Summer Song

Day 25 of the blog post a day in May challenge and we enter the final week with a touch of egg chasing.

“I put a note in my diary today. It simply says… ‘bugger’.

Captain Kevin Darling, Blackadder Goes Forth

THERE was a time on the way back from Gloucester’s Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens when today’s blog post was going to ape Captain Darling’s diary entry.

It wasn’t really the way the season was meant to end, going down 44-19 and, to be frank, not really being in the contest for much of the 80 minutes.

But ‘bugger’ does not really do the positive mood among Gloucester fans justice – and they are not normally too slow in having a good moan. Think we had enough time knowing the outcome was inevitable to come to terms with it.

It is perhaps a fitting epitaph to today’s game, but not to this season which has been studded with highlights and third place, our highest finish for… look, it’s late, it’s been a long day. Do you really want me to look it up? Trust me, it’s been a while.

We beat the top two (one of them twice), didn’t lose to our biggest rivals, returned to the play-offs and the top level of European competition without being embarrassed (safe to say that, the one heavy defeat was the only home game without me in The Shed all season).

And we have welcomed new stars from the Southern Hemisphere (Franco Mostert is on his way to a statue in the city centre which is likely to tackle passers-by, get up and keep on doing it) and just down the road – try of the season scorer Ollie Thorley, once of Cheltenham College.

Familiar faces like Ben Morgan have shown their true worth (even the bloke behind me in The Shed seems to have stopped complaining about him) while Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain have performed wonders as, for a long time, the only fit, experienced props.

And then there’s Danny Cipriani.

The player of the season – don’t take our word for it, pretty much every individual award has gone his way – announced himself with a real ‘I was there’ moment with a ridiculous scoring pass in the home opener and (bar brief injury and suspension breaks) has not really let up compiling his personal highlight reel.

If only Eddie Jones felt the same way we do ahead of the World Cup – although, given events in Jersey and Munster, maybe a good job if we don’t let him head off to play on another island.

Yep, it’s been a good season but let’s not kid ourselves – we were, by some distance, second best today.

Saracens are a formidable outfit who have hit top form at the right time, claiming a third European Champions Cup success two weeks ago and bringing that form into today’s clash.

Which serves as a reminder, if anyone needed it, that there’s a long way to go for Gloucester.

Johan Ackermann has just completed his second full season as head coach – his opposite number Mark McCall has been there a decade and has built an extraordinary machine crammed with top-notch players (Maro Itoje was remarkable today while if Ben Spencer is not in England’s World Cup squad, questions need to be asked).

That’s a lot of ground to make up on the pitch, that we travelled with a degree of hope shows how far we have come.

And we travelled in numbers – reckon at least half of the 9,500 crowd were clad in Cherry and White. Which is a remarkably low number for the champions of Europe in a semi-final of the top domestic competition.

Don’t want to knock Saracens or their fans, the vast majority of whom were welcoming, fun and enjoyed the occasion with us – every club has a few cocks, we certainly do, and the less said about the one by us who decided to celebrate tries in such confrontational fashion the better.

One question though. When cruising to a final place, do you really need to be urged to ‘make some noise’ over the tannoy throughout the final quarter? Kingsholm would have been rocking throughout.

Not the place then for the bloke sat next to me who got upset his conversation was interrupted by shouts of “Glawster, Glawster…”.

To the rest of the Saracens fans who were excellent, good luck in the final.

To the Gloucester fans licking their wounds, let’s end this in the finest possible style (if not the best quality)…

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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.

Home

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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A Few Months to Fool’s Errand

ONCE upon a time, my working world extended rather further than my desk and the screen in front of me.

Sure, most of my time was spent tapping away at a keyboard, laying out pages and ensuring newspapers got out on time without anything that could have meant any legal implications (the part of my job many keyboard warriors who just slap things online unchecked can never understand).

But back in the day, Saturday afternoons – which shows how long ago this was – and more than occasional midweek evenings were spent peering out over a rugby pitch, pad in hand.

Facilities varied widely. Reports were filed standing on top of a radio van in a storm to peer over a crowd lining the side of the pitch, from phones with no view of the pitch, sat next to a fire on a sofa in one press box, surrounded by increasingly drunken fans blocking the view and even, on more than one occasion, on the bench. Thankfully, never got on.

