The curse of Who are You? A frantic call from Doug tells M Salut the manager has left today ‘by mutual consent’
Monsieur Salut writes: Doug Shields* is a friend of a friend, my Leeds-supporting, Bristol-based former colleague Richard Savill. He came up with some splendid gallows humour to describe the plight of his beloved Rovers and his life as a fan. He expects a severe beating when he visits the SoL – a common Rovers view that gives me very bad vibes – but looks forward to the delights by night of a certain other city where, he’s been told, ‘all the lads look like Jimmy Nail and all the girls have been on Geordie Shore’ …
Salut! Sunderland: ‘shocking this season, feels as if the club is falling apart’ – your words in our e-mail exchanges to describe Bristol Rovers. In other words, you see an upset (in your favour) waiting to happen at the Stadium of Light? –
Doug Shields: No!
In the bottom four. What has gone wrong?
How long have you got?! It started with the summer of discontent, and has gone downhill since. We lost key players without finding decent replacements – top scorer Ellis Harrison was sold to Ipswich and Gas legend Lee Brown left for Pompey.
Ellis’s departure was the third time a proven goal scorer had been sold in just 18 months. Hopes of a new stadium began to fade and rumours that the board were about to stick a For Sale in the centre circle abounded. Stefan Payne, a striker allegedly, came in from Shrewsbury and fellow frontmen Gavin Reilly, a free agent, joined him along with Alex Jakubiak who signed on loan from Watford.
Most clubs dream of having four goal scorers – and we dream of that too. The newbies were met at pre-season training by Tom Nichols, our No 10, who hit the net TWICE last season. Before a ball had been kicked my best mate Fozzy showed me a Racing Post article which listed us among the favourites to go down. I think I tossed it away, muttering: ‘’That’s a hose racing mag, what do they know about football? …”
Performances have been poor all season. The Mem used to be a fortress. Now it’s a sandcastle being tickled by the ebb and flow of the incoming relegation tide.
We struggle to string passes together, make schoolboy errors, huff and puff lots, move the ball backwards and sideways at walking pace, then have a good 15 minutes, score then get hit on the break, just not necessarily in that order. After we lost at home to Gills, DC was clearly fuming and said he needed to talk to the board about his future. I fear he will walk away, possibly before Christmas.
Are your owner, the Qatari-born Jordanian banker Wael al Qadi, and manager Darrell Clarke the right combination to get you out of trouble? If not, what needs to happen and where does our old man Marcus Stewart, Clarke’s No 2, fit into the jigsaw?
I think Wael has a genuine affection for the club, after all he was carried down the Gloucester Road on the shoulders of fans after we were promoted, despite the fact that squad was built by the previous board. The problem is Wael doesn’t own the club, his family does. And they are shrewd business people who are major shareholders in the Mediterranean Tourism Investment company which owns the lavish Four Seasons Hotel Amman and they also control the Arab Jordan investment bank (AJIB).
My theory is 49-year-old Wael effectively asked for a train set three Christmases ago, and the obliging family bought him one. Now he wants a couple of Pullman coaches and a Flying Scotsman steam engine, and his mum, dad and brothers are thinking: ‘Why can’t you play with the trains that came with it.’
Word on the street is that Darrell and Wael get on, but recently DC has come out and accused “people” at the club of “not all pulling in the same direction”. I think if one of them has to go, it will be the board. DC has a lot of credit in the bank. We all love Stewy as much as you do, and we are all convinced he will one day replace DC but only if Darrell moves on.
[While M Salut was at the council tip dumping some unwanted clutter, Doug set about finding him as a matter of urgency to break news of an update to his ‘if one of them has to go’ point: one has gone, and it’s not the board but poor Darrell – Ed]
Which of your players is doing a good job despite the league position and where are you seriously weak?
Next question ….
I’m not joking, none of OUR players is doing a good job at the minute.
