The Great Big No to Gypsy Death & You

THERE is an odd phenomenon which happens some time before the clocks go forward each spring.

Quite when depends on how bleak the previous few months have been but around the point at which it becomes pretty easy to remember the rest of Gloucester’s fixture list, the end of the rugby season cannot come soon enough.

It has not always been like this, but when egg chasing on and off the pitch infiltrated the bulk of my working life, the end of the season increasingly became  a moment to savour.

It did not last long. Within weeks – often within days – we had replaced spending Saturday afternoons covering matches or producing pages based around that coverage with going to the pub to watch the summer Test matches over a few beers.

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And before you knew it, that gap on a Saturday afternoon needed filling (to say nothing of the sports page which don’t just vanish all summer) and the countdown was on until the first match.

Rugby – and sport in general – forms only part of the day job now. More of a watching brief than the heart of the role. Writing about it and designing pages about it has been replaced by watching it. As a fan.

The same still applies. By around March, the end of the season cannot come soon enough – not that you would have heard any complaints if Gloucester had managed to extend their season into the play-offs (two heavy defeats to end the league campaign made sure that didn’t happen, but we were seriously in the running until then which made a refreshing change).

It’s not the rugby. You wouldn’t find me anywhere else than in The Shed for any home game or in front of the TV for any televised away match. It’s just that you start to crave a weekend that doesn’t have to be planned around the game (and the getting there early to save a place in The Shed).

Was certainly desperate for the season to end as Gloucester, down to 14 men, were hanging on into the final couple of minutes of the European Challenge Cup final (our third in four years) against a Cardiff Blues team that really should have been buried before the break.

Season’s end came little more than 60 seconds too late, a last-ditch penalty bringing the kind of finale Gloucester fans have seen all too often in recent seasons. It’s got to the point where it is hard to accept we have hung on for the win until you’ve seen it on the TV highlights.

By the end of that night in Bilbao (the venue needs an explanation nearly as long as some of the journeys it took to get there), rugby could just go vanish.

For three days. Right up to the point when Gloucester signed Danny Cipriani.

Unlike the influx of South Africans (more may have arrived by the time you read this*) and Matt Banahan from Bath – akin to Liverpool signing Gary Neville in his playing days – this was not rumoured for weeks, debated and ranted about by the keyboard warriors who would find something to complain about if Gloucester went the whole season undefeated. There had been the odd whisper which over the course of a weekend became a roar.

Popular rantings on forums and social media over the past season included opposition to the renaming of The Shed (it is officially, shock horror, The Greene King Shed although you will not hear anyone call it that), one woman’s crusade against players not spending enough time thanking fans at away games, the selection of beers (much of it supplied by the same sponsors), unsuitable headwear and the club not announcing any new signings.

Whether there was any to announce or not and regardless of whether the player had signed or any agreement between his old and new club over a big reveal. Never mind any of that, somebody had mentioned it on the forum, why had the club not announced it?

Cipriani’s signing – by my reckoning, the biggest name since at least the capture of All Black lock Ian Jones the best part of 20 years ago – was met with almost universal support. Almost.

There were those fretting about his wages and those about what was going to happen to our existing outside-halves. Because clearly we are going to play the same 15 players in every game next season. And one of our No 10s didn’t really play inside centre for Wales in the autumn.

But the keyboard complainers did not have too long to wait. Little more than 24 hours later and they hit the mother load.

Word got out of an announcement – people were invited, people talk, however much the club try to keep it quiet – and the amount of times two plus two came to totals other than four was astonishing.

More signings (complete with mixed reviews, despite not knowing who they were) and a rebranding as Gloucester Lions were presented pretty much as fact. Opinion on Twitter, after all, is confirmation of the truth these days.

And that opinion, particularly about the rebrand, was not a welcoming one – no matter how many times the club denied it. Even after the event. You fear for the king of the jungle around these parts if we ever have a referendum to take back control from cats.

The truth barely caused the complainers to draw breath.

Yes there was a lion. In a new badge. On a new shirt. But no, we remain Gloucester Rugby. We Are Gloucester Rugby as the branding repeats.

Personally, like the shirt (first current one bought since about the time Ian Jones was playing for us) while really cannot get excited one way or another about the badge. Far more concerned about things that actually matter, like what’s happening on the pitch.

And the number of bobble hats in The Shed (probably the favourite issue all season which has become something of a running joke).

But the complaints rolled in. They hated the shirt, declaring it was destined to sit unloved in the club shop (early evidence suggests otherwise) if it was even in the shop before the season started (it was later that day), the lion on the logo had no connection with the club (bar the lions on the old crest and that of the city) and it looked just like Leicester Tigers.

