Saturday 15th October 2011. Whaddon Road. Gloucester City were in action against Truro City in the FA Cup. This was the date and the moment my affiliation with Gloucester City and Gloucestershire football began. At the time I had to learn quickly the history of Gloucester City AFC and even borrowed the then-Chairman of the Supporters’ Trust Matt Phillips’ copy of the Gloucester City AFC history book. Just from reading this I could see the trials and tribulations that the modern day fan has experienced in following the Tigers and I read about the flooding of Meadow Park but what I couldn’t read in the book was the affect this had on the club and its fans, that was learned from getting to know the fans and getting to know the heartache.
In the beginning there was still a buzz about the place. Fans had seen Gloucester move all around the county, with Forest Green Rovers’ New Lawn and Cirencester’s Corinium Stadium temporary homes, but they ended up at their biggest local rival’s (Cheltenham Town) doorstep. Whether fans liked or lumped it, Whaddon Road would turn out to be home until the beginning of the 2017/18 season. Tim Harris, like Boris Mehew before him, injected a feel of “we’re all in this together” around a club that promotes itself as a family friend outfit.
In the early days that togetherness was apparent. Spaces on away coaches were a premium and often there weren’t coaches big enough to carry so many fans. Now there’s empty seats on a 40 seater coach on its way to a big FA Trophy tie in Chesham when the club needs the support more than ever. Times have changed, but unfortunately for Gloucester City and their fans, the club’s situation hasn’t.
Over time the regular happy faces that used to welcome me to Whaddon Road slowly faded away, some grew tired of travelling 30 minutes for a home game, others are sadly no longer with us, living on only in anecdotes and memories or with tweets and posts on forums. At the start it was almost seen as blasphemy for turning your back on the club or going elsewhere for your football fix.
Today? It is more uncommon to be in attendance of a Gloucester City match with more people not just choosing but preferring to go elsewhere, if anywhere at all, with live football in the city on offer through the likes of Tuffley Rovers and Longlevens (Slimbridge, too, is only a 20 minute drive). You have to question what is going on when fans of a club that fights for survival day to day in a City better known for Rugby Union choose to not go to a game of football at all because of the Gloucester City situation. But how did it come to this?
In those early days Gloucester City helped me a lot. Providing me with weekly football and opportunities to practically apply the knowledge I was picking up whilst at the University of Gloucestershire. From speaking to people about what I was doing for the club I learned. I listened. I adapted.
It may be a bit far to say but I became one of them, but I am not a Gloucester City fan. Not really. Of course, I want Gloucester City to do well and I want them to achieve everything that the fans, the players and the officials deserve. I want to see them play at Meadow Park, play at Glevum Park, hell I’d even take seeing them play in Gloucester Park with jumpers for goalposts.
After all the stories I’ve heard from fans, from Tom Webb, Mike Dunstan and everybody I’ve ever spoken to about Gloucester City, I want to just experience it for myself. Being honest though, after Saturday and the week that the club has had – three games lost, last season’s best forward sold to Tamworth, increasing pressure on the club and it’s owners for a stadium progress update – it has slowly felt a matter of “if” and not when as everybody thought it was going to be no more than 18 months ago.
Whilst I was at university and still coming to terms with life covering Gloucester City I was asked to write a statement. The statement was to showcase my opinion and thoughts in regards to why Gloucester City needed to return home to Meadow Park and why planning permission should be granted. This, along with many other statements was sent to the Gloucester City Council ahead of a planning meeting.
At the time, it fell on deaf ears or so it seemed. City had their initial permission rejected with the footnote that they needed to re-evaluate and reassess the actual flood plains and flood prevention measures in said plans. In fact it wouldn’t be for another two years until Gloucester City saw their plans approved by the council.
In October 2014, in a statement to the BBC regarding the approval of the plans, Gloucester City Chairman Mike Dunstan said:
“Our owners put in a huge amount of work on getting the ground’s application in and showed real tenacity….the fans have shown real tenacity whilst we’ve been away for seven years, so it’s just great for everybody that we’ve got a light at the end of the tunnel.” He said it was “difficult to put a timescale” on when the stadium would be ready and said it would be at least 12 to 18 months.”
But after yesterday’s defeat, which has topped off one of the worst weeks in the recent Gloucester City history for the fans as well as management, I saw social media and forums rife with negativity. I mean I even travelled back to Gloucester on a coach of glum, upset faces. The phrases “I am sick of it” & “we have hit rock bottom” were being touted and rightly so.
I sat there finishing bits for Severn Sport and winding down after a full-on and ferocious commentary, as well as analysing tweets we were getting in regards to our post match interview with Gloucester City manager, Tim Harris. It was during this period that I noticed that Gloucester City’s owner, Eamonn McGurk was liking and retweeting negative comments about the club and the situation they currently find themselves in. As an individual on the outside of the club I was going home relaxed and calm after the game as I am not as emotionally attached as the fans and all I could think was “why are you adding fuel to the fire?”
I have seen those faces as mentioned earlier fade away and have seen the animosity and resentment towards this man build to such a point that they openly do not trust nor in some cases actually want this man involved with their football club. Whilst I won’t allow myself to be dragged into a discussion as to whether Eamonn McGurk is the best man to be majority shareholder of Gloucester City Football Club (as I have never met or spoke to the man), but what I will say is there is a way to conduct yourself in the event of a major problem and that isn’t to make the problem worse.
Besides the owner, there is still one major factor in the depression that has built up around Gloucester City fans and that is the fact they are playing their ‘home’ matches in Evesham, 25 miles away from the city centre. I have nothing against the set up at Evesham United, but I don’t like the stadium and the way in which a Gloucester City match day is run there.
