By Nathan Joyes
Meet Gloucester City. A semi-professional football club, they have failed to play a single home match since 2007, recently changed their kit, colours and crest, regularly flip-flop between National League North and South and have a former French Ligue 1 star on their books. It’s fair to say life has been anything but dull in the world of Gloucester football.
The club spent the last two campaigns competing in the South division, with little success on a limited budget. But due to the recent relegation of Aldershot Town, Braintree Town, Havant & Waterlooville and Maidstone United, things have changed again.
Those four teams are much further south than Gloucester, so a return to the National North, their allocated division between 2009 and 2017, was logical. Despite a return to familiar territory, the Tigers are yet to return home, however.
Their beloved Meadow Park fell victim to heavy flooding back in July 2007 and the stadium has remained empty since. It’s now more than 4,000 days since a ball was last kicked there.
To put this into perspective, Manchester City finished 14th in the Premier League that particular campaign, Bolton Wanderers were heading into Europe under Sammy Lee and Gordon Brown had just replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister. An awful lot has changed on and off the pitch since then.
Promotion despite flooding setback
The turf at Meadow Park was under almost eight feet of water. A famous image showed the water almost submerging the crossbar and was circulated around major national newspapers. The severity of the flooding resulted in extensive damage and the club was unable to source the funds to rectify the problems.
Not only had it lost its £1.4 million stadium, the fans were left in limbo as their side entered agreements with other grounds in surrounding areas in order to survive.
Gloucester City had lost its most significant revenue stream. But despite the club being in critical condition, the Tigers did manage to achieve promotion from the Southern Premier League in 2009, though they have failed to finish higher than 10th in the National League – North or South – since.
They have had little choice but to settle outside Gloucestershire to play their home fixtures in recent times, spending their third season at the home of Evesham United, a 40-minute commute down the M5.
Previously, Forest Green Rovers and Cirencester Town have come to Gloucester’s rescue, both a 30-minute drive from Meadow Park. Even arch-rivals Cheltenham Town allowed Gloucester to use their ground.
Dave Jones, chair of Gloucester City’s Supporters Trust, told Betconnect just how difficult the past 12 years had been.
Supporters bailing out the club
He said: “The ground share with local rivals Cheltenham Town caused resentment with some fans refusing to attend games at Cheltenham and the current arrangement at Evesham is taking its toll. Not having your own ground massively impacts finances as the only income the club gets on a match day comes through the turnstiles.
“The Supporters Trust has been a massive help to the club whilst it has been in exile and we make regular contributions to help with payment towards things such as scans for injured players and away travel. As a Trust we have raised almost £1 million since we formed in 2001.”
The return to Meadow Park could be the catalyst for us to kick on and make it our time – Ian De Maria, vice-chair of the Gloucester City Supporters Trust
Staff members have to pack up and take home the equipment after every match, as the club has no permanent facilities to store their gear after training and match days. Gloucester City is very much a part-time football club, but with that comes full-time responsibility. There’s no hiding from the fact that it’s been a bleak period in the club’s 136-year history.
That said, there may finally be a beacon of hope in the distance. In September 2016, Gloucester City’s chairman Alex Petheram announced plans had been approved to re-build Meadow Park. Full planning permission was finally granted in January this year and work began straight away.
A unique construction process is being carried out. Modified shipping containers have been built at the town’s docks, and they will be used to create the dressing rooms, manager’s office and even hospitality areas.
On the horizon: A move back home
The “new” Meadow Lane will have a capacity around 3,000, with 700 seats and a modern 4G artificial pitch – a clever decision from Gloucester’s hierarchy after the disastrous floods 12 years ago.
Stadium work is moving fast, and it appears the ground will be ready for the 2020-21 campaign. Fans will need to remain patient just a little longer. Jones explained how proud a day it will be for Gloucester when they move back to Meadow Park.
He said: “It means everything to return home. It’s going to be a very emotional day and we can’t wait for it to arrive. For those die-hard fans that have stuck with the club through thick and thin over the years in exile it will be a reward for all the efforts that they have put in supporting the club during the most testing period in its history.”
It’s not just the stadium which is getting a new lick of paint. At the beginning of the current campaign Gloucester re-designed their crest, moving away from the tiger to the Gloucester docks and iconic landscape. The playing kit will switch to the old red and yellow, last seen in the 1980s,
Ian De Maria, vice-chair of the Supporters Trust, said the change was an issue of contention.
Fans split over colour change
He said: “Some of the more ‘mature’ supporters were very keen to return to red, as they remember us in those colours and resent the reasons we changed to yellow and black. But a good few were vehemently against it, as yellow and black were all they had ever known.”
Despite working with limited funding, Gloucester City has managed to attract plenty of talent. Fabien Robert (pictured top of page), the brother of former PSG and Newcastle United star Laurent Robert, has spent the past two seasons at the club.
Having previously played against stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Aubameyang when making 41 appearances for Lorient in the top tier of French football, the 30-year-old regularly volunteers to train children in the Gloucester area. Robert has helped raise the profile of the club while sharing stories about rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the world.
Robert has become a real hit among fans, scoring six goals in his first 16 appearances for the Tigers, having previously spent time at Aldershot Town and Forest Green Rovers. A player of his calibre has been vital in helping to keep club morale high in its time of need.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel is shining brighter’
Players, staff members and fans have all made numerous sacrifices in order to sustain the legacy of Gloucester City over the past 12 seasons. De Maria is confident about the future of the club and explains how the spirit of the supporters helped them through hard times.
“We never stop dreaming. It’s all that’s kept us going all this time,” he said. “The foundations are nearly in place, we have a great management team with a settled playing squad and a number of local players who are Gloucester City through and through. The light at the end of the tunnel is shining brighter. The return to Meadow Park could be the catalyst for us to kick on and make it our time. It’s definitely overdue.”
Despite working on a reduced budget and having to travel thousands of miles up and down the country, the club has succeeded in avoiding the twin ignominy of either relegation or administration.
And with the new stadium under construction and a sense of sustainability both on and off the pitch, it will be a proud day for everyone involved at Gloucester when the first ball is kicked at the new Meadow Lane.
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