Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
Bristol is the home of a fierce cross-city rivalry between two sides formed in the Victorian era. Despite this longevity, these clubs deep in rugby country have never won major silverware as far as football is concerned – with the solitary exception of the Welsh Cup.
Of the two, Bristol Rovers are the oldest, Bristol City the most successful, reflected in their regular higher league status than the Pirates. When City, the Robins, were reclaiming their place back in the Championship by winning League One in 2015, Rovers were scrambling through an ignominious season in the non-league Conference, only regaining full league status on penalties.
City, Welsh Cup winners in 1934, are the only one of the two to have attained top-flight status and reach an FA Cup final. But Rovers, forced to play a 40-minute drive away in Bath for ten years, are still able to attract a Conference record 47,000 crowd for a play-off final at Wembley. Backed by Jordanian billionaires the Al-Qadi family as majority shareholders, the Pirates have plans for a new training facility at Almondsbury.
The Rovers heartland is north Bristol, site of the club’s revered, long-term home of Eastville. Set alongside a gasworks whose smells drifted over the ground, Eastville hosted Rovers for 90 years until 1986, home fans gathered at the legendary Tote End. Also staging greyhound racing and speedway, Eastville gave rise to the club’s alternative nickname of The Gas, first used by City fans.
While Rovers have their fan base in north and east Bristol, City reside across the River Avon, on the south side of town. In fact, the club was founded as Bristol South End in 1894, merging with nearby Bedminster FC in 1900 when the new club moved into City’s current home of Ashton Gate.
Today based at the former home of Bristol Rugby – who moved to Ashton Gate in 2014 – Rovers began life as the Black Arabs, an attempt to kick-start a local football team in a morass of rugby clubs. One such was the Arabs, hence the Purdown-based football club founded in 1883.
Unable to arrange local fixtures, the Black Arabs became Eastville Rovers, then Bristol Rovers in 1899. First competing in the Gloucestershire Cup – soon set aside for an annual Rovers-City clash alone – the Pirates worked their way up from the Southern League to take up near permanent status in the Third Division for decades.
A rare spell in the Second coincided with City’s last stint in the top flight, in the late 1970s. With hooliganism at its height, any meeting of the two sparked trouble. Months after the Pirates beat the Robins 3-0 in a winner-takes-all promotion clash in May 1990, City fans snuck into Rovers’ then home of Twerton Park to set fire to the main stand.
Their last league fixture came in 2001, and the Gloucestershire Cup was stopped in 1996. An apparently meaningless cup fixture in 2013 led to several injuries and arrests.
While Rovers’ Memorial Stadium is looking its age, modernisation of Ashton Gate was completed before the 2016-17 season. A 27,000-capacity all-seater, City’s stadium has also staged three England under-21 internationals.
Previous speculation about Ashton Gate and long-term doubt over Rovers’ future home has long prompted critical debate. Why can the city made famous by Isambard Kingdom Brunel not build anything?
But now with wherewithal to match the will, a deserving solid fan base and Football League status, Rovers must surely be looking at a brighter future than the dismal days of the 1980s.
Arriving in town, local transport and tips
Now a major budget hub, Bristol Airport is 13km (8 miles) south-west of town. The Bristol Airport Flyer bus (£8 single/£13 return) runs every 20mins to stop 8/9 at Bristol Temple Meads train station (journey time 20mins), Bristol bus station and the city centre. The bus station is tucked away up a steep slope close to the city centre.
V Cars Bristol (01179 252 626) quote £20 from airport to town. Eurotaxis (UK only 0333 162 4988) also offer fixed rates and are a regular resource for fans on match days, with online booking possible.
Bristol has two train stations: Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway. Temple Meads is closer to town and Bristol City, Parkway closer to Bristol Rovers.
There are regular trains from London Paddington and Birmingham New Street (for each, 1hr 30-40min journey time, online singles from £25-£30). Some trains from Manchester Piccadilly require a change at Birmingham, direct service 3hrs.
Several local bus companies serve Bristol. Travelwest has details of routes and tickets. The FirstDay pass (£4.50/£5 on board) for First bus services does not include the Bristol Airport Flyer. A single is £2.25, £2.50 on board. Advance tickets can be bought at the Travel Hub at Bristol bus station in the city centre.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Pubs and bars line the Waterfront behind Bristol Bridge and nearby streets around St Nicholas market. These include the elegantly traditional Old Fish Market, with quality food and TV sport, homely Seamus O’Donnell’s and The Crown round the corner, with TV football and 20,000 tunes on the jukebox. Now under new ownership, this venerable establishment dating back nearly 300 years reopened in September 2021.
Just behind, with craft beers and gins, the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer has gone gastro but ‘The Volley isn’t so posh that it can’t broadcast matches.
Still in the bar quarter, Horts on Broad Street is a notch above, not only in terms of its kitchen and drinks range, but sports broadcasts, too – here, you can hire out the in-house cinema for big-game action. On John Street, the historic Bank Tavern offers big-screen sport and independent regional beers. Also central, sport-centric The Birkett Tap has vinyl nights at weekends and HD screens aplenty.
In the same vicinity but closer to the city centre, the Drawbridge on St Augustine’s Parade is a friendly local where TV sport counts. More contemporary, The Green House on College Green attracts a lively clientele with its post-work twofer deals and live-game coverage.
Near Bristol bus station, the White Hart is an old-school watering hole with seats outside in summer and TV sport inside all year round. Sunday roasts are a speciality. Nearby on Lewins Mead, the Bay Horse is another sport-centric spot with a range of rarer ales.
Finally, tucked in near Temple Meads station, The Knights Templar is a convenient Wetherspoons with all the usual drinks and meal deals.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the grounds and around town
All the major international chains are now in town. Two are halfway between Temple Meads station and Ashton Gate. Mercure Bristol Holland House is a four-star spa hotel with gym and conference facilities – sister hotel the Mercure Brigstow overlooks the waterfront close to the bar quarter in town.
Close to Mercure Holland House, the DoubleTree by Hilton is another upscale chain with a restaurant to match.
Right in the city centre, the Marriott Royal is arguably the most prestigious lodging in town, with a pool, spa, cocktail bar and upscale restaurant. Partner hotel the Marriott City Centre offers more than its grey façade would suggest, with a pool and gym.
Over the water from the Royal, the Radisson Blu has a more contemporary, urban feel – plus great views of the city from its waterfront setting.
For character, the centrally located Grand has the stately appearance of a 150-year-old hotel, with a pool, bar and restaurant. In the same locality convenient for the bar quarter, the Rock & Bowl Motel offers hostel-like lodging, affordable private rooms, a bowling alley and live entertainment.
Finally, to stay way up in the north of town close to Bristol Rovers, newly refurbished gastropub The Wellington contains eight boutique-style bedrooms – though trade from sports events has dropped since Bristol Rugby moved over to Ashton Gate.