Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Where have all the Elver Eaters* gone?

Talk of gnarly, old-school, Glawster props in the post the other day brought home to me how I no longer care very much how Glaws get on. I grew up playing rugby in and around Gloucester, one of the few English cities that has more rugby than football clubs, and have always followed the side.

The reason for my disaffection is quite simple: there are virtually no locals in the team any more. I looked at last weekend's squad and the only Gloucestershire player was Adam Eustace - and he was on the bench. This contrasts with the make-up of the team when I was growing up. Twenty years ago I'd been to school with Gloucester players, I'd known them at my local club before they'd moved on and I'd been taught by them.

But the loss of a personal link isn't the real reason - this was bound to happen with my getting older and moving away. It's more that there's no particularity to the club's players and playing style any more. They're a group of mobile international mercenaries and they play however the coach of the day requires.

It used to be that Gloucester were a famously hard side who played an uncompromising brand of forward-based rugby. The club's outstanding players were usually nuggety, grim-faced, sometimes quite nasty players (what's not to like?). Mike Burton, Phil Blakeway, Steve Mills, Malcolm Preedy, John Gadd, Mike Teague are names that spring to mind: all archetypal Gloucester forwards.

The hardness came from Gloucester being a bit of a tough place - more Midlands metal-bashing and coastal port than West Country picturesque despite the Cathedral - with a catchment area that included funny old, rough old places like the Forest of Dean and Stroud as well as plenty of farming country full of horny-handed bale-bumpers. Playing regular fixtures against the clubs of South Wales also helped (Gloucester players' memoirs feature a coming-of-age moment when they get shoed all over the field by some enraged miners).

The flip side of this was disdain for fancy dan rugby and fancy dan teams. Twickenham-based Harlequins, a club of the public schools and the City, was a favourite opponent on which to express this sentiment.

The offshoot sport of sevens wasn't treated at all seriously as a consequence, either. I remember one Saturday night at my local rugby club being joined by a coach-load of Gloucester players on their way to an end-of-season Twickenham sevens tournament. The coach, the magnificent Keith Richardson, ordered pints of Guinness for all of them, which were topped up from a few bottles of port they were carrying. Periodically, he would circle round the players flashing Rothmans from a more than adequate stock poking out of his blazer pockets.

We had a good chat with them - I remember Ian Smith, who played for Scotland at the time (his Dad was Scottish) being a particularly nice chap. And I did wonder how this pre-tournament preparation would set them up. I remembered to check how they'd got on in Monday's paper: they were knocked out in the first round.

I suspect the contemporary team have similar fun but probably much less frequently what with diets and professionalism. However, regardless of how they behaved - even if they were to visit my local club on the odd occasion - I still wouldn't feel any link to them. They're an anonymous amalgamation of English players from around the country, with the odd Scot, Welshman and Frenchman and a sprinkling of Pacific Islanders: a profile that's exactly like every other team.

I'm probably an exception. I recognise that I do have an unusual relish for history, provenance and particularities. And the crowds are probably higher now than they've ever been. But, nevertheless, I don't think there can be any doubt that something worthwhile has been lost.

* A very old nickname for Gloucester rugby players, from the baby eels that swim up the river and still sometimes end up in frying pans.


Brit said...

The simple answer is professionalism. It's wrecked/improved* rugby as much as the money and foreigners have wrecked/improved* football.

*delete according to preference.

One odd thing about professionalism is that players seemed to get injured much more now they're so fit.

Anonymous said...

This is why i can't understand loyalty to a particular football team. Not just that i don't understand football but why support Man U when most of its players aren't even English? i don't get it.

Brit said...

Elb - because players, managers and owners are transitory anyway. The tribe is loyal to the Club.

Gaw said...

I'm with Elb on this. The club is now a hollowed-out concept, it's the branded shell worn by a leisure business and I personally can't maintain the fiction that it's anything more.

Brit said...

How is it possible for John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood to slate the board and management of his club, yet still be a 'supporter'? It's because like all supporters what he really worships is a Platonic ideal of Portsmouth Football Club, which has never existed and yet has always existed.

Gaw said...

But he's nuts, don't you know. I think something that was close to the ideal of Portsmouth football club did exist and the current club is still living off the emotional capital created back then.

Brit said...

I'm not so cynical as that re: most football clubs. Owning a football club is a really, really bad way to make money, and for most owners they make their money elsewhere and run the club for romantic reasons.

Jackart said...

Leicester (pah) and Northampton have been pretty good at nurturing local talent. But I fear it's an inevitable flip side of a professional game.

Gaw said...

Jackart: What's strange is that Glaws produced any number of top three teams over the years full of local talent. Where are these players now? Do they not exist? Or are they still playing for Longlevens, Stroud, Berry Hill, etc? Bad for England, probably.