|FA Cup third qualifying round|
|Date: 5 October Coverage: Halesowen Town v Altrincham live on the Red Button and on the BBC Sport website from 12:30 BST|
“It’s like moving house 21 times a season,” says joint chairman Alex Petheram. “We arrive for home games at someone else’s ground in a different county, set up, play, pack up and go.”
Welcome to Gloucester City, a non-league club with 136 years of history – the last 12 of which have been spent on the move since floods destroyed their Meadow Park ground.
Without a permanent home and with nowhere to store anything, Gloucester’s kit man Mike Nash puts balls, bibs and cones used for training in his garden shed, while Chloe Lees, the physio, transports the treatment table for the dressing room to games in the back of her Nissan Micra.
Since 2007, the National League North club – nicknamed The Tigers – have entered into groundshare arrangements with four different clubs, their current ‘home’ 25 miles away from Gloucester in the Worcestershire market town of Evesham.
“You’ve got to be pretty committed to support a team which involves a 50-mile round trip for home games,” says Dave Jones, a Gloucester fan for almost 40 years.
“Playing at another ground has made life very difficult. You lose all the supporters who might go now and again. Eventually some of your hard-core support start to drift away and find something else to do.”
This weekend, a dedicated group of Gloucester fans will make the 480-mile round trip to north Yorkshire for their team’s FA Cup third-qualifying-round tie against Whitby Town.
With £11,250 on offer to the winners, it’s a huge match for a club losing about £200,000 a year and being propped up by co-chairmen Petheram and Eamonn McGurk.
After years of talk about a potential return home, work has now begun to revive their old ground, so is there finally light at the end of the tunnel for a club that last played a league match in Gloucester 4,541 days ago?
‘Up to our waists in water’
Bournemouth and Brighton were League One clubs and Bolton Wanderers were getting ready to play in Europe after finishing seventh in the Premier League the last time Gloucester played a league game at Meadow Park.
On 28 April 2007, a 3-1 home win against Clevedon secured a top-10 Southern League Premier Division finish, leaving fans optimistic about the following season.
That summer a number of supporters joined then-manager Tim Harris painting the ground at weekends ready for a new campaign.
“It was looking better than ever,” recalls life-long supporter Matt Clift. “Then came the floods.”
On Friday, 20 July 2007, a 12-hour period saw a record 78mm of rain fall on Gloucestershire, causing rapid and intense flash flooding. The nearby M5 came to a standstill with about 10,000 motorists stuck overnight while 500 people were stranded at Gloucester Railway Station.
By the end of the day, Meadow Park – Gloucester’s home since 1986 – was almost eight feet under water.
“I was unable to get to work because of the flooding so myself and others headed for the ground to rescue what we could,” added Clift.
“We chucked as much stuff in the back of our cars before the flood took the stadium. The next day we turned up to take pictures. We waded in and were up to our waists in water.”
‘It’s far from home’
With their £1.4m ground ruined and a new season about to start, Gloucester entered into a groundshare deal for the 2007-08 campaign with Forest Green Rovers, 16 miles away in Nailsworth.
They then spent two seasons playing in Cirencester – 23 miles away – where they won promotion to the sixth tier of English football in 2009 – before sharing with Cheltenham Town, 11 miles away from Gloucester, between 2011 and 2017.
The Tigers moved out of the county for the first time to play at Evesham United, where they are now in their third season.
Last Saturday, they attracted a gate of 284 against Guiseley – about 100 down on their average crowd in their final season at Meadow Park before the floods.
“We’re very grateful to Evesham for the groundshare, but it’s far from home,” added Petheram, who joined Gloucester’s board in September 2018.
“We can’t leave anything there.
“The kit man literally takes the kit home. He stores it at his house because he’s got nowhere else to put it. We have about 100 footballs belonging to the club and they all end up in a garden shed.
“All the cones, bibs and mannequins we use for training get put in a car and taken to a shed.
“Our physio takes the treatment table home with her along with all the other medical equipment. She puts it in her hall because there is nowhere else to store it.
“We get no bar takings, no food revenue. We can’t sell advertising boards because they are not ours to sell, we can’t do hospitality because there isn’t any. We only just cover our rent bill in turnstile receipts.”
Gloucester owner McGurk and Petheram, who both run companies involved in the construction industry, provide income to keep the club afloat.
They also pay for overnight accommodation for the team before long away matches, something which has become more frequent since the club switched from National League South to National League North in the summer, because of the geographical spread of teams in non-league’s regional divisions.
In October alone, Gloucester face round trips totalling about 1,500 miles, with league matches at Gateshead and Spennymoor, in addition to the cup tie at Whitby.
Petheram said the club relied on the good will of people to keep it going.
“Last season we were struggling in the relegation zone and our manager, Chris Todd, had just left,” he added.
“Three players approached me after a 2-0 defeat at East Thurrock and said ‘we need to help, we’ll go unpaid until the end of the season so you can put our money into recruiting a new manager’.
“Eamonn and I didn’t accept the offer but can you imagine a Premier League player offering to go unpaid for three months?”
Jones, who is also chairman of the club’s supporters’ trust, said attracting new sponsors is near impossible for a club playing in a different county.
“Businesses in Gloucester sound interested at first but as soon as you mention you play in Worcestershire, they think ‘what am I going to gain from this?'”
From Zlatan to Gloucester
It has been so long since City played in Gloucester that children living locally do not know the club exists, according to Petheram.
Helping raise the club’s image by coaching children is Fabien Robert, who plays in City’s midfield.
The Frenchman is a popular figure – and has many stories to tell after playing in Ligue 1.
Still only 30, Robert played at the highest level of club football in France for Lorient as recently as 2014.
In May 2013, he shared a pitch with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a match against Paris St-Germain having already scored against a Saint-Etienne side featuring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who now plays for Arsenal.
While at Lorient, Robert got to meet Zinedine Zidane after then manager Christian Gourcuff invited the France 1998 World Cup winner to watch training.
After Lorient changed managers, Robert fell out of favour and joined Swindon in League One in 2015, his second taste of football in England after a loan spell at Championship side Doncaster in 2012.
He followed Swindon boss Mark Cooper to Forest Green in 2016 and has remained in Gloucestershire after meeting his girlfriend, Phoebe, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet in London.
Having turned down moves abroad to sign a two-year contract with Gloucester this summer, Robert said: “I want to be part of this club when it returns to the city.”
A ground made out of shipping containers
In September 2016, plans were approved to enable a new stadium for Gloucester City to be built. Three years on, they are still to return to the city.
However, with planning permission granted in May for an amended ground development, The Tigers could be back in Gloucester in the next few months.
Meadow Park is expected to come to life, one container at a time.
Modified shipping containers from nearby Gloucester Docks will be used to make everything from dressing rooms to hospitality areas on the site of the old ground.
Groundwork has already taken place, with the pitch raised three-and-a-half-metres to prevent future flooding.
The new ground will have a 4G pitch and a capacity of 3,208, including 700 seats.
Petheram added “We’d love to get a game in this season but we think that might be a step too far.”
Having played away from the city for so long, some fans remain wary a return will happen.
Clift, however, is one of those who believe an end is in sight.
“The people behind the club are trusting,” he said. “Eamonn has been putting his money in for the many years we have been away from the city.
“I’ve still got a couple of glass trophies and memorabilia which I rescued from the club on the day of the floods. They are in my house waiting to be returned when we finally do make it home.”