The only who one is performing well is a lad whose wages are paid by Brentford, loan keeper Jack Bonham. A couple of weeks ago he had the most impressive save to shot ratio of any goalie in England. Soon after that stat came out the Bees cup-tied him, so they were obviously considering recalling him. Fingers crossed we keep him. We’d be rock bottom of the league without him.
Our weaknesses are aplenty. Our right back Danny Leadbitter goes on marauding runs down the wing, but leaves gaping holes behind him. Often we have three lads who played in Conference in our back four. We sit too deep and let teams dictate play, our centre backs get pulled out of position and we lack a lad like Anthony Grant (Shrews) or Josh Parker (Gills) to protect the back four and pull the strings in midfield. We rarely shoot, and when we do our forwards try to place Goal Of The Season contenders in the top corner rather than breaking the net.
We also move the ball quickly to the edge of the opposition box, then go back again, make eight passes, then whip in crosses without having anyone attack the six yard box.
What have you made of the ground changes? When I lived in Bristol, it was Eastville, when I left so did you (for Bath) and since 1996 it’s been the Memorial Stadium at Horfield. So at least you’re back in Bristol but are you comfortable with the present stadium?
We love the Mem like you’d love a battered Vauxhall Viva you’ve had since you passed your test. But it’s getting to the point of no longer being fit for purpose structurally. Craning your neck to glance above while standing on the covered north terrace you can see how rusty the beams are and the old rugby club main stand has seen better days. Cosmetically the al-Qadis have improved it, we even had some nice new blue and white quartered hand dryers installed. That’s slightly harsh because they blew half a million on a new pitch in the summer, which we needed desperately. The new bar behind the north bank is cool, but the price of a pint went up to pay for it. In an ideal world a billionaire Arab owner will come in and declare ‘money is no object’ …
Difficult not to like a club that has a Leadbelly song as its signature tune (Goodnight Irene) and adopted Gas as a nickname after Bristol City fans used it to mock you. What does the club mean to you and the city?
The Gas actually comes from the wafting fumes from towers nearby which would drift over Eastville during games. Rovers fans are proud of the nickname. It’s better than The Reds, C**y – or The Robins.
Back in the old days Rovers hooligans who weren’t going to the away fixture that weekend used to travel to BS3, puncture canisters of gas and throw them over the fence into the home end at A****n G**e; ‘elf and safety would have a nightmare with that now.
Rovers is a special club, a family club. Rovers fans look after each other. For example, a lad I know didn’t get on well with a bloke he knew through work. They clashed horribly, and even avoided each other where ever possible. Then they found out they were both Rovers season ticket holders. They are best of friends now!
Bar spells in London – my birthplace – and New York, I have lived in Bristol for the last 25 years. I knew Rovers fans before I moved here and I often came down for weekends to watch games. I am claiming full Gashead status.
Two playoff finals must be up there among your highlights as a supporter.
Agreed, they were special days. I was lucky enough to be at both games. The Grimsby game went to pens, I was in tears that day. It could have been the eight pints I had, or maybe it was the pure emotion. Maybe it was both.
What have been the lowest points?
Pick any FA Cup tie over the last few years. We are awful in the FA Cup. We don’t turn up. We could play a Bupa care home in the FA Cup and lose at home.
Are you old enough to have seen the likes of Nigel Martyn and Ian Holloway,? Your thoughts on them and any other stand-out players from the past?
Yes, saw both play. Nigel Martyn was a freak of nature, an unbelievable keeper, shots would be heading for the top corner and he would somehow get there. He had incredible reactions and was the bravest keeper I have ever seen.
And Ollie? What can I say? Local lad, Gas legend. Epitomised everything about Rovers’ grit, spirit and heart. And still does in some ways. Other former players I still idolise are Steve Elliott, Steve Yates, Craig Disley, Rickie Lambert and Lee Brown. Special mentions for Barry Hayles, Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington too.
Who should not have been allowed near the place(s)?
