Saúl Ñíguez’s signing of a nine year contract with Atlético Madrid made me immediately think of similarly ludicrously long contracts in football. With Ñíguez, it’s not really comparable because, post-Bosman ruling, contracts are more of a statement of intent; more of a shakedown of other clubs who came a-calling to offer the player different employment; that they’ll have to pay the host club a bigger sum because ‘look at this contract we’ve agreed’. However, my club, Bristol City, once placed a number of players on contracts of eleven years long. Which seems like total madness and indeed it brought the club into near extinction. This was all before my time but I know someone who went to school on February 3rd, 1982 not knowing if he’d still have a team to support by the end of the day.
Bristol City got up into the ‘First Division’ (= Premier League) for a rare spell in the mid 1970s and almost got relegated at their first attempt at staying up. Their game at Coventry City on the last day had an extended second half due to injury time. The Coventry chairman found out that Sunderland’s game had ended and he got the Sunderland result flashed onto the electronic scoreboard; it meant that if Coventry and City played out the rest of the game, they would both survive. It was 2-2, with Bristol City having come back from 2-0 down. So, in greasy, 1982 West Germany/Austria fashion, Coventry knocked it around in their own half while Bristol City just watched and counted down.
So, Bristol City never took the top league by storm: why, then, the horrendously long contracts? This detailed, compellingly written piece from the ‘Frankly Mr Spencer’ blog tells us more. In 1978, the PFA changed the rules to make it easier for players to move at the end of their contracts. A Gary Collier – who in keeping with this story, later played for various U.S. soccer sides in various states of their own collapse – was born and made into a player in Bristol but he wouldn’t sign a new contract and so moved away to Coventry City for very little compensation to Bristol City. It was this sense of unfairness felt by the manager and the club, getting almost no return on their good faith investment, which led them to rashly offer grossly extended contracts to their other players, with near fatal consequences for the club.
So, the slide from the top division to the bottom division in consecutive seasons took place, setting a record that, I think, later got matched by Swansea City although Swansea went from the bottom division to the top division and then back to the bottom division all in 8/9 years, so – for helter-skeltering – the Swans get the cigar.
The thing about Bristol is that, although those who love football really do love it with a passion, it’s rugby and cricket down here, with football coming in a distant third. Why? The support can be big but it is ‘soft’, a soft underbelly of support. City could always get big attendances for the showpiece games but, take the club down a division or two, and people find that they’ve got other things to do on a Saturday. Again, @irishpete from ‘Frankly Mr Spencer’:
“…Their final home game of the 1976-77 season saw a record 38,688 turned up to watch the newly-crowned champions, Liverpool. Two weeks before, 23,587 witnessed the visit of Leeds United. But barely 5 years later and there was just 6,586 turning up to see a game against Doncaster and even the arrival of a local rival, Plymouth Argyle could only encourage 7,471 to turn up…..”.
That was then but it’s still the same now, I’d suggest. The whole crowd would dip to 10,000 in League One, if Lee Johnson takes us down, and 7,000 in League Two. Whereas when Manchester City spent their pre-money doping single season in the third tier of football, scrambling up at the first attempt in a play-off final victory, they’d still draw 30,000 fans or so to Maine Road. There’s a vociferous support that follows Bristol City away from Ashton Gate but the home crowd can sometimes be sparse and, more often, tut-tutting, arms folded and quiet, apart from the groaning.
Something I’ve noticed is that when top football figures get employed, those who have been at City tend to have their time here ‘expunged from the record’. Maybe it’s just my interpretation but two England managers (Steve McClaren, Roy Hodgson) and one Manchester United manager (David Moyes) never had a connection made in the press to their time here. Well, unless Jonathan Pearce was talking about them. One of the endearing things about Pearce is – whether consciously or subconsciously – Jonathan never seems to miss an opportunity to crowbar in a mention of his favourite club, no matter who is playing.
When Roy Hodgson was being talked of as Liverpool manager and then England manager, people who were around Bristol City at the time of the early 80s must have been giggling behind their hands as Hodgson’s admittedly excellent résumé “lost” the time when he assistant mangered City from the second tier to the third tier and managered from the third tier into the fourth. Still, I can’t imagine what this must have all been like for everyone connected with the club, including Hodgson.
