The Void of Westcountry Football, and why its tragicBy: Rob | September 10th, 2010
So, for those who don’t know, I grew up in the terrible football void that is The South West of England. For someone deeply interested in football it is a terrible place to grow up. My youth is dominated by watching football involving teams from nowhere near where I live – often abroad, especially Italy – and a sideshow of watching my local team play. It is a strange one.
There is an interesting article in this months FourFourTwo – Page 28, titled Where Do England Players Really Come From. It takes all the players that have ever been capped for England, and tells you where they come from. 179 come from London. 84 from Manchester. 77 froim Lancs, 70 froim the Tyne. Bristol is the 8th most populous city in the UK. How many Bristolians have played for England? 16. (Gary Mabutt, left is one). As for the rest of the Westcountry, as many players born in India have played for England as those born in Devon (7).
It is a similar story in club football. Bristol has two teams, City and Rovers. City last played top flight football in the late 1970s. Rovers – my team – have never reached the top tier of English football. Ever. The closest City have ever got to winning a major trophy was in 1909 when they got to the FA Cup final. They’ve also reached the League Cup final twice, and erm, won the Welsh Cup.
On the other hand, City are the only club in English Football to have been relegated three times in a row (which is oddly impressive when you consider it). Rovers meanwhile, since you ask, have got to the Football League Trophy final twice and lost (its the one that changes name all the time. Its currently the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) and that is about it.
Outside of Bristol, there’s not really anywhere to look. Plymouth are the biggest City in Europe who have never had a team who have achieved top flight football. The biggest claim to fame the club has is that, bizarely, Pele once played at Home Park. He wasn’t playing for Plymouth, but for Santos, who for some reason felt playing a friendly against third division English side was a good idea. Plymouth won 3-2, incredibly enough, despite a penalty from Pele.
Swindon Town were the last Westcountry team to have got to the dizzy heights of the Premier League. That didn’t end well. Conceeding 100 goals (still a record) and getting just five wins (this when there were 22 teams in the top flight as well). Swindon suffered a season that only Derby County fans can really relate to.
Why then, is there this sorry state of affairs?
Its weird really. There is no great chunk of land in the UK that has quite the void the West Country suffers. The North West is a real hub (just look at the teams in the Premier League, Manchester has two teams, so does Liverpool, and then there is Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan, Blackpool and Stoke) London has more clubs that it knows what to do with, and the North East is famously a hotbed of football.
Rugby is one answer. Rugby is quite popular in the West Country. My dad grew up watching Rugby mainly over football, although he had an interest in the latter, and due to his interest in the sport, I ended up playing Rugby between the ages of 8 and 12. I still have good memories of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and have a passing interest in the sport now.
Bristol and Bath are both big Rugby Union teams, and some of all that can probably be blaimed on Wales, which of course Bristol and Bath are in very close proximity to. Plymouth, Exeter and Cornwall don’t really have the same excuse.
Although to be honest, neither does Bristol. When playing Rugby as a child, the things we used to talk about were mainly football and videogames. Despite the fact we were all there playing Rugby, none of us really talked about Rugby. Everyone bantered about how Rovers and City (and various Premier League teams – alot people in Bristol support a top flight club as a “Second” team, ironically, just to keep the Prem more interesting), and football was all people talked about in the playground.
Bristol, and to a lesser extent Plymouth, is an untapped football metropolis. It’d be easy to explain away the fact that Bristol doesn’t produce England internationals, or doesn’t have a Premier League team by just thinking there is a lack of interest, but that really isn’t the case. When Bristol Rovers played Doncaster in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final they took tens of thousands of supporters over the bridge to Cardiff. To prove that that isn’t just because Cardiff is really local – when they reached the Playoff finals they took a similar number to Wembley. City regularly achieve really good gates, and if they were ever actually granted planning permission to redo Ashton Gate, and if they were to get promoted to the Premier League, they’d absolutely hold their own, and probably outdo the sides like Blackburn, that struggle to fill their stadia.
Its a wonder, really, that a billionaire hasn’t bought a Westcountry club and moved them up the leagues. Everything is already in place for a club to achieve great things. But its never happened – none of them have the history to attract a really big moneymaker.
There are Eight league clubs for them to chose from (which is an absurdly small amount when you consider it and compare it elsewhere). It isn’t as if these clubs haven’t had some pretty good players on their books at one time or another – Andy Cole, Norman Hunter, Joe Royle, David Moyes, Luke Wilkshire, Shaun Goater, Ade Akinbiyi, Alan Ball, Geoff Bradford, Ian Holloway, Mark Walters, Nigel Martyn, Barry Hayles, Colin Calderwood, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Rideout, Chris Kamara, Mike Summerbee, Nicky Summerbee, Peter Shilton, Bruce Grobbelaar, Gary Megson, Paul Mariner and a bunch more have all had spells at one or other of the clubs (admittedly, in the case of some at the very end of their careers)
The whole thing is a tragedy really. I’m not asking for an evenly matched Premier League, with representative members from each part of the country, but to have a part of the country that is so far behind in terms of history and success, is such a shame. Generations of football fans have had the choice of low league football, glory-hunting, or not watching football. When I was a kid, and I ended up following Rovers, my choice was two teams from the Second Division (What is League One now). That isn’t a choice.
I chose the smaller of the two sides for a number of reasons – I quite like the family atmosphere at the ground, They were (after the moved to the Memorial Stadium in 1996, when I was ten) my local team. My first experience of football live was watching Rovers (they lost 2-1) – I watched City soon after (and they won) but in a similar way to what Nick Hornby describes in Fever Pitch, I had already fallen for my team. Besides, Rovers still have terracing, so I do feel pretty lucky to have grown up watching football stood up, something most people my age can’t say. So in an odd way I feel an attachment to the side partly because of them being a lower league side. But that wouldn’t be the same for everyone.
It’d be nice though, if at some point there was a team in the Westcountry that was doing quite well. Even if it was City, it’d be nice, because then I could hate them for doing so well. People complain that kids don’t support their local team anymore (although this idealism never really existed – even Nick Hornby didn’t support his local team) in the South West its acutely obvious.
Unless City somehow do have a great season (they nearly did a couple of years ago when they were beaten by Hull in the Championship Play-off final) and get up to the Premier League and then can somehow stay up (it pains me to say they’d be better equipped than some who go up) its really tough to see it changing. And I think its a shame that such a massive chunk of the British Map just isn’t represented in the top league.