The 4th of May 2014 will live long in the memories of Bristol Rovers fans for what can only be described as a desperately low point in the club’s history. For the first time, they were relegated out of the Football League. To put this into perspective, this is a club that can take 40,000 to a Wembley play off final, a club that can take over 2000 fans on distant away trips, and a club that went on to outnumber the home fans in their own stadiums. The club was in free fall.
Fast forward two years and Rovers have transformed from non-league obscurity to League Two promotion chasers with a new, billionaire owner – The Jordanian Al Qadi family, headed by Wael Al Qadi. This was announced on the 19th February 2016 with 92% of the club being sold and the remaining 8% staying in the hands of the supporter’s club. Since the takeover a mini run of form had seen Rovers surge into automatic promotion places, and despite a blip dropping them to fifth, the club remains in a tightly contested chase for automatic promotion. The club has a kind run in of fixtures, with the exception of runaway leaders Northampton Town, and on current form look like credible promotion candidates.
In some ways the relegation to the National League created a platform for reform. Manager Darrell Clarke made wholesale changes, and whilst doing so changed the whole ethos of the club. The players are hungrier, more disciplined and this has resonated with the fans. Clarke is proving to be a genuinely talented manager, turning a dressing room full of overpaid self-interested mediocrity into one brimming with togetherness. The aura around the club is the best it’s been for several years.
The club boasts the league’s second highest scorer Matty Taylor; who has built on his 20 league goals in his debut season, with 22 league goals already this term. There is also a host of other talent, most notably Wales U21 defender Tom Lockyer who is gaining plenty of interest.
However one thing that has plagued the club for years is the seemingly unattainable goal of securing a new or improved stadium. The Memorial Stadium is a ground full of character located in an interesting part of Bristol, but it is simply not sustainable due to its limited capacity and poor accessibility. It restricts the ability of the Gas to reach the level they aspire to. In comes the UWE Stadium. The 21,700 stadium. on a site owned by The University of the West of England, has long been in the planning stage but under the new leadership looks likely. This is despite losing a lengthy legal battle with Sainsbury’s who pulled out of the purchase of the Memorial Stadium site, something vital in terms of funding.
Wael is saying all the rights things. He’s come in, embraced the club, the fans and promised to maintain Rovers traditional values. Seemingly here for the long haul, he’s demonstrated a desire to progress up the leagues as well as promising to invest in the academy and make progress with the stadium – absolutely vital for success. Like any takeover it is wise to be slightly cautious, but on the surface it’s exactly what Bristol Rovers have been crying out for. As a member of the Jordanian Football Association, Wael has a vast wealth of experience in the sport. It is evident that the man loves football and has made many influential friends along the way.
Is this the beginning of the Gas revolution? Perhaps. It’s undoubtedly an exciting time to be a Gashead. A club with a real possibility of back to back promotions, a new 21,700 stadium moving even closer along with a talented young manager at the helm. Whether all of this optimism will actually deliver future success is impossible to call. It seems Wael will take a more sensible strategic approach to building the club up rather than simply throwing money at players. But in this new era for the club, success at a higher level finally seems possible and that’s why Bristol Rovers are a team to watch.