The covid-19 outbreak might have put a stop to play on the pitch, but the groundwork at Gloucester City’s overhauled stadium is pressing on, writes Andrew Clayton.
After Meadow Park was severely flooded in 2007, the nomadic National League North side spent 13 years in exile but are now set to finally return home for next season.
Work on Gloucester’s base began in November last year, with plans to install a raised artificial pitch and two 350-seater stands. This week has seen the foundations laid for LED floodlights and cladding fitted on the popular ‘T-End’ terrace, as constructors continue to prepare the ground for the start of the next season, whenever it may begin.
Speaking to The Independent, Tigers co-chairman Alex Petheram explained how, in the face of coronavirus, the build is still full steam ahead.
“Meadow Park looks like a football ground now, for the first time in 13 years,” he enthused. “I’m delighted with the progress. Our main contractor Soldi Construction, is doing a fantastic job in difficult times and they are still managing to keep the project just about on programme, despite the outbreak.
“Covid-19 is having an effect. The main issue is sourcing stone from the quarries – so many are closed we just can’t get the raw materials quick enough. But, we’re currently doing well in very hard times for us all.”
The risk of not completing the project on time, however, has prompted the Gloucester board to seek a ground share with Bath City as a contingency. Following their departure from Meadow Park in 2007, the Tigers played home games at Forest Green Rovers, Cirencester Town, Cheltenham Town and, most recently, Evesham United.
Even with regular ground hopping, the die-hard core have remained faithful to the club. Just this week, lifelong City supporter Mark East raised over £4,500 by completing a marathon in his back garden, giving the proceeds to the Tigers to split evenly between themselves and the National Health Service.
It is just this sort of community spirit which Petheram is keen to bolster, and a return to Meadow Park can play a crucial part.
He said: “Easty is a top bloke. He’s the flag man of non-league football. The money he’s raised for us and the NHS is really special and shows the type of fans we have. All our fans wrote off their season tickets the second the league was postponed and none of them cancelled, not one fan asked for a refund or a discount. We’re very blessed. Community for us is key. I could move the club to Plymouth for a ground share and the core fans would still travel week in, week out. Our community programme, headed up by [manager] James Rowe and [players] Fabien Robert and Matty McClure is going great guns. I’m really proud of them. We started with a couple of schools and programmes and it has grown into something really special.
“We’re fully focused on the ground build now and with next season still up in the air we’re hopeful we will start the season at Meadow Park. The original programme was that we’ll be back in July and we had hoped a couple of local friendlies with Exeter City and Bristol Rovers, but now we just don’t know. I’d love to welcome Plymouth Argyle too.”
With such an extensive project going ahead, however, the financial implications of an uncertain future posed by covid-19 weigh heavy on the grassroots game.
“My biggest worry is staff wages and players contracts,” Petheram added. “Players contracted for the 2019-20 season end on the last day of April, unless of course they are on a deal for next season already, which some are. We’ve furloughed all our players and staff, but we still have six staff that work over the summer within our community projects, school summer camps, scouting players and generally planning for next season.
“If the government-backed furlough scheme ends as it is currently planned, at the end of June, and the season starts as planned in August, then we’re fine. But if the season is delayed to, say, September or October, and the government-backed job retention scheme ends as planned in June, then we’ve got a massive problem, as I’ll have a squad of players back for pre-season in July and they will all need paying.”