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IN-DEPTH: Departing CEO Steve Gorvett Reflects On Twelve Years At The Helm

It’s been a bumpy ride, but as the curtain comes down on Steve Gorvett’s long association with Bristol Rugby, the outgoing chief executive believes supporters can look forward to a bright and successful future as the club enters a new era.

Gorvett steps down as chief executive at the end of the season after nine years in the role and having seen, up close, the heady highs and gut wrenching lows of the club’s modern history.

From play-off final defeats to famous European victories, Gorvett has seen it all and leaves, for the final time, after a mammoth contribution to the blue and white hoops.

“It’s strange really, because I hoped to be handing over to someone with us still in the Premiership,” he says.

“But overall, I believe we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve got a very committed backer in Steve Lansdown, we’ve got a solid management structure now and we’ve got a new head coach coming in – who is without a doubt, world class.

“He’s bringing in a lot of new players; we’re playing at a stadium that is the envy of nearly all and we’ve got planning permission for the new training ground - so we’re in a healthy position.

“Overall, the short-terms ups and downs are hard to take, but the club is in a very good state.”

Gorvett spent 12 years at Bristol as a player in the 1970s and 1980s – making his name as a goal kicking second-row - before returning to the club as finance director in 2005.

He became chief executive in 2008 and was at the helm during the most challenging of periods, including the aftermath of ‘a terrible night at the Mem’ in 2010 and the proposed move to Newport during a time of great uncertainty.

“We went into the Premiership in 2005 and managed to survive the first year, which was a terrific achievement, with our front row of Hilton, Regan, Crompton keeping us going,” says Gorvett.

“The club flourished from there and the second year, we caught the Premiership a bit by surprise and ended up third, losing a play-off to Leicester at Welford Road, but having led the Premiership for two-thirds of the season. We got Heineken Cup entry and everything began to change from there.

“It was the time of the credit crunch and a lot of our investors were involved in that world, so things became very difficult." 

"We’ve got a very committed backer in Steve Lansdown, we’ve got a solid management structure now and we’ve got a new head coach coming in – who is without a doubt, world class."

Steve Gorvett

“We probably over-extended trying to put a team together that could compete in the Heineken Cup and the Premiership – we ended up something like tenth in the Premiership, we didn’t get through the Heineken Cup rounds but of course we did beat Stade Francais at the ‘Mem’ on a famous day.

“But we weren’t in great shape by the end of that season and actually that corresponded with the planned redevelopment of the Memorial Stadium where by it was going to be closed for two years.

“So we had arranged to go to play at Newport for two years, which would have been okay had we been going back to a new stadium, but clearly it was not ideal to put it mildly.

“But at the death, around July, that development got put on hold by the financiers for the stadium and so we were left able to come back to the Mem, but had already lost a lot of sponsors. A lot of our consortium owners had to pull in horns a bit and we were not in a good shape.

“So I took over as chief executive then, which was around August 2008 and we went back to the Mem and really struggled. We didn’t have a great side, we only won two games and we got relegated."

“We needed to bounce straight back, we thought we would, we had a strong side the following season (09/10) and won the league but lost the play-offs on a terrible night at the Mem in the rain against Exeter.

“That was probably the absolute low point of it all because we realised that we had gambled on going back up and didn’t have a plan B - plan B wasn’t really possible.”

Falling at the final hurdle cost Bristol dear and as a result, led to high-scale, enforced changes, leaving the squad a shadow if its former self.

“We went through an awful stage of releasing a lot of players, enforcing salary reductions on players and staff – everyone was in it together,” Gorvett explains.

“A lot of good players left, but a lot of good players stayed and backed the club, which was fantastic, but actually we went into the season with not a strong side at all.

“In the days of relegation play-offs we managed to sneak through in eighth position by winning a game or two at the end and got absolutely hammered in the play-offs at the top end.

“But we did win the British and Irish Cup that year, so there was some silverware at the end of a very difficult season.”

“I probably won’t go to every game now, because I’ll have some other things going on, but I’ve supported the club for a long time and I’ll go on doing that."

Steve Gorvett

Five seasons and two play-off heartbreaks later, Bristol were finally back in the big time, much to the chief executive’s relief rather than delight. But after a tough season in the top flight, Gorvett accepts that lessons will have to be learned as the club comes to terms with a return to the Championship.

“Promotion was a relief more than a high spot really, because we had huge resources put into it to get there.

“We should have beaten London Welsh but we knew Worcester was going to be 50/50 because they were an equally good side. So really, celebrations personally were a bit muted after the Doncaster win because it was more relief that we had eventually got there.

“I don’t think we knew just how tough it was going to be and it has shown, we’re just not quite good enough this season.

“But with Pat Lam coming in and the recruitment that has happened since then, we look to be very strong next season and these people are coming regardless of which league we are in, which is fantastic.

“They are here for the journey, but they know it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to need to continually strengthen over the next 12 months and hopefully bounce straight back.”

Away from the on-field action, Gorvett’s impact during his time as chief executive is far reaching and still bearing fruit today. Together with former Bristol wing Ben Breeze – now Bristol Sport Foundation’s chief community officer - Gorvett founded the Bristol Rugby Community Foundation in 2010.

Since then, the charity has gone from strength to strength and now impacts the lives of more than 15,000 people every year.

“Apart from the playing side, there have been some really good bits I’ve been involved in. I’ve been a trustee of the Foundation ever since Ben Breeze came to me and said: ‘we need to set this up.’

“So that was a very difficult few years to get that running, but it’s now an established, well performing and very highly thought of organisation.

“It does a whole range of different things and I think, until people actually look at it, they’re not sure how much it does.

“But it helps so many different groups of people – kids and adults – and in all the things it does, it touches people in a great way and gives people a lot from their activity.

“It’s something we’re very proud of and hopefully, it will go from strength to strength.

“It’s very much got a life of its own, it links in to the club in some ways and match days are a big focus for the Foundation, but it will go on, seven days a week, doing what it does.”

With the season now over, Gorvett’s passion for Bristol Rugby will continue, but purely as a supporter - something he is looking forward to.

“It’ll be a great relief (to watch as a supporter), although I talk to people who do that and they say it’s just as tense and strenuous,” he says.

“I guess I’m looking forward to that. At the moment, I go to every game, home and away - including second team games - because I believe doing the role you need to be involved at that level.

“I probably won’t go to every game now, because I’ll have some other things going on, but I’ve supported the club for a long time and I’ll go on doing that.”

By Will Carpenter.