Bristol Rovers v Macclesfield Town
Memorial Ground / Conference Premier / 28th December 2014
My 3rd game in 3 days was to see me cross the River Severn and into Bristol. Every time I’ve returned home to Wales from Manchester, I’ve tried to head over to Bristol to visit either City’s Ashton Gate home or Rovers’ Memorial Ground. Admittedly, Rovers’ more ‘interesting’ looking ground appealed to me more, so when my Bristol-dwelling pal Ed informed me in the pub on Christmas Day that he was up for going along, ticking off the Memorial Ground was on.
Instead of heading into the centre of Bristol, I jumped off the train at Filton Abbey Wood station having been informed beforehand that I’d find myself nearer the ground here. Ed was due in the area a bit later than me, so I decided to plod on ahead and soon I found The Bulldog pub on the main road to the Memorial Ground (according to my Google Maps app, I was about 15 minutes walk away from the ground itself).
The Bulldog was certainly a pub with character with the locals all wearing flat caps, something I obviously very much condone, and all drinking cans of the West Country brewed Natch cider. The bar seemed to go eerily silent as I ordered a pint of lager, as if I had committed some sort of crime against the cider-loving Bristolians. I headed away from the bemused locals and over to the three pool tables and a punch bag machine (not a Bristol City shirt) to drink my pint and to watch the Forest v Birmingham game on Sky.
Manchester United supporting Ed had arrived in the area the opposite way to me and so found himself a bit closer to the ground in search of a pub showing the early kick-off between United and Spurs. When he texted me informing that he was in the Queen Vic nearer the ground and they had the United game on TV there, I downed my lager (still being met by glares from the locals) and headed down Filton Avenue towards the ground.
It was a slightly chilly, yet fairly sunny day in North Bristol today and this provided me with a lovely view of the Memorial Ground’s floodlights with the city of Bristol backdropping them, as I came down the hill. Sadly, I had left my camera at home, so I was left to rely on the camera of my Samsung Galaxy.
En route to the Queen Vic I went past the ground itself, so I decided to have a quick nose around and to buy our tickets for the game whilst there was no queue. Ticket price: £18 to stand on the North Terrace.
The Queen Vic is located just 5 minutes around the corner from the ground and I found Ed sitting at a small table in the middle, complete with nearby plug socket; this was crucial for me, as I really did need my phone charged and ready to last the day for photo-taking purposes.
Once again, it appeared that me and Ed were the only non-cider drinkers in the pub and once again it seemed that cans of Natch were the ultimate cider of choice in this part of the world. The pub filled up as the time creeped over 2pm and with a fairly drab United v Spurs game finishing 0-0 on TV, we opted to head up to the ground hoping for a better game and a few more goals.
On arrival at the gates of the Memorial Ground, we realised we still had time for another drink and so we headed into the clubhouse. The clubhouse consists of two large rooms and despite it obviously being rather full with kick-off not too far away, we got ourselves a drink easily. The windows of the clubhouse looked out into the ground itself and I have to say I was now excited. The Memorial Ground definitely looked my sort of ground and I was excited to get into the stand to sample the place properly.
There was still one more area to address: food. Now this had to be one of the highlights of whole day – and there were quite a few highlights. Within the clubhouse sits Irene’s Kitchen and what a place this is. I opted for the ‘When in Rome…’ philosophy and ordered pasty and chips. This was definitely the best food I’ve had at football in long time! The chips were proper chips and the pasty was a delight. I could have gone home there and then and probably been happy, but that would have been silly, so around we went to the turnstiles and onto the North Terrace of the Memorial Ground.
The ground’s history is actually draped in rugby with the ground’s name deriving from the ground being dedicated to the Bristol Rugby Club players who had fought and died during World War I; the gate we entered the ground via had a stone memorial commemorating those who were lost to war. The ground was officially opened in 1921 after being converted from allotments. Rugby had been played by Clifton RFC on the site in the late part of the 19th century when the field was known as ‘Buffalo Bill’s Field’, apparently due to Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s hosting his Wild West Show there between 28 September and 3 October 1891.
The site was converted for allotments during World War I before becoming a sports ground again. Unsurprisingly, over the past 90 odd years or so, the ground has seen significant redevelopments and alterations.
Whilst rugby union was played at the ground, Bristol Rovers were playing at the Eastville Stadium, after playing at numerous ground during the closing years of the 19th century. The Rovers would call Eastville home between 1897 and 1986 and it was here where the club would earn its nickname as ‘The Gas’ because of the gasworks adjacent to the ground. What started as derogatory nickname placed on the Rovers by rival City fans, has since become a sort of badge of honour for the Rovers fans, who dub themselves ‘Gasheads’.
Finances saw the club forced out of Eastville and forced to relocate to Bath City’s Twerton Park for 10 years (which I visited about 18 months ago), before finally returning to the city of Bristol in 1996 and sharing a home with the rugby team at the Memorial Ground. As the rugby club relocated to Ashton Gate in 2014, leaving Rovers as the sole tenants at the ground, there was also big change for the Gas this year with the club slumping out of the Football League, after the best part of a century, and into the Conference.
There is some talk that the Bristol Rovers could be moving into a new ground in the near future with plans drawn up for the 21,500 all seater UWE Stadium to be built in Cheswick. However, although the plans are still out there, talk of a move has been more muted over the past months.
