The last 40 years have been a rollercoaster ride for Bristol City.
Nine promotions and relegations in the football pyramid, a record three Football League Trophies and a rebuilt state-of-the-art stadium with the facilities to match. The Robins have been through a lot – but they would never have experienced any of it without the Ashton Gate Eight.
To most people, the Ashton Gate Eight is no more than a nice bit of rhyming. But to everyone connected to the club and the city, it represents the reason Bristol City are alive today, and why Bristol has two clubs instead of one.
The 1980s was a period of turbulence for City. Having spent three seasons in the top flight – their longest stint in 68 years – the Robins faced consecutive relegations in 1980 and 1981 and were heading for a third drop. Now down in Division 3 the problems extended off the pitch, with the club in real financial peril due to the mix of hefty player contracts and declining gate receipts income.
At the start of 1982, Bristol City were in the relegation zone and £850,000 in debt, supposedly losing £4,000 a week as they spiralled downwards into despair. Relegation was one thing, but liquidation? That would be the final nail in the tragic coffin.
As the club’s financial situation declined day by day, bankruptcy and collapse looked imminent. There were few feasible ways to keep the club alive and the end was nigh.
Or so it seemed.
Geoff Merrick, Jimmy Mann, Trevor Tainton, David Rodgers, Gerry Sweeney, Peter Aitken, Chris Garland and Julian Marshall. They were eight of Bristol City’s key players, who had been there through the joys of promotion and the pain of relegation. Players who had spent over a decade in BS3, captained the club and helped them rise through the divisions during the seventies.
The octet were in the midst of a relegation battle, but in February 1982 they became the focus of a different battle for survival. Bristol City were on the verge of bankruptcy, and their last chance to avoid extinction lay in the hands of the players.
In order for the club to survive, the eight players had to terminate their contracts and leave the club. It may not seem so dramatic in the context of the modern game, but football was a different ball game back then. These were not multi-millionaires who could easily jump ship to another club – these were working men playing to survive, with families to feed and mortgages to pay.
It was a life-changing decision for the players and the club. One of them had to fall for the other to survive, and with time ticking on the club’s lifespan, an agreement had to be made imminently.
Merrick, one of the eight and the club’s captain, revealed in 2017 just what it meant for him. Speaking to BBC Sport, he explained, “I had a family, three kids, a mortgage. I think I lost about a stone in weight, it was devastating. None of us wanted to leave – but everybody wanted Bristol City to remain. The press came and took pictures of our houses, they sort of portrayed us as being very wealthy and the reason Bristol City were going under. But the last contract was the best contract I had ever signed. We weren’t earning a fortune whatsoever.
“But we didn’t want Bristol City to go out of business. We were all ardent City fans. We were kids who had grown up and spent all our life at Bristol City so, obviously, we sort of went along with it.”
“These were players who had mortgages to pay and would have to keep working for the rest of their lives.”
Discussions between the club and the players were tense, with multiple offers being put on the table and rejected. There was not long left, but finally, on the morning of 3rd February 1982, the eight players agreed and tore up their contracts. Bristol City had survived their greatest relegation battle of all.
In the end, the players accepted a £10,000 settlement each and the gate receipts from a testimonial match. The octet underwent the biggest sacrifice possible for them in conceding their contracts and in turn their professional football careers. Bristol City would live to see another day, but many of the players would never reach the same heights again.
Jonathan Pearce, a commentator for Match of the Day and Bristol City fan, was working for BBC Radio Bristol at the time and saw the situation unfold first-hand.
“[They had] absolutely no choice,” Pearce said. “If you don’t do this, the club dies, the fans will suffer and the other younger players will suffer – and it’s your responsibility to save them. Jump out of the lifeboat and give your place to someone else so you can save them.”
He added: “There was absolutely no regard to their families and what they were going through in life. These weren’t players who were on £50,000 or £100,000 per week, these were players who had mortgages to pay and would have to keep working for the rest of their lives.”
Bristol City would be relegated at the end of the 1981/82 season, making it three consecutive relegations and a first ever appearance in England’s fourth tier. It would be eight years before they would return to the second division, made even sweeter by the fact that they were facing total extinction not long before. The Robins rollercoaster would continue, and how.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Ashton Gate Eight, their impact can be seen today at the club. Bristol City are now a stable Championship side playing at a modernised Ashton Gate which holds 27,000 fans. That same stadium has been used by the Bristol Bears, business people and even the NHS to help the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination programme. With a brand new training centre to match, the future looks bright.
While the club has moved onwards and upwards, the influential octet have not been forgotten. Last season’s home shirt commemorated them with a special tribute, they have a chant sung in their honour and a special mural in the South Stand of Ashton Gate.
The names of Garland, Tainton, Merrick, Mann, Marshall, Rodgers, Aitken and Sweeney will never be forgotten in City’s history, neither in the beautiful game nor the city of Bristol. For after all, they are the Ashton Gate Eight: eight men who had a dream to save their football team.
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