Over the breakfast table on Friday January 15th, supporters of two of the clubs I have had the privilege of covering in recent seasons had much to digest. The previous evening had been eventful, with one publishing a five year strategic plan as they look to build on the platform created by a series of promotions, while the other dispensed with the services of their manager despite success in both league and cup last year. Their focus was very much on the next five months. The route to the top tier in two different sports arguably accounted for the different actions, with the Channel Islands providing a link between them.
While Jersey Rugby Club compete alongside historical clubs like London Scottish, Nottingham and Moseley in the Championship, another traditional English team – Bristol – are striving to get back to the Premiership after repeated failures in the end of season play offs. Their majority shareholder is the Channel Islands based businessman Stephen Lansdown, who also holds the same role at Bristol City having formed an umbrella company, Bristol Sport, to oversee the affairs of both clubs.
It’s fair to say having his two teams in the second tier is not what Lansdown wants, given the extensive redevelopment which is being undertaken at Ashton Gate. The final piece of the jigsaw, the new West Stand, will take capacity to 27,000, and take the budget for the work to around £45 million. With football policed through Financial Fair Play regulations and rugby’s Premiership operating a salary cap, Lansdown doesn’t want crowds rattling around Ashton Gate when the stadium is finished.
2015 saw him experience joy and anguish in equal measure, with Bristol City winning the League 1 title and the Johnstone Paints Trophy, while Bristol Rugby were beaten with the final kick of the promotion play off final. With no current financial constraints on the rugby club, Lansdown can continue to fund a big squad and extensive back room staff overseen by Director of Rugby Andy Robinson, even if the season represents something of a charade until the play offs. In Football’s Championship meanwhile, Bristol City has strict regulations to adhere to, and against bigger clubs they have found it a struggle on and off the pitch to compete. On Thursday, manager Steve Cotterill’s credit in the bank ran out and with City in the relegation zone, he left the club.
His departure showed his quickly events can turn. Despite promotion, City failed to attract players during last summer and only two permanent signings were made, one of whom as sold almost immediately. The largely unchanged squad, although backed by crowds of around 15,000 – at or very close to capacity – have found points hard to come by and since the transfer window opened on January 1 more targets have gone elsewhere. Boards at football clubs like to see managers spending money if they make it available, and if they can’t when form is poor, patience can quickly wear thin. Stephen Lansdown and the hierarchy at Bristol City now have a difficult appointment to make, as City strive to avoid relegation. Time and circumstances are against them.
Contrast the urgency at Ashton Gate with Jersey Rugby’s five year strategic plan. They play in their own second tier, competing alongside Lansdown’s Bristol but on a fraction of the resources. Their recent history has been one of steady success, reaching their current level in 2012 and then – after two seasons looking over their shoulders at the foot of the table – gradually overhauling the squad to a point where another mid table finish looks likely. With a population on the island of around 100,000, it is a considerable achievement.
The club now, in common political parlance, want to mend the roof while the sun is shining. With crowds around the 2,000 mark they want to harness the interest while maintaining the values of a community club, albeit one which not surprisingly draws players from across the globe. Targets include ground improvements with extra seating, enhanced commercial income and strengthening of the Mini and Junior sections so there is a greater chance of finding players born and raised on the island. All this, it is hoped, will ensure a “sustainable” Championship club. Interestingly, no mention was made of the Premiership, and therein lies the difference.
We have the equivalent here of Aesop’s fable about the hare and the tortoise. On the one hand Stephen Lansdown’s acumen, ambition – and money – is trying to rapidly provide Bristol with top flight rugby for the first time since 2009, and football for the first time since 1980. On the other, the islanders of Jersey favour a slower, more methodical approach. Resources and targets are different, yet for the moment, in one area at least, their paths cross with no guarantee of how long the race will be or of who will emerge the winner.
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