Which, as more than one wag pointed out, suggests they would be easily confused at West Midlands Safari Park.

The shirt’s fine. Some are better than others, if you don’t like it wear an old one and we’ll have a new one soon enough. At least it’s not dayglo, highlighter pen yellow. Or blue, black and white.

The logo is OK, if you really care, and with my page designer head on is certainly more user-friendly than the old one. And no, however many forum gurus claim otherwise, we are not changing the name to Gloucester Lions. They are not going to spend all this money on a rebrand and then change the name.

All this means the need for a summer break is desperately needed. Not from the rugby (already looking forward to next season with more than the usual optimism), but from the serial complainers.

My favourite was the unknown guy who, walking home after a draw with Wasps, blamed the defeat on Ben Morgan – partly for missing tackle for one of their tries. After he had gone off.

He then criticised Ruan Ackermann for being granted a short mid-season rest.

How could a pro sportsman earning decent wages need a rest, he argued? Akin to the utterly ridiculous argument – seen countless times in the last few days – that Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius can take the mental anguish and quite shocking online abuse following his errors in the Champions League final, just because he earns a lot of money.

Having opted not to run into him repeatedly (there is, even mid weight loss, quite a lot of me) and arrange to do the same on a weekly basis to see at what point he needed a rest, pointed out the still young back-row forward had not missed a game up to that point and had not had a break after reaching the Super 14 final with the Lions in South Africa, my unhappy companion thought for a second and dismissed my observation.

“He didn’t play for the Lions,” he argued. “He couldn’t, he’s South African.”

As he stormed off ahead before my explanation there was more than one Lions, the woman with him turned to me, shrugged, considered an explanation but simply shrugged again, smiled and sloped off in his wake, resigned to a long night.

Gloucester’s season was not the only thing coming to an end. The G section of the A-Z of the iPod reached its conclusion, all 498 tracks from The Lemonheads to The Kills.

It was a relatively short sprint with some old favourites in The Lemonheads, The Clash (Guns of Brixton – twice – and Groovy Times),  REM (Green Grow The Rushes) and Half Man Half Biscuit (Gubba-Look-A-Likes) plus less frequent, but very welcome, visitors in I Am Kloot (Great Escape), Stornoway (The Great Procrastinator), Charlotte Hatherley (Grey Will Fade) and Drive-By Truckers (Guns of Umpqua).

And there was some classic country, two versions of Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs… which always takes me back to a US road trip and a cover version in a bar during a memorable night in Austin, Texas.

You’ve got to do something when there’s no rugby.

* Two more have been announced between writing this and posting it.

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For Everyfield There’s Mole to Freed Pig

I’m never gonna be the handyman around the house my father was
So don’t be asking me to hang a curtain rail for you, because
Screwdriver business just gets me confused
It takes me half an hour to change a fuse
And when I flicked the switch the lights all blew
Billy Bragg – Handyman’s Blues

AS so often, Billy’s got a point. My Dad could mend a fuse, hang a curtain rail, heck he even built an extension on our house and converted the attic into my teenage bedroom.

Me? Not so much.

He tried to teach me. We built a picnic table together which stood for years in the back garden, much to the amusement of the neighbours when they drove up the road to see a Labrador looking over the fence having used the bench as a step to climb on top.

But my main role was labourer, digging the footings for the extension on the back of the house  or cutting down, removing the roots and shifting the extremely heavy trunk of flowering cherry tree which was getting a bit close to the front of house for comfort.

The trunk stayed in the garage for years because “one day I’ll do something with it” and it was still heavy every time he cleared out the garage (one full Sunday about every three months) and when we did it one final time before selling.

Maybe rugby wasn’t to blame for the bad back.

Dad was not the perfect handyman. There was normally one final job on each scheme which was never finished, usually involving a door knob.

For years we had to open a couple of doors with a screwdriver, which was a bit awkward whenever visitors wanted to use the bathroom and resulted in my sister getting stuck in a dark, cramped downstairs cupboard.

If any of my efforts were actually passable with the help of a screwdriver, that would be a major success.

No, that was one thing he never passed on.

What he did pass on in the genes was life as a Gloucester rugby fan.

In Gloucester, that’s not so much in the genes as in the water. Or the cider.

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There’s a sort of path to manhood well trodden over the years – a first trip to Gloucester’s other cathedral (more commonly known as Kingsholm) as a child, a spot of mini rugby, more trips to Castle Grim, school rugby, first forays into the heart of The Shed (home of the one-eyed – don’t look too closely, it might not be a figure of speech – passionate Cherry and White fan), Saturday afternoons not watching but playing at one of the selection of local clubs and, gradually, adjusting back to life among the faithful, roaring Glawsterrr with a distinct accent (and a growing number of rs) and passing on all the knowledge gained during that time on to a referee who surely must be ever so grateful.

