Sweet FA

gun__1230630759_facup2009

I am often asked why I prefer to watch grass roots sport as opposed to the high profile, heavily hyped professional versions with supposedly more skilful, talented and famous players. There are two main reasons. Firstly, it is a lot cheaper – generally the cost of a pint for admission and in many cases completely free. Secondly, the majority players are all local and genuinely want to play for their clubs. They don’t get paid a great deal and in most cases actually pay for the right to play, therefore the true passion is there. In football there is practically no play-acting, diving or surrounding the referee – except maybe from the odd youngster attempting to emulate their premiership heroes in the early stage of their careers – and in most cases the coaches soon put a stop to that. Rugby at this level is simply a throwback to the good old days when the amateur game was all there was – when the only payments made were the occasional crisp notes slipped into a boot. There are no ex-international players nearing retirement or overpaid rejects from other clubs on view – and it doesn’t cost £100 to take the family along.

Last season I volunteered my services to two local radio stations, spending most of my weekends commentating on games at lower league football and rugby grounds in Gloucestershire. The aim was to promote grass roots sport in the area and make people realise just what they were missing that was right on their doorsteps. The reaction of fans and players was fantastic – instead of just a few meagre column inches a week in the local paper they were able to listen to a radio show completely dedicated to their team. Unfortunately, this season I am unable to commit my time to regular commentaries, however that doesn’t mean that I won’t be continuing to attend as many games as possible and offer my support.

Yesterday I paid a visit once again to the closest football club to my home; Tuffley Rovers in Gloucester. After many years of suffering in the doldrums they won promotion back into the Hellenic Premier last season after a 10 year absence. As a result, they were eligible to enter the FA Cup. Two weeks ago they went to Ardley United and came away with an excellent 4-1 victory. The reward? A prime home tie with local rivals Bishop Cleeve – an established side one step above Tuffley in the Football League structure.

The game epitomised all that grass roots sport is about. Two teams intent on throwing everything into the game. Plenty of aggression, loads of controversy, mistimed tackles, well timed tackles, end to end action and the occasional glimpse of awesome quality from both sets of players. The atmosphere was electric. Watching Tuffley’s manager Warren Evans on the touchline was worth the admission fee on