Standing amid a small group of middle-aged men on the Uplands Terrace at the Memorial Ground, home of Bristol Rovers, a figure stands out. Partly because of his distinctive white jacket, with fur collar, but mostly because of his bald head, which shines in the afternoon sun.

Rovers are playing Morecambe, the League 2 fixture having escaped the big freeze gripping the country, and there is no other place where Dave Jeal would rather be. He is a Pirate through and through, a fan since 1972, and as besotted as ever by the blue-and-white quartered shirt.

Jeal is the club chaplain, too. A chaplain with an unconventional past perhaps, with many a skeleton lurking in the cupboards at his home on the nearby Lockleaze estate, but he possesses not only a fervent passion for God but also an ingrained devotion to everything Rovers.

That is why the Rev David Jeal - "I prefer just 'Dave'," he says, "but the players call me 'Rev'" - can be found leaning against a barrier in front of "The Blackthorn Bar", chatting with his mates throughout the game and cheering on "The Gas". Not, for him, sitting in the relative comfort of the directors' box and applauding politely.

Jeal serves the people and stands with the people. That's his style. And he celebrates with the people, a 2-1 victory over Morecambe and further evidence of the revival under new manager Mark McGhee. "Come on Rovers" Dave chants as the late Morecambe rally is successfully repelled. "I can get a bit excited sometimes," he reflects later.

Years ago, he used to get very excited. But not so much by the fixtures, of Rovers and England, but by what went on away from the pitch. Jeal is a former football hooligan, a self-confessed troublemaker who thrived on the punch-up, the confrontation and the aggravation - at home and abroad. "When you're young, you think you're invincible," he said. "You think that you can do anything and nothing's going to touch you."

Jeal has kept the disciplinary warning letters from the club in a plastic bag. "I keep everything," he said. "I'm a bit of a hoarder." And he has kept alive the memories of his random marauding, not under lock and key in the dark recesses of his once tortured mind - never to see the light again, as you might suspect - but with an upfront vividness that is both disturbing and refreshing.

Disturbing ... because his graphic reminiscing is a stark reminder of the bad old days of English football. His tales are torrid, not for the faint-hearted. But refreshing ... because he does not attempt to hide the grim facts of his turbulent past life, which included membership of the notorious "Young Executives", a violent Rovers "firm". And nor do the West Country club, either.

As Geoff Dunford, the former chairman and now a director, observed when Jeal was appointed chaplain in 2007: "The story of David's journey to Christianity is an amazing example of God's work. I'm sure the players and staff will benefit from his pastoral care."

Care, pastoral or otherwise, was the last matter on Dave's agenda in the ugly 1980s. "It was partly a buzz, partly belonging to something," he recalls. "I always had a bit of a heart really. I could never hurt people just for the sake of hurting them. But if they wanted a scrap, I'd have a scrap. Bullying? No, I wasn't into that, but I have done some pretty awful things that I'm not proud of.

"When I look back on it, I wasn't happy. I don't think happy people want to hurt others. I was not happy at home, not happy at work. I was just angry. I had loads of jobs - on drilling rigs, building sites, in a laboratory, down the sewers - but I kept getting sacked because of my anger. People would say something to me and I'd take offence and tell them to stick it. People just got fed up with me because of my attitude. I was fairly obnoxious."

Dyslexia, undiagnosed then, perhaps subconsciously fuelled Jeal's warrior instincts. I show him a copy of an article, which details his involvement in a fracas in Stockholm in 1992. Jeal, 45, reads it. Is that, I enquire, how it happened? "Yeah, that's about right, pretty much," he replies quietly, perhaps momentarily reliving the shameful incident. At least it was the beginning of the end of a gruesome cycle that also included being detained at a Dutch marine base after Dave and hundreds of other English "fans" had been rounded up by police in Rotterdam.

Nikki, Jeal's wife, a doctor, pops into the living room in the spacious flat in which they live, above the St James Church in Lockleaze where Dave ministers. The view from the window is of countryside, Rovers heartland, and on towards Bath. Daughter Hannah, 13, watches television in her bedroom. Saxon, the eight-month-old Hungarian Vizsla hunting dog, lolls about, occasionally seeking attention.

The bad, seriously bad, is out of the way, discussed and digested, however unpalatable. Now for the good. The England tattoos on Jeal's body would be joined by those of a religious nature, his conversion to the faith as intriguing a narrative as the previous catalogue of chaos.

Val, his mother, had become a Christian and started a project for the homeless in St Paul's, an inner suburb of Bristol. "I always had a view that drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless were the lowest form of society," Jeal says. "But when I was at the project, I thought: 'Well, actually, they're just like me'. And I was fascinated."

Fascinated also by one of his mum's female assistants. Dave asked her out for a drink and, as fair exchange, he had to accompany her to church. "I didn't like it," he said. "I felt uncomfortable in there. But about ten minutes before the end of the service, all kinds of emotions came over me.

"I thought: 'I'm going to cry. I need to get out of here'. So I ran from the church and went into the pub across the road and had a couple of pints of rough cider and a couple of fags to calm me down. I thought: 'Whatever that was, it ain't going to affect me'. So I booted off."