The tale varies a bit. Some skip the playing – increasingly these days – and, whisper it quietly, some have made the switch from the round ball to the egg. They are the ones who call the touch judge lino.

Sure fans of every team will say the same, but it’s not been easy. Far from it.

Google the record defeat in finals of rugby’s major domestic competitions (please don’t) and Gloucester’s name appears. More than once. One of them after we had finished top of the league by 15 points in the regular season and had not played a meaningful game in weeks.

Last season we beat the reigning English and domestic champions. Again. Twice. We hammered the side that finished top of the league. Again. We won away at the side leading the French league who had not lost at home all season to book a place in the European Challenge Cup final. Again.

We were also the only side in the Aviva Premiership not to win consecutive league games all season. We lost a 31-7 lead to lose our opening game. We lost from 12 points up with seven minutes to go later in the season.

That last one was followed by our coach pretty much quitting on Twitter. All part of a season which saw a proposed takeover blocked by rival clubs who, perish the thought, did not want one of their rivals being better funded.

We’ll get to the music. Eventually

And our star signing decided he did not want to come home from France to press his England claims, but preferred to stay in France. Where they pay really well.

This season? Well, so far so familiar. We beat the champions at home under our new coach on the opening day of the season and promptly lost the next two games on the road – the second courtesy of conceding 21 points in pretty much as many minutes to start the game.

Spotting a trend here?

Amid all this, some of our supporters seem to think the most important thing to worry about is that the club has been handed some much-needed money in exchange for putting a sponsor’s name in front of The Shed. Which we all call The Shed regardless.

And there’s the one-woman crusade to ensure the players properly acknowledge the fans after away games.

Would we have it any other way?

Yes, winning is nice. In fact, it’s great fun. Winning without biting your nails until the last moment is terrific. Or so we have been told.

But what cost would we put on the type of success, say, that Saracens’ fans have got used to in recent years?

Have nothing but admiration for the Saracens’ playing set-up. They have some fabulous players, superbly coached and playing to a system that they all buy into and commit to 100 per cent.

But…

Walked out of Kingsholm after we had played Saracens in the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season alongside some away fans.

Against all the odds, a team of fresh-faced kids and fringe players had come from nowhere at half-time to snatch a dramatic late victory against a side shorn of their international stars, but still expected to win. They always are.

It was, as the realisation of what could happen dawned on the inhabitants of The Shed, one of my favourite moments of the season. Not just the victory, but the delight and realisation of what they had just achieved on the faces of the young players.

And walking away from the ground with the Saracens fans, the older two asked the younger – probably late teens, presumably the son – what he had made of his first visit to Kingsholm. It was, they assured him, one of the best places to watch rugby.

That’s not the way he saw it. Where was the entertainment? Where was the music? Wasn’t it unfair on Saracens that the home crowd made that much noise? And shouted at the referee? And it was unfair that they had lost (he seriously said that).

Do we want that? An expectation that winning is the only thing. That we are there to be royally entertained (rugby aside), before, during and after the match. And that victory is his right as part of the admission price.

Or does all that frustration, heartache and slightly shambolic nature somewhere at the heart of the club make every little victory that much sweeter?

Probably. Especially if we could win something a bit  more regularly.

Dinosaur Jr

Whatever the answer, the faithful will be back there tomorrow when we face Worcester for that dreaded event – a game we are expected to win.

It’s in the genes, you see. Not just me, my sister has – however much she tried to fight it – become infected and will be sat in the main stand. One or both of her daughters – both of whom have or do work for the club – may join her, while her son will be working in the press box as part of the club’s media team (where did he get the idea to work in the world of rugby press?).

And her husband will be stood alongside or more likely, for some reason, just behind me as part of our little gang in The Shed. Trying not to call the touch judge lino.

He would certainly approve of the latest section of tracks on the A-Z journey through my iPod (remember, what this blog is actually about before certain diversions) from Bonnie Prince Billy to The Breeders as we get nearer to the end of another letter.

We have stood next to each other at gigs by Sugar (Fortune Teller) and Half Man Half Biscuit (For What Is Chatteris) and would have done at Art Brut (Formed A Band, twice) who both of us came to late as homework after snagging review tickets for a Gloucester gig which was cancelled.

There were other highlights in a short section – A Forest by The Cure,  Four Flights Up by Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Frank Mills by The Lemonheads (a throwaway album track which is always the one that ends up stuck in your brain), Freak Scene by Dinosaur Jr and Freakin Out by Graham Coxon.

Although at least one friend has a similar view of Coxon that a young Saracens fan has to life in The Shed.

