As a group of fans who have visited St. Andrew’s they are probably only bettered by Leeds United in 2004 and Club Brugge in the Europa League a few years ago. Well that is in my lifetime anyway. In terms of numbers and noise they were absolutely fantastic; they strike me as a lower league version of us, a proper football club with proper fans but consistently have underachieved on the pitch. That underachievement hit a new low on Saturday, as Bristol Rovers were relegated into the Conference following a 1-0 defeat at home to Mansfield after spending ninety-four years in the Football League.
Now lots of clubs suffer relegation, and yes it always is painful. But I think dropping out of the Football League means so much more than just simply going down a division. It is almost like losing a way of life for a club; that Football League status means so much, especially when it is held for as long as Rovers have held it.
In terms of a standard of football it probably won’t actually be that much of a shock. The standard of football is high down there (some argue that it is actually on a par with League Two), and the majority of clubs are ‘full time’. And with ex-League stalwarts like Grimsby, Wrexham and Lincoln in the division it will feel vaguely familial. However that in itself creates a problem; getting out of the Conference is devilishly hard, especially for clubs who drop down from the Football League, dealing with an inevitable exodus of players and loss of revenue. Only Carlisle and Shrewsbury have managed to bounce back at the first attempt this side of the Millennium. They will be the biggest club down there next season, but Luton are also a massive club who for years struggled to get out of the division.
Ten and a half thousand. That was the crowd Rovers got on Saturday. Bigger than all bar two of the weekend’s attendances in League One, and a bigger figure than the attendances recorded at Barnsley and Yeovil in the Championship. They have averaged well over six thousand over the course of the season, the third highest in the fourth tier and higher than the majority of clubs in the division above, and this is a club that ended up going down to the Conference! There is a potential for the club to at least consolidate in the Championship, and looking at clubs like Hull, Cardiff and Swansea there’s an argument that they could go even further with the right investment and management. That all makes it even more criminal that they have fallen so low; you look at tin pot clubs like Yeovil playing in Championship football and the mind boggles.
It’s trying to realise that ambition that may cause them problems now though. The club has a new 20,000 all seater stadium on the way in a year’s time but I’m pretty sure that the idea was they would still be a Football League club by the time they moved in, preferably one that was in a higher division than League Two so that they could kick on and use the momentum to fly through the divisions ala Hull and Swansea. They could still be a Football League club by the time they move into their new stadium, but that would mean an immediate return to League Two, and as I have said that is something rarely achieved by clubs who drop down from there. The worry is that the longer they stay in the Conference in this new stadium, the crowds will drop, the revenue will fall and the costs of running such a large stadium will become overwhelming. There is a real possibility that the stadium could become a white elephant – Rovers are a bigger club, but I wouldn’t say it is infeasible that a situation like the one at Darlington (who in the past few years have been playing in leagues that are little better than park football) could repeat itself.
Ultimately they only have themselves to blame for the situation they find themselves in. And when I say they I don’t mean those long suffering supporters, I mean those in charge at the club. Rovers have diced with death ever since they came down from League One in 2011; in 2011-12 and 2012-13 they were near the bottom of the league around Christmas, and both times they brought in two old heads to manage the club to drag them clear of danger. But there seems to have been no long term strategy; by the sounds of things the club has had money invested in players, but nothing on the infrastructure needed to make a football club successful. Four years ago they finished eleventh in League One, four places behind Southampton. In those four years Saints have gone from there to the upper half of the Premier League, whilst Rovers have dropped into non-league; they have gone through seven managers and goodness knows how many players, but the one constant has been the Board of directors. Surely that says it all; those players and managers may have underperformed or simply not been up for it, but there’s ultimately one group of people who have to take the lion’s share of responsibility.
I’ve stated on here before that I have a soft spot for Rovers, but I think generally it is a tragedy that a club of this size will be playing outside the Football League. For their fans it probably hasn’t sunk in yet; that will probably come when the fixtures for the Football League are released in June and they realise theirs haven’t been released because the Conference publishes them to weeks later. Little things such as playing in the FA Cup qualifying rounds, playing in the FA Trophy and visiting the likes of Alfreton, Braintree and Welling will bring it home. I suppose there will be a certain novelty factor in going to these places, but that will soon fade if they start struggling like other ex-League clubs have in the past.
Who knows, relegation could be could for them in the long run. They will be a massive draw in terms of bringing players in from the non-league; a chance to play for a club like Rovers won’t come along often for those sorts of players. And I think that is what Rovers will need; good quality and seasoned non-league players, players who know and have what it takes to get results in the Conference. An immediate return to the Football League is rare but not unheard of, and the sooner they are back and kicking on in the Football League the better really.