But he was soon back in the pews, again persuaded by the object of his desire. "She asked me if I was scared," Dave said. "So I said I'd go. And I got the same emotions, I needed to get out. A couple of blokes came up to me and asked me why I was upset. I just didn't know what to say.

"One of them then said: 'If you turn to Jesus, your life will change. All that hurt, all the anger, all the pain in your life, will go'. Something in me said: 'Just do it'. And I prayed. And from that second, I swear, I knew there was a God. I knew. And I thought: 'That is it, everything changes from here'."

And it did.

In St James Church, an independent self-funded organisation with a Rovers colour-schemed hall and a shabby community association pub adjoining it, lies the evidence of Jeal's transformation. "We have about 50 people, mostly the young, for our Sunday morning services," he says. "We have tea and coffee, a couple of songs, maybe guitars or a band. We'll talk for ten minutes, quite often football talk, and have discussion groups. People ask questions, that's how they learn. It's called preaching but it's not really like that."

In the lounge area, the plaintive pleas of some of the congregation are writ large on a noticeboard. "Dear Lord Jesus," one reads. "Please may I feel happier this week." Another: "Dear Lord, I hope to get better. Amen." Jeal sighs resignedly. "That's the kind of neighbourhood we're in," he says.

At the Rovers training ground, situated on rival Bristol City turf at the South Bristol Sports Centre in Knowle, Dave tries to keep the mood upbeat. He pops in every Thursday, an unobtrusive presence, yet he is always willing to debate the issues of the day. "It's like the church," he says. "You are there to serve, to help. To be a listening ear, a confidential ear. If people want me to pray for them, I will. They know what I believe but hitting people with Bibles hasn't worked for centuries and it ain't going to work now.

"There's always someone who's a bit upset, not in the team or disgruntled. Just a chat with them, hopefully, can give them a more positive outlook. At the club, I'm there for everyone - the fans, the players, the directors. To me, it's a ministry, it's doing life. Maybe I can offer a bit of clarity or wisdom. It's what I do."

It's what he does, too, with Hartcliffe Saints, a group of about 40 15- to 22-year-olds from another deprived area of the city. Hartcliffe is a sprawling council estate - again, in Bristol City territory - which, with the next-door Withywood estate, has 19,000 inhabitants. Anti-social behaviour is a constant problem.

But playing for the Saints, who are in their second season in the Bristol Churches League, has given the boys hope. A life of crime, perhaps, no longer beckons. Zoe Williams, a bubbly 28-year-old youth worker, manages the team and insists on strict discipline.

"If the boys get into trouble with the police, they are banned for two matches," Williams said. "And for every swear word in training, they have to do ten press-ups. It's about boundaries and respect and earning the right to play football. And as a teenage boy, it's a reward for behaving well. I'm not prepared for our name to be muddied.

"On Hartcliffe, church attendance is less than two per cent. If you're in the team, you don't have to be a Christian or believe in God. But we've done Bible studies and just said to the players: 'If you want come along, you're most welcome'. We want to be able to share our faith with them but in a way that they can opt in or not and have a choice."

Jeal plays at right back in the team, which has no age limit. "I'm rubbish, I'm so slow," he says. But his enthusiasm has been dampened this morning because of the freezing weather. Saints' match has been called off. Yet his influence extends much further than an irregular foray along the right wing, assuming that he can get that far.

"Our estate is quite matriarchal, with a lot of strong women," Zoe said. "I guess I fit into that stereotype. I'm quite gobby and prepared to shout and challenge the boys. But what they're lacking is a male role model. So having Dave on the team has been amazing.

"He doesn't take any authority necessarily, he's just their team-mate. But they really value what he has to say. He's really passionate about his football and although he's not the captain, he's a strong leader who they can all look up to. We've had only one player in trouble with the police this season. Saints by name, saints by nature. Honest!"

Kick off approaches at the Memorial. Jeal - in jeans and trainers, no starchy official "dog collar" for him - has conducted his usual pre-match routine, chatting with the players by the side of the pitch, seeing the physio, Phil Kite, having a cuppa with anyone. Just doing what he does. Then it's off to the Uplands, to be with the lads, his middle-aged mates. And to revisit his past.

Rovers go 1-0 up through Lee Brown and he claps vigorously. When Scott McGleish tucks in a penalty, he raises both fists to the sky. The lady hollering "Pasty for a Pound" near the end, in a late effort to get rid off her wares, raises a chuckle from the band of brothers. Some meaty - or lack of meat within the pastry - comment, no doubt. The final whistle, signalling a third successive win and quashing Morecambe's stirring comeback, ushers in utter relief.

Fingers and toes defrosting on the short journey home, Dave ponders the prospect of being allowed to watch his heroes at Shrewsbury Town on Tuesday night. "Nice place Shrewsbury," he says, convincing himself. "It's half-term and I'll try to sell it to Nikki that I'll take Hannah there with me as an educational and cultural trip. You never know."

There may be only one God but, in Dave Jeal's book of sermons, there will only ever be one Rovers.

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