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Antistar to Ashes of American Flags

THE past week has been dominated by departures – one expected but with a string of problems, the other unexpected but with a hint of better times ahead (well, hopefully).

Both have taken up the bulk of my time, thoughts and conversations, over the last few days, meaning this entry has been delayed and taken us a fair bit further along my A-Z journey through my iPod.

Departure number one saw the tenants leave my house in Cardiff.

Installed four years ago while the house stood empty on my overland journey from London to New York (helped by a string of calls and e-mails between Cardiff and China which had the agents trying endlessly to calculate time differences), they remained as my return to the Welsh capital was shortlived.

April_Skies_(single) Even as their latest contract ran out, that was one issue ahead of heading to Africa which looked simple – they sign another one and worries about paying my mortgage were sorted. That was until they announced out of the blue they weren’t signing and were moving out.

And move out they did, seemingly by grabbing a few bits and pieces, walking out the door and heading to pastures new.

At least, that’s how it appears, judging by what they have left strewn across the uncleaned house and unkempt garden, sadly bereft of a few pieces of my furniture which seem to have walked out of the door with them.

The constant amending of to-do lists for Africa, this blog and life in general has been replaced by a to-do list for sorting out the house, but only after a few very deep breaths to calm down.

As well as anger, their actions and attitude in leaving the house in such a state totally amazes me – how can anybody not be consumed by embarrassment to leave somebody else’s house in that condition?

When the time comes later this year, my flat will be attacked from all angles by an array of cleaning products and, bar a few dusty bits and one or two difficult to access places in the bathroom, it is already in a pretty presentable state.

Having just about calmed down from a trip to confirm what the agents had told me – via a journey that included an almost hour-long traffic jam in Chepstow, of all places, which helped scoot the A-Z journey along at a healthy pace and past the 400 mark (Apple Blossom by The White Stripes) – the second departure crept up on us on Monday morning.

The sacking of Nigel Davies as Gloucester’s director of rugby was not totally out of the blue – after all, the season has disappointed from start to finish and Saturday’s closing defeat at relegated Worcester was, frankly, laughable as the Cherry and Whites mixed touches of genius with splashes of ineptitude.

While the loud-mouthed bloke behind me at Worcester will not be alone in celebrating Davies’ departure (his main reason being that the outgoing boss is Welsh), his reading of the situation was remarkably misplaced and badly informed.

This, after all, was a man who only realised in the second half when he could see the names and numbers on the players’ backs that he had been slagging off the wrong player for 40 minutes while claiming that flanker Matt Kvesic had only made about three tackles all season and should be sold. His tackle numbers actually put Kvesic fourth in the entire league.

Personally, with reinforcements arriving, my opinion was that Davies deserved time next season to shape what is finally his squad – not short on talent this term, but lacking in depth and, at crucial times, leadership and direction – probably until the Six Nations at least.

But, having made the decision, the board were right to act quickly – stay or go, this could not drag on all summer.

And they now need not only to find the right man, but the right structure. Davies spent a lot of time during the season working on bringing in those signings and, from a distance, that was time Gloucester needed him sorting out the problems on the pitch – two jobs, one man just didn’t add up.

Of course, this poor season (and when we have had bad seasons before it was, unlike this one, largely expected) coincided with my first season ticket in four decades of watching rugby at Kingsholm, the first time when playing, working, travelling or living away did not keep me away from Castle Grim for long periods.

Fellow fans will be delighted that being in Africa for most of the season will mean no renewal.

So, that’s the background to the last few days, what has been the soundtrack?

wilco-ashes-of-american-flags-dvd-338-300Starting with the new longest so far (Antistar at Massive Attack comes in at 19.41, but more than half of that is largely silence bar a few background beats), we have seen classic first  entries by The Housemartins (Anxious), The Jesus and Mary Chain (April Skies, which a friend once tried to teach me the bassline to, without success) and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (Are Your Ready To Be Heartbroken?).

Also popping up for the first time – and blowing away a few emotions on the drive back from Cardiff – were At The Drive-In with Arc Arsenal while Prefab Sprout’s Appetite gave a more gentle first touch from their Steve McQueen masterpiece (the first side of which is almost flawless) and A-Punk by Vampire Weekend slipped from the opening track of the whole countdown on a previous attempt to somewhere near 400.

Arseholes, The Shirehorse’s much preferable version of Robbie Williams’ Angels, provided a rather different direction while The Clash and Joe Strummer have different readings of Armagideon Time.

To wrap it all up on a high note, Wilco provided two versions (live and original) of probably my favourite song of theirs, Ashes of American Flags.

And blasting that out on the drive home from work was enough to provide a great end to a testing few days.

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