Many had told me beforehand how the Memorial Ground is a crumbling relic, but this, as regular readers of my blogs will know, was music to my ears. Predictably, I loved the place. Every side of the ground had character. To the left of our entrance stood the magnificent East Stand, which soared high into the orange sky starting to hang over Bristol. Either side of the stand is open terracing with the far side given to away fans. Opposite the East Stand is a structure which looks more like a cricket pavilion than a football stand, but a structure which certainly adds character to the place with fans able to sit and watch the game in the upper balconies, as well as the seating below. At the far end of the ground, behind the goal, stands the fairly standard South Stand – small, roofed and seating underneath its shelter. However, I was delighted to be on the large standing terrace behind the goal, which seemed particularly jam-packed for today’s game. It was great to walk into the stand just as the two teams were coming out on the pitch and with the home fans launching into a loud chorus of their club anthem, Goodnight Irene. Fairplay to the home fans as well, they were in good voice for the majority of the game and they were to have plenty to sing about.
Firstly, I was disappointed that Welshman Ellis Harrison was not starting up top for Rovers today for two reasons: 1) he’s Welsh and 2) I’ve never seen a Harrison namesake score live – unless seeing me bury that penalty for Atherton Colls fans v Glantraeth FC fans in a half-time penalty shoot out counts. I was however overjoyed to see Stuart Sinclair start for Rovers – a bearded, pony-tailed midfielder who I had seen boss the show at the end of last season when I attended Chester v Salisbury. He very much fitted the Rovers’ Pirates nickname with his appearance.
Despite Macclesfield sitting 2nd in the Conference and only just ahead of 3rd place Bristol Rovers, there seemed to be a gulf in class today. Initially, the game was scrappy with Rovers seeming to rely on long balls up top to Nathan Blissett (nephew of Luther) and not really getting anywhere with such a tactic.
The half continued to be a rather non-event with Rovers arguably dominating slightly. It would be the home team who would gain the lead just before half-time when Andy Monkhouse headed home after Jake Gosling had initially hit the post. A great time to score with just minutes until half-time.
Half-time: Bristol Rovers 1 – 0 Macclesfield.
Conveniently, as we headed to the back of the terrace, some doors opened and back into the clubhouse we went for another pint and to catch up on the scores around the country.
We were a bit slow in drinking our beers and the second half was already underway as we headed back to our perch at the bottom of the North Terrace.
The second half was completely dominated by Rovers and not long after the hour it was 2-0. Despite me criticising his general play all game, Blissett popped up in the box and tapped home an easy chance after being squared up by Monkhouse.
Once again, choruses of Goodnight Irene boomed around the ground, but also now accompanied by choruses of “The Gas are going up!”
Rovers best player on the day for me was their number 10 Matt Taylor and it was fully deserved when he grabbed a goal to make it 3-0 with a brilliantly placed header at the near post.
As the sun set, the ground looked magnificent with the moon also looming overhead. However, the ground was made to look even more stunning as the Gasheads took to creating a spontaneous light show with their phones lighting up the grounds from all sides. It really was a brilliant sight. My phone photos didn’t really do the scene justice, but conveniently one Rovers fan videoed the phone torch show from the West Stand, so you can watch it below.
I was then excited as Ellis Harrison finally emerged onto the pitch in the 79th minute to raucous applause from the home fans (and me). Within 4 minutes of him coming on, Rovers had a penalty and it was to be Harrison who was to step up and take it. Harrison confidently stepped up and…”HARRISON SCORES!” The beautifully named striker smacked his penalty straight down the middle to make it 4-0. I was further delighted when Harrison celebrated right in front of us with the ‘HARRISON 17’ on his shirt pointed in my direction. I’d possibly still argue that Matt Harrison – me – struck a better penalty for Atherton Colls fans v Glantraeth fans last summer though.
The crowd was in magnificent voice and it was great to see the fans so happy, especially after the torrid couple of seasons they’ve had fighting to stay in League Two before eventually succumbing to relegation to non-league.
Full-time: Bristol Rovers 4 – 0 Macclesfield.
I read one Bristol Rovers fan put on Twitter later that evening that this was his favourite home game for 5 or 6 years and there was certainly a wonderful atmosphere in the place on this Sunday afternoon. We’d seen lots of goals, a decent game, drank beer and had some quality football food. For me though, my highlight of the day was the ground itself. Similar to when I went to Luton’s Kenilworth Road, many derided the place before my visit, mainly because of its ramshackle nature. However, that’s exactly what charmed me. Four very different stands and I very much enjoyed the atmosphere on the North Terrace; I’m assuming though that the atmosphere would have been very different if I were on the same terrace towards the end of last season during Rovers’ slump. I’d be gutted to see them leave a ground like this behind for the predictably new ground that’ll be built in Cheswick.
My train back to Cardiff wasn’t due until 18:55 so we still had time for another pint in the club bar, before we headed out into the chilly, Bristolian evening. No-one was really left now, but the gates to the ground were still open, so I quickly ran in to get some quick photos of the empty ground.
We went in search of one last pub before heading home and within moments of leaving Bristol Rovers’ abode, we found the Wellington just up the hill from ground. This was certainly the classier of the pubs we had visited in the area with many in the place to enjoy an evening meal rather than to talk about the 4-0 victory to Bristol Rovers that had just happened.
Clearly, I was enjoying the confines of the Wellington too much, as I seem to completely misjudge the time and how far I had to walk to get back to the station. I said my goodbyes to Ed and had to jog a lot of the way to the station (obviously not forgetting to buy some beer for the train en route though).
With moments to spare, I made my train and was soon heading back towards South Wales and then down the Valleys back to Quakers Yard. I even had a moment of rebellion to finish the day off by having a beer between Pontypridd and Quakers Yard; for those unaware, the Ponty-Merthyr line is one of the few in the country where it is forbidden to consume alcohol. I’m sure this is what Russell Brand means when he keeps encouraging the nation to revolt.
Highlights: decent pubs near the ground, brilliant ground with plenty of character, great pasty and chips, 4 goals, seeing a Harrison score, good atmosphere (including a phone light show).
Low Points: I suppose the first half was rather dull.
Check out all my photos from my day at Bristol Rovers here.