A taste of ‘old school’ football at the Mem – Carl Marston’s Travels with Town
PUBLISHED: 17:00 12 March 2020
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Football writer Carl Marston has visited 122 Football League grounds, many of them reporting on Ipswich Town. Here he spotlights the Memorial Stadium, home of Bristol Rovers, ahead of this weekend’s visit
Ipswich Town have never visited Memorial Stadium, the home of Bristol Rovers, for a league game - though I have had the dubious pleasure of reporting on several league fixtures at this most distinctive of football venues.
From the early days, it always felt like I was about to watch a game of rugby (the grass was a bit too long), rather than a football fixture, whenever I took my seat in the press section of the aging but wonderfully charismatic main-stand.
And that was hardly surprising because, for most of its life, the 'Mem,' as it is sometimes affectionately known by the locals, was a home to Bristol Rugby Club.
I, for one, like it.
When Rovers moved from their famous old Eastville Stadium (in 1986) via Bath City's Twerton Park (tenants for 10 years) to the Memorial Stadium, for the start of the 1999-97 season, they were mere tenants - Eastville had been their home for 89 years, from 1897, until financial difficulties caught up with them.
The rugby club and football club continued to share their home, although Rovers bought the ground in 1998. Bristol RFC, these days known as Bristol Bears, moved out in 2014 to play their home games across town in the south-west of the city, at Bristol City's Ashton Gate.
That 'rugby feel' was certainly around at the end of the 1990s, when I paid a few visits to the 'Mem.'
They were all memorable affairs, with several challenges to overcome - parking the car was always a headache, with the stadium tucked away in a residential area, surrounded by houses; the small bars and toilets were a bit cramped; and the various stands, dotted around the pitch, all looked very higgledy-piggledy.
But, as I say, I rather liked it.
For Town, the one solitary competitive (ie. not pre-season) visit (before this weekend's scheduled first league visit) was for an FA Cup third round tie in early January of 1998, a 1-1 draw when Mick Stockwell saved the day with a 71st minute equaliser to force a replay.
David Johnson scored the only goal of the game in the replay at Portman Road, 10 days later, to see George Burley's Town through to the fourth round, where they went out at the hands of Sheffield United after another replay.
I, however, unlike Town, have been back to the 'Mem' on several occasions, with the treat of two visits in one year, in 1999.
And I will mention these because, although the matches featured Colchester United and not Ipswich, the Town connection was very strong.
Back in January, 1999, when Mick Wadsworth took charge of Colchester (he lasted less than six months before teaming up with Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United), the Essex visitors shared a 1-1 draw with ex-Ipswich Town man David Gregory netting an equaliser (88th minute penalty).
In December of that same year (1999), the U's, with another former Ipswich star in Steve Whitton on the managerial hot seat, suffered a 2-1 defeat despite a late goal from Lomana Lua Lua.
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In the U's starting line-up that day were David Gregory, Gavin Johnson and Jason Dozzell, all ex-Town players, together with Steve McGavin, Dad of current Town midfielder Brett McGavin.
More than twenty years on, and I will be intrigued to see how current strugglers Town cope with their first league visit to the Memorial Stadium.
It will be a no thrills experience, that's for sure.
The 'Mem' is no Stadium of Light, no Stadium MK, and certainly no Portman Road.
It's old, shabby, a bit smelly, a bit noisy... but it's a delight.
- Club: Bristol Rovers
- Founded: 1883 (137 years ago, as Black Arabs, named after Arabs rugby team)
- Ground: Memorial Stadium (from 1996)
- Former grounds (inc): Purdown (Stapleton), Three Acres and Eastville Stadium (1897-1996)
-Town's first visit (to Bristol Rovers): 3-3 draw on February 4, 1939 (Division Three South)
- Town's last visit: 1-1 draw on January 3, 1998 (FA Cup)
- Town's overall record (at Bristol Rovers): P18 W2 D8 L8
Rovers' official nickname is 'The Pirates', referring to Bristol's maritime history, but the locals usually prefer 'The Gas,' named after the gasworks next to their old home at Eastville.
Quirky, noisy, authentic, all shapes and sizes, non-league feel, open terraces, traditional, old, colourful - that's the Mem for you!