Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Redux: Ashton Gate

Bristol City 1 Blackburn Rovers 0 
Saturday 22nd October 2016, Championship 

Whilst I want to avoid covering the same grounds multiple times, I am going to allow myself to under the following circumstances: 

- It's a big occasion. For example a local non-league team drawing a big club in the FA Cup or a play-off or cup final. 

- I've only had access to a small part of the ground due to being in a fenced-off away section, like my trip to Macclesfield Town

- The ground has changed substantially since my last visit, as is the case today. So without further ado:

This weekend I was extending the warm, gooey tentacle of hospitality to my mate Nash (who was with me at Accrington), his mum Sam and her friend Mandy as they watched their beloved Blackburn Rovers take on my loathed Bristol City.

Besides the prospect of a rollicking good match, my motivation for attending was the completion of Ashton Gate's new West Stand and the fact that the last time I attended the place generally looked like a building site. I thought it might be a decent match, what with Blackburn fighting to avoid being sucked into a relegation battle and in decent form, with a draw and a win against Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest respectively in their most recent fixtures. City meanwhile were, as always, pushing for that fabled final promotion to the Premier League but had come off the rails somewhat with losses against struggling Cardiff City and mid-table Queens Park Rangers.

After a few pints at The Phoenix near where the Blackburn contingent were staying, a taxi was grabbed to Bedminster. The streets were particularly busy this Saturday because City had put on a deal for their season ticket holders where they could bring two friends for a tenner. As such a crowd of 21,452 had descended on South Bristol, suddenly making me very aware of the Stuart Sinclair badge pin I'd left on my coat but fortunately we were able to reach the away entrance uneaten. 

First order of business in the stadium was a minutes silence for Gerry Gow, a Scottish midfielder who made 375 appearances for City before going on to play for Manchester City. During his stint with the Blues he played the entire 210 minutes of both 1981 FA cup finals, narrowly losing in the replay to Tottenham Hotspur. Sadly Gow lost his battle with cancer two weeks prior to today at the age of 64.

Not a whole lot had really changed since my visit to the Gate last season. Apart from the new West Stand, which considering it has two tiers and 11,000 seats should probably be classed as a big change. It looms large over the rest of the place and is, in fairness, a very impressive spectacle. Officially named the Lansdown Stand in a fairly bold move on the part of City's owner... Steve Lansdown, it is one of three stands to have been given the once over in the most recent overhaul and one of two to have been completely torn down in the process, along with the Wedlock Stand or "East End" which was the traditional home of vocal City supporters. 

As I said in my previous write-up I'm almost certainly at odds with Lansdown's target audience on this one and it's not really a fair comment seeing as I have only ever seen Ashton Gate pre-development from the outside but judging from old pictures and today's atmosphere, it does seem like this re-development has muted some of the unique charm of the stadium. Obviously this is the way things are going across the game and shouldn't be seen as a swipe at City only (step away from your email client).

I think showing someone a picture of the East End and a picture of the new South Stand and seeing which they prefer would be a pretty good barometer of where their preferences lie when it comes to football grounds. I'm firmly in the East End camp as the new stand looks very bland and Meccano-like to me. With the demolition of the East End the vocal support seems to have been shifted from it's traditional home to the small quarter of the Atyeo Stand which isn't taken up by away fans and (a somewhat spirited display of flag waving during the team walkout notwithstanding) it was very, very quiet throughout most of the match. Before I'm accused of bias it's worth pointing out certain City fans seem to agree. The atmosphere may well come to miss the East End with it's cavernous, echoey metal roof.

The outside of the stadium is more neutral than it was in times past as well. What once was a striking red barn of corrugated iron is now all grey, white and futuristic. I find myself in agreement with Roger Taylor on Football Ground Guide when he mentions that it would be hard for an outsider to tell instantly who plays there. The lettering on the Dolman simply reads "Bristol" rather than Bristol City and the place is plastered with adverts for Bristol Rugby, Bristol Flyers and the myriad of other teams that have been acquired by the Bristol Sport machine.

In summary, impressive, comfortable and very not for me. I'll stand on the Blackthorn Terrace any day thanks. Maybe I should enjoy the Memorial Stadium while I can.

Compared to my previous trip, where I entered the salubrious concourse of the home end, the Atyeo Stand facilities were a lot more basic and consisted of a cramped brick corridor with a small hatch for refreshments. The small Blackburn following of 556 weren't going to be any trouble for the tenacious old ladies of the tea hatch this afternoon though. Whilst queuing for the beers at half-time, a few of the Blackburn herd were chatting with a very lanky, strangely familiar looking steward who I was later informed was none other than famous Bristolian Tim off The Undateables. His talent for lady charming remained strong as he chatted quite uninhibitedly to Sam and Nancy about his love of women in uniform. He seemed like a nice guy.

The game was not the classic that I hoped it might be. For the most part Blackburn battled for possession, defended well and kept Chelsea starlet Tammy Abraham out of the game but were generally rubbish in front of goal. I thought they would probably leave with the valuable point they deserved. However one lapse from the defence where a Blackburn player took a terrible touch on a long ball forward from Lee Tomlin allowed substitute Aaron Wilbraham to get a shot off in the box which proved to be their undoing. A disappointing result for my companions but to be honest I think they had their eyes firmly on the night out in Bristol by this point.

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