Ebbw Vale, 1961

Among my favourite places to cover matches was Eugene Cross Park, home of Ebbw Vale, which became my regular Saturday haunt for a few seasons.

It was a typical Welsh club ground, cricket pitch off to one end, a wonderful, steep terrace cut into the valley running the length of one side and a loyal following of familiar faces and supply of sweets from a fellow press box regular in return for spotting all the substitutions.

The Steelmen had  a pretty good side at the time, guided by a future Grand Slam-winning coach, supplying a number of Welsh internationals and reaching a Welsh Cup final. Played, bizarrely, in Bristol and the only time I turned up late for a game when working.

It also came with its own climate and you could spot those who were not used to it – interviewed great All Black Zinzan Brooke as he shivered in shorts and a T-shirt after a pre-season friendly against Harlequins in August. Those of us in the know were clad in multiple fleeces kept in the car for trips to the head of the valley, however glorious the weather was just 20-odd miles away.

Emergency office

There were frequent sprints (yep, long time ago) to the phone box up the road to phone in reports to other papers for a few quid – no chance of a mobile signal up there – and an interview with one of the players through a blocked door as he carried out a post-match drugs test.

Was even accused by some of the faithful of brokering a move for two of their international players to Gloucester when financial problems hit. May have answered a few questions about Gloucester and broke the story, but that’s as far as it went. Agent’s cut would have been nice.

Things have changed. Ebbw Vale don’t produce internationals anymore, although they more than hold their own at the semi-professional level, and my rugby watching is much closer to home – bizarrely, a row in front one of those former players at Kingsholm at a pre-season game which saw a rare move from The Shed to a seat in the stand.

But the town has popped back up in my consciousness in recent months, courtesy of what is a fairly clear leader in my list of albums of the year and which has popped up a few times in the A-F catch-up on the A-Z journey through my iPod.

Have liked Public Service Broadcasting before. When they get it right, their blend of samples from old films, TV and news reports over a carefully-built soundscape – ooh, feel slightly queasy writing that – is excellent.

But it’s been more the odd track rather than album that’s caught my attention, more the first than the more widely-favoured follow-up Race for Space.

And then they released Every Valley, recorded in a makeshift studio in the town’s former workers’ institute.

It is, quite simply, a work of art (ooh, drifting off in to slightly pretentious critic territory now) as it explores the culture, high hopes, crushing collapse and determination of the mining industry with liberal sprinklings of Welshness,  from the unmatched voice of Richard Burton, through contemporary soundbites from miners and wives, a dash of the native language to a male voice choir for the finale, perfectly pitched to deliver one final emotional punch.

The music has the ability to get in your head, those soundscapes (stop it, now) working alongside the samples rather than overpowering them and at times veering in to Mogwai and even, bear with me here, Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory. The gentle border territory.

The guest vocals of James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers – from just down the road in Blackwood – is maybe the one track which sits slightly uneasily on the journey which needs to be made from start to finish. No shuffling, always the mark of a good album.

There’s been a couple of tracks from the album in this catch-up, the title track and All Out, where it hits the heart of the strike.

Arcade Fire

We’ve had a fair amount of Arcade Fire – not quite sure what to make of their latest album, but the fact it has not caught hold of my attention probably says it all.

Among others, there’s been the debut from Girl Ray – the band which features an old friend’s daughter, just to make me feel old – new stuff from the always interesting John Murry, comebacks from Ride and At The Drive-In and a couple from the latest Jason Isbell offering.

After releasing the couple of great albums we’ve been waiting for Ryan Adams to come up with for years, he appears to have released an album we’ve received more than once from Adams. It’s OK, but…

And then there’s The National.

Have mentioned before on this trip that they are a band which largely passed me by. For some reason, suggest they were dismissed as just one of a bunch of anodyne The… bands which were around at the time. So anodyne, can’t really remember who they were. The Script? The Feeling?

Various friends rave about them, one whose musical judgment is pretty trustworthy, but they continued to pass me by although they snuck in to my collection courtesy of a few borrowed CDs from an ex-flatmate which went largely unheard.

They pricked my attention early in the journey when they seemed to pop up very regularly, but vanished just as quickly. Until now.

Their new album is pretty bloody good. At its best – Day I Die on this stretch – it is very good and while it doesn’t all live up to that, there’s enough to keep dragging me back and delve into that back catalogue.

In among starting on G…

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