Earlier I spoke of the schoolboy who didn’t know if his team would still be extant by the end of the day. Also, as this BBC piece from the 35th anniversary makes clear, the players were under great pressure as well: with the press portraying them as having the club over a barrel when it was actually the other way around. Remember, this is ten years before “Murdoch invented football in 1992”: the difference in money now is incomparable. The irony is that the players now – who could afford to – would be much less likely to be so magnanimous and fall on their swords for the greater good. (The BBC piece also shows that Gordon Taylor’s been the head of the player’s union since 1981. He’s still there. That’s half his life in that job.)
The point, though, is that the modern day players wouldn’t be wrong. At the time, with everyone looking down the financial barrel, there wasn’t any real notion of anything other than trying to save the shriveled husk of a football club. The joke from Bristol Rovers fans, and it’s a good one, is that Bristol City’s only thirty-five years old, since the “new” club, ‘Bristol City (1982) Ltd.’ essentially took over the name. My friend told me a while ago that later, when Bristol City had Bros and the Pet Shop Boys’ keyboard player for a chairman, he finagled a ‘centenary’ season for City in the 1997 – 1998 season when the club actually formed in 1894 as Bristol South End. Players in the same position now would surely have some projected back end deal whereby, if the club did get back on its feet, that the players and perhaps the player’s families, would receive some financial remuneration over the following decades.
With the Ashton Gate Eight, they received regular fund-raisers and dinners but they really did tear up their contracts and walk away at the time. The Supporter’s Trust has evidently paid for a plaque to commemorate the players’ sacrifice ten years ago but I wonder how the club itself has taken care of these players and their families? When I go to the games, look at the nice South Stand in which I sit, go inside and keep thinking of how the concourse reminds me of Wembley Stadium: nothing of it would exist without the help of these players. All of the time that I’ve spent at Bristol City games has been due to those eight players (and the accursed time under humourless, maladroit drone Sean O’Driscoll was due to them too but I won’t hold it against them.).
I feel guilty. When looking around for pieces about the Ashton Gate Eight, I came across images of the crowd with cards of the eight players, like The Mothers of the Disappeared/The Mothers of The Plaza de Mayo from Argentina and the like, bemoaning the loss of their loved ones, and it hit me. I was at the home game with Rotherham United this year, thirty-five years and one day after the club’s brush with death and I never knew the reason for the cards. It’s partially my fault in that because I’m a season ticket holder, I rarely comb across football news because I will be there anyway. It’s kind of analogous to knowing that you’re going to be watching a film at the cinema, so you avoid the reviews and trailers until after you’ve seen the film for yourself but there really should be something permanent and unambiguous within the walls of the stadium that attests to the Ashton Gate Eight.
There is that plinth of an ‘8’ outside the dressing rooms but where I go into the South Stand of the ground, for example, there are renditions of many successful players from the club’s history on the ceiling. There’s also a permanent display that commemorates the time that Bristol City knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup third round in 1994 at Anfield. Which is fine but when Wolves did the same this year, our fan Jonathan Pearce was the BBC’s commentator for the game and he reeled off that not only had Wolves done this but Bristol City too……and Bolton Wanderers….and Blackburn Rovers….and Barnsley…….and Reading……and Oldham Athletic & Burnley away from Anfield. Who hasn’t beaten Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup? (Although Liverpool have won the cup six times in history and that’s not to be sneezed at.).
Maybe it’s because 1980 – 1982 was so much a colossal failure and no one wants to dwell on the bad times? It wasn’t the eight players who were at fault but the club and the fans themselves, for not minding the finances and for not turning up. Having some permanent reminder of the club being like the bus at the end of ‘The Italian Job‘ might tarnish the fiction, the ‘narrative’ of the club. I honestly don’t know if the club help ‘keep’ the players and their families or not. They really should but, if they do, they’d get accused of cynicism and public relations opportunities if they shouted about it. There’s definitely some scope here for a drama documentary or fiction film about this episode, especially in these days of money-soaked indulgence.
Poor Steven Caulker was on loan at City for a year, playing fantastically well too, winning the club’s Young Player Of The Year award, but in his very honest interview with the Guardian the other day, he spoke of how he was put up near casinos at the age of 18, with more money than he knew what to do with, and even when seen at a casino at 3 in the morning was just told to make sure it didn’t interfere with his play out on the pitch. It’s a different world between now and 1982 football and some recognition, some visual record of how bleak things can become, and did become then, could help ward off future dangers, through a realisation of how lucky we are.