I’ve lived in Gloucester or near Gloucester for the past 30 years. One thing you realise fairly early on is that the local populace are very, very keen on rugby.
As a teenager, my Saturday afternoons were usually occupied playing rugby, even though I lived in North London, a hotbed of football. It must be said, on weekends when I didn’t play, I was either at Highbury watching Arsenal, or at Southgate, supporting Saracens, where I had my first experience of Gloucester fans.
Watching Saracens was an almost surreal experience. We would catch the 107 bus through High Barnet and up Cat Hill to the playing field, behind a wire mesh fence; just like the ones you get surrounding tennis courts. You could stand on the pavement and watch the game, but it only seemed fair to step through the gate to watch the match. Whereupon a man would demand an entrance fee of 50p, programme included. At the time, Saracens were a mediocre team with a few good players; in fact, their prop forward, Clint McGregor, came very close to being the first black England player. Crowds rarely topped 300. Unless Gloucester were the visitors, when coachload after coachload of supporters would arrive at the ground. I can remember seeing lots of tweed jacketed, cloth capped, walking stick wielding fans disembarking and heading for the grandstand. They also made a distinctive noise- like rather excited crows, they would shout ‘arrr’ a lot, though in hindsight it was probably ‘Glaaarster.’ I can also recall how impressed I was with the mutton chops a lot of their fans wore. They were passionate, funny, and irreverent and more like football fans than rugby fans.
Little did I know that I would be one of them in later life.
But what is it that makes Gloucester fans so different from any other rugby fan?
Firstly, Gloucester is an area where rugby rules. Football, with all its pomp and self-importance across the rest of the land, is treated with indifference or disdain. Football is regarded as a game played by effeminate cheats who fall over feigning injury for no reason whilst being watched by complete morons. The favoured description of said sport is ‘Wendyball.’ Rugby, on the other hand, is a part of nearly everybody’s lives. You either play rugby, used to play rugby, have a relative who plays rugby or watch rugby.
This means that unlike other areas of the country, rugby union is the chosen sport for the masses, which brings with it a passion and partisanship rarely seen across the rest of England.
Gloucester rugby fans have sometimes been unfairly compared to football fans. I can see the similarities, but I have never heard any racist or abusive chants from a rugby crowd. There is definitely a cruel streak, as I’ll reveal, but most of the comments can be regarded as banter.
I remember my first experience of a Gloucester home game. A neighbour invited me along one Wednesday night to watch Gloucester entertain Ebbw Vale. The rain poured down. Peering through the gloom, I could make out a pile of bodies, steaming, with an occasional glimpse of the ball. Meanwhile, down in one corner of the pitch, a Gloucester player sat astride a poor unfortunate Welshman, pummelling his face with his fists. The referee seemed oblivious to this, allowing play to continue. But one thing that really impressed me was the crowd – thousands of people! Watching rugby! On a Wednesday night!
What’s more, I came to realise this crowd had a sense of humour. Great, nay legendary players have been brought down to size by the Gloucester crowd’s comments.
This all seems par for the course, until you go to an away game. Every year, Master Johnny and I go to Adams Park, home to London Wasps, the club supported by Gerald, my old fag from school. More often than not, I find myself with Gloucester and Wasps fans all mixed up. Now, Wasps is a Home Counties crowd. Rugby in the Home Counties is a gentleman’s game, regarded as a polite, middle class pastime, where the best team wins. Rugby in Gloucester is a religion, regarded as an extension of everyday life, played by all classes, where Gloucester win. The clash of cultures can be both alarming and illuminating.
I remember one particular match where the lady in front was most put out by the travelling Gloucester fans.
“My god, why do they have to shout so loudly,” she complained, covering her ears to the incessant chant of ‘Glaaaaa —- ster, Glaaaaa—ster”…
Wasps were awarded a penalty. Their outside half at the time was Danny Cipriani, the playboy rugby player who had recently been in the news for mistakenly seducing a transsexual.
Cipriani placed the ball carefully on its tee and paced back to take his kick. Just before the customary silence to respect the kick, a chant rose from the Gloucester fans, to the tune of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” by Middle of the Road.
“Where’s yer ladyboy, where’s yer ladyboy?” sang the Gloucester faithful. Lady in front bristled. Cipriani missed, eliciting the trademark donkey noises that are unique to the Gloucester support.
