First Point, Then Fire – The awful news 40 years ago today

By Keith Brookman

On the eve of the 1980/81 season Rovers discovered that they would be without the services of new defender Aiden McCaffery for their opening game, a home fixture against Orient [yes, that was their name from 1966, before reverting to ‘Leyton Orient’ in 1987]

McCaffery’s registration forms from his former club, Derby County, had certainly arrived at Football League headquarters on time, but a copy of the financial agreement between Rovers and Derby remained on someone’s desk at the Baseball Ground.

Financial forms had to be registered with the League 48 hours ahead of a match and so the defender had to delay his Gas debut, much to the annoyance of Rovers’ manager Terry Cooper.

Eastville’s South Stand before the fire. [Photo Credit – Alan Marshall]

One transfer that was completed the day before the Orient game was that of striker Bob Lee, from Sunderland. However, although Lee had signed a contract, the club doctor wasn’t happy with the medical examination because it was discovered that Lee had a heart murmur. That had ended a possible move to Leeds United a year earlier and Rovers’ club doctor planned to send Lee for examination by a specialist before the deal was finally sealed.

The game against Orient the following day (16th August) ended in a 1-1 draw. David Williams gave Terry Cooper’s side the lead after 15 minutes, but the visitors equalised a minute later through John Chiedozie.

In the aftermath of the match Orient’s Stan Bowles claimed that Rovers defender Donny Gillies, making his league debut for the club, had tried to break his leg with a first half tackle. The fact that Gillies wasn’t spoken to by referee Lester Shapter, or that Orient weren’t even awarded a free kick tends to support the view that it was a hard, but fair, challenge.

For the record, this was how Rovers lined up for what would be their last game at Eastville for several weeks; Thomas, Gillies, Hughes, Mabbutt, Cooper, Barrowclough, Williams, Bates, Penny, Griffiths. Substitute: Jones

It was the last game that Eastville hosted until 4th October because during the afternoon following the game Eastville’s South Stand was destroyed by fire.

The fire taking hold. [Photo Credit – Alan Marshall]

Most of the playing kit was destroyed in the blaze, though some football boots did survive! Fire swept through the stand while the dressing rooms were left under almost a foot of water after attempts to bring the inferno under control.

All of the club’s trophies, including the Golden Boot awarded to the club’s youth team during that summer’s tour of Holland, were destroyed.

Still smouldering. [Photo Credit – Alan Marshall]

Chairman Graham Holmes described the fire as a disaster; ‘It will cost the club a tremendous loss in revenue. There will need to be an emergency board meeting to discuss the ramifications of the fire.’

The fire was discovered by the general manager of the stadium, Clarke Osbourne, who was working in the club offices. ‘We are in a mess,’ said manager Cooper, but we will pull through.’

In the aftermath of the fire the whole South Stand structure was demolished and use of that side of the ground was restricted to an open terrace, making the once proud sporting arena look like a bomb site.

It will have to be pulled down!

Five home games, including League Cup ties against York City and Portsmouth, were played at Ashton Gate before it was deemed that Eastville could once again host league football.

It was never the same as before, though, with Portakabins for dressing rooms and a distinct lack of atmosphere at a venue that held so many memories for generations of supporters.

Six years after the fire Rovers left the dilapidated old stadium they were once proud to call home and moved to play their home games at Bath City’s Twerton Park for a decade.

An eerie image after the event. [Photo Credit – Alan Marshall]

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