At Whaddon Road City were trusted enough to conduct the match day their way and ultimately, for me, that enabled Gloucester City to retain its identity within its matchday hosting. At Evesham it constantly has the feel that the landlords are constantly checking up on their tenants and won’t let them really settle. This gives the impression of Gloucester City being an unwanted guest, or as silly as it may seem, makes Gloucester City look like they are borrowing Evesham’s favourite pen and Evesham are watching them to make sure that pen will be returned… sorry I’m writing this at work!
Overall though it doesn’t feel like a home stadium and with that sort of feel to a matchday it will never feel like home, add that to the fact Gloucester City fans hate every second of being there it just doesn’t feel like the “we’re all in this together” club that I walked into 6 years ago. It seems soulless, and that saddens me to write.
The painful fact of it is, as a man who doesn’t drive it is easier for me to go to a Gloucester City game away from home than at home… I live the other side of the Docks to Meadow Park. I am sure I am not the only one in that position, the only difference between them and I though is that they are paying fans. I am a journalist and broadcaster who gets put on the press list.
After Saturday’s FA Trophy game, I interviewed Tim Harris after the final whistle as I did after most games of the memorable 2016/17 season. That season I saw joy in Tim’s eyes, I saw a love and a happiness for the position he was in and the ride his side were on. On Saturday it was the opposite. On Saturday I saw a man whose eyes were glistening in a bad way. I saw a man who had tears in his eyes. I saw a man who was desperately trying to make the best out of a bad situation and I saw a man who looked close to the end of his tether.
Tim’s influence on the club is instilled from top to bottom. He is encouraging investors into the club and is trying to bring Gloucester City that 25 miles back into its rightful place. But he is just one man. No one man can do astonishing things but unless you are a firm believer in the Lord Saviour Jesus Christ, one man is not a miracle worker. It is going to take a lot more than one man, whether that is Tim, whether that is Mike, whether that is Eamonn McGurk, to bring Gloucester City home at this stage. The only fear fans have: is that return now further away than it has ever been?
This past week saw Gloucester City lose three times on the road. Saw them dominate three games and get absolutely nothing for it. The week also saw Zack Kotwica depart on a permanent deal to Tamworth after he had been out on loan to Salisbury. Kotwica for me, was the best attacking player in the Gloucester City arsenal last season. I think highly of him as a player but when a bid comes in for any player at a club like Gloucester, well, money talks doesn’t it?
It was the aftermath of Kotwica’s departure that caught my eye, as it did for everyone else. It was the statements from both Harris and Dunstan that really caught the attention of Gloucester City fans everywhere. If you haven’t read the press release, here are the statements in question:
“Speaking on the transfer, Tim Harris said “Unfortunately it’s an indictment of where we are as a football club that we have to seriously consider offers when we receive them due to a lack of commercial revenue and support from local businesses this season.
“I have been given assurances by the owner of the club that we will be home before the end of next season and until we get home we’re just trying to survive, but it’s getting very difficult to do so.”
Chairman of the club Mike Dunstan OBE echoes the sentiments of Harris.
“We wish Zack all the best at Tamworth and it’s unfortunate to see him go, but as Tim said, we have to seriously consider offers for players when they come in because of where we are as a club.
“Our commercial income streams have been drastically hit with the move to Evesham, but we have to deal with it.
“Everybody is working incredibly hard behind the scenes to bring in extra revenue to the club as we aim for our return home next season, but we’re only human and we need support of Gloucestershire businesses to keep the club sustainable.”
Now, reading the above and hearing Tim respond to my question yesterday of “Can you say anything to reassure the fans?” with a categorical “no” has and will set alarm bells ringing. Suddenly the phrases of “I am sick of it” and “we have hit rock bottom” are being touted around louder and they becoming more intense and mainly, don’t seem to be so extreme.
Times are tough for Gloucester City as a club and to some degree its starting to rot. Animosity is building with the fans, they want answers but it appears they are either not asking the right questions or they are asking the wrong people. I have had my run-ins with Gloucester City fans down the years so I know how passionate and protective they get around their club, they are the flickering flame that is barely alight.
By that, I don’t mean the fans who follow the social media pages and interact about how Gloucester City are playing so badly despite the fact they haven’t seen City play since 2014. No, I mean the fans who have given up since the summer, have given up since the move to Evesham and most importantly those who are slowly becoming accustomed and dragged down by the goings on of a club in quite clear crisis.
Despite these run-ins, I have always admired and respected every single fan in the decisions they make regarding supporting Gloucester City. I have seen 52 games this season and only a handful have been Gloucester games (please see previous note about how its easier to go to an away game than a home game) but what doesn’t surprise me is the amount of Gloucester City fans I see at Longlevens, at Slimbridge, Tuffley Rovers, Cirencester Town, all over the place whilst 25 miles away Gloucester are kicking off at “home.”
Is this piece designed to change the way the fans or management perceive the situation at Gloucester City? No. Is this piece me giving a look as to how the situation at Gloucester City is affecting people? Yes.
If what I have posted here today has done anything I hope it has added a sense of overall perspective for fans, for players, for management to read and to digest. No one associated with the club deserves to be in the situation they are in. It is easy though to sit here and just say “you’re in the situation and you’ve got to deal with it” because its hard. It has been hard since that fateful day in 2011 from my perspective but for fans more than anyone it has been hard since July 2007.
My worry is I just cannot see where this will end, how this end or when this will end. There are two things that are scary about that though. Firstly, I don’t think anyone can see the where, the when, or the how but secondly, and most importantly, the longer this goes on the harder it becomes.