Lady in front nearly exploded.
“They’re making animal noises now!” she exclaimed, in a state of total disbelief.
Sitting in the Millennium Stadium a couple of years later at the Wales/England match, Wales missed an easy penalty. “Eee-yore!” my small group of friends chanted. Other England fans chuckled.
“I see the Gloucester Crew have arrived!” one said.
This partisanship and irreverence means that Gloucester fans are both respected and reviled. No player or team are spared, however good they may be. Toby Flood, Leicester and England outside half, likes to take his time over penalty kicks. First choice for England he may be, but it didn’t stop a solitary Gloucester fan breaking the silence with a cry of, “Get on with it, you lanky git.”
Referees are often berated with a chant of “You don’t know what you’re doing” if they appear to be favouring the opposition with their decisions.
The biggest mistake I ever saw a referee make provoked a spontaneous reaction from the Gloucester crowd. Earlier in the day, Sky TV had been handing out miniature foam rugby balls as part of their promotion. 20 minutes into the game, Gloucester kicked the ball into touch in front of the famous Gloucester stand, known as ‘The Shed.’ As the teams organised themselves for the line out, the referee realised the match ball was missing. Without thinking, he created the shape of an oval with his hands, indicating he wanted a ball to be supplied. It took him a second to realise what he had done, before disappearing under a hail of hundreds of miniature foam rugby balls thrown at him from The Shed. It took ages to clear them all off the pitch.
But something that happened recently motivated me to write this blog. I went to watch Master Johnny’s school, Sir Thomas Rich’s, play their local rivals, St Peter’s. Both schools have a fine pedigree when it comes to rugby, supplying Gloucester with many players, past and present. Until last season, Tommy’s hadn’t beaten St Peter’s for 14 years on the trot.
Tommy’s were playing at home, so the sixth form were duly sent out to support the team, being followed at the end of school by all the other year groups. Tommy’s is an all-boys grammar school (girls can join in the sixth form), regarded as one of the best state schools in the country. The pupils are studious, polite and charitable girls and boys. Standing on the touchline in their smart blue blazers, they respectfully applauded the arrival of the opposing St Peter’s team onto the field. The roar that met the appearance of the Tommy’s team was deafening and passionate.
The match kicked off, Tommy’s fly half kicking high towards the St Peter’s 22. Again the roar went up in anticipation, but the St Peter’s number 8 fumbled the ball. Cue ‘the animal noises,’ as Lady Wycombe of Wasps had described it. The match continued in the same vein, with chants of ‘Tommy’s ‘til I die’ and ‘When the blues go marching in’ ringing out around the playing field. But then a song rose from the ranks of our future managers and leaders of industry that I didn’t recognise, to the tune of that great Welsh hymn, ‘Guide Me Oh Great Redeemer’ or ‘Bread of Heaven,’ as it is commonly known.
“Where’s your rabbit, where’s your rabbit, where’s your rabbit Harry Barr? Where’s your rabbit Har-ry Barr…”
I was baffled. At every scrum and line out, they all sang this song at the top of their voices.
Sir Tommy’s went on to win the game and I met up with Master Johnny, who left the throng of students and joined me for a lift home.
“What were the words to the song you were singing?” I asked him.
“Oh, the sixth formers started it,” he explained, “they were giving Harry Barr a bit of stick.”
“Why? What?” I was still puzzled.
Master Johnny drew a deep breath and smiled.
“Well, Harry used to be at Tommy’s, but decided to go to study at St. Peter’s sixth form. He’s a good player and they were upset he left.”
“What position was he playing?”
“But what’s all this about a rabbit?” I frowned, still intrigued.
Master Johnny continued.
“Harry Barr had a pet rabbit when he was in year 9. One day, he discovered that his rabbit had fallen awkwardly and had broken its back. So he did what any farmer’s son would have done. He drowned it.”
It took a few seconds for this shocking tale to sink in. I imagined a distraught 14 year old being forced to do the cruellest, kindest thing to a pet that he no doubt loved and cared for. I’m sure he would have looked to his friends for support, which, knowing Tommy’s boys, he would have got. But then, a few short years after, he leaves them, to join their rugby playing rivals across the city. The ultimate betrayal.
“Oh, that poor boy,” I said.
“Yeah,” replied Master Johnny, plunging his hands in his pockets and marching on ahead,
“But we won most of the scrums…”