There is a lad who we let go to the other lot for £300k two season ago in the January transfer window. I can’t even bring myself to mention his name. He isn’t good enough for the Championship and hardly plays for them. One day he will come back to the Mem with another club, and it won’t be pretty.
Describe how intense you find the Rovers-City rivalry and whether it has survived the gap between the two clubs’ fortunes.
Eh .. There is only one team in Bristol isn’t there? … They are more bothered about us than we are about them. They obsess about Rovers. It’s jealousy. Rovers fans back their team come rain or shine, and make a lot of noise. We travel in large numbers. They don’t. Real football fans in Bristol support Rovers. The franchise adopt all sorts of marketing ploys to get people through the turnstiles. Last I heard they were showing highlights of Bristol’s basketball games at half-time. Hilarious.
What did you make of Sunderland’s sharp decline?
If I am honest, I was surprised you clung onto Premier League status for as long as you did. The policy of signing old, crap Man U players was bizarre. It was like every time United let a dead-leg go, your lot signed him. When your best player is Lee Cattermole you know you have problems. As Sunderland slipped down the leagues my only thought was ‘I haven’t been to the Stadium of Light, love to go there’. So I was chuffed when you fell into League One. And to be honest the way things are going I probably won’t be going again, not for a league game anyway.
Any other impressions on the club its fans, the city and region, Jack Ross?
Is he that comedian who snogged Kate Beckinsale the other night?
Hand on heart, where will our clubs finish this season?
Well obviously the Racing Post will be right in their prediction because their football knowledge is second to none.
I am sure you will go up. I can see you clinching an automatic spot. I think we will be doomed with a game to go, and will finish third from bottom – unless Ronaldo reveals in January that his granny was born in Southmead and he has always dreamed of wearing the famous blue and white quarters.
Our fans find refereeing standards particularly poor at this level. Your view?
We agree. It’s laughable. They’re not full-time are they? I’m not sure they’re even part-time because that would suggest some level of interest or knowledge in what they do when they do turn up. Every week they arrive, skip around the side-lines warming up, blow the whistle, then proceed to display the sort of understanding of the game akin to that of my chocolate Labrador.
Every week I reckon five “corners” should’ve been free-kicks, six “free-kicks” were fair challenges – and the offside rule doesn’t seem to apply in League One.
Will VAR help eliminate diving or is it – and other forms of cheating – something we have to accept as here to stay?
One of the decent things about League One is the honesty of the players (mostly). You do get the odd twat who runs into a player, or even brushes past our centre back and falls down as if strafed by an ISIS gunman.
I haven’t seen much diving in our games, but I will say Stefan Payne pulled off an absolute corker the other day going across the box. It was a thing of beauty. He launched himself into the air, arms out at right angles to his body, and for a split second his body shape was similar to Concorde soaring over the Atlantic in its heyday.
He landed in a sort of breakdancing swan-dive and won a pen. Which we were all delighted about, obviously.
You’ll be at our match. Tell us about your planned visit to the North East. And your score prediction.
Very excited about the trip. A lad at work said you have lovely weather up there this time of year, so I’m bringing my mankini.
We are driving up, booking into a hotel in a really cool city near Sunderland called Newcastle or summat, have you heard of it? We are going out in said city after humiliating the Mackems 4-0. Apparently all the lads look like Jimmy Nail and all the girls have been on Geordie Shore. Should be fun. True prediction 3-1 Sunderland.
* Doug Shields on himself: I am a creative director for a PR news consultancy and watched my first Rovers game in the mid-80s – at C**y. Rovers won 1-0 with a last minute Gary Smart strike. I was in the away end. They let all the fans out at the same time. We got chased across the park outside the ground. It was funny. Wouldn’t be so funny now I’m 50.I have been a season ticket holder for three years now, but have been following the Gas home and away now for the eleven years I have been living in the city. I have been everywhere, Dover, Accrington, Hartlepool, Barnet, the lot.
Interview: Colin Randall