does with the threat of pushing Rovers out of the town not big enough for the both of us. This is a rivalry which wishes it wasn’t there. Rovers fans may not actually wish City fans dead, but as with some City fans the other way, some might not have a problem with the death of the club. Why else celebrate the moment they almost did in 1982?

    No wonder then that the Bristol derby is such an unpleasant affair. There is an animosity without celebration of that animosity, without any ability to play with it. It does little celebrating, it only shouts its discontent at the other side. Very few look forward to the derby as other cities might. But to celebrate a rivalry you have to be able to celebrate the rival. Bristol is a great City and big enough and better for the both of us.

    As society shifts, fan bases change, and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are altered, and as we chuckle over our ‘bragging rights‘ while chastising football violence, we should try to better understand the blurred lines and confusions in which these liminal spaces operate. The potential of Bristol to be a unified and cohesive city is, in relative terms, a straightforward one. Yet the ability to create a sense of shared identity of and beyond rival differences is a tall order. But a failure to do so can deny a basic reality, that without the other we lose part of the self. Unlike the ugly emptiness of nationalisms based on comparatives (Britishness has for so long been about what, or who we are not, rather that what we are), surely the liberated playground of football support has the potential to love and embrace the bigger picture?

    Sid Lowe makes it clear in his fantastic book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga”, that Barcelona and Real Madrid have built their identities on each other and on their rivalry. This has occurred within the realm of football but obviously parallels and encompasses the wider political and cultural context. On the other hand Bristol’s North of the river/ South of the river military industrial complex really doesn’t justify our inability to come out and admit our essential unity. Sadly we seem further away from doing that than most.

    As City look set to move up the leagues and Rovers settle in to what might be many a year in the non-league, perhaps City fans will finally get their wish of a one team city. But if they ever make the Premier League, however much they may enjoy it, without Rovers alongside Bristol won’t be able to claim its own derby. Something both City and Rovers alike can use as ‘bragging rights’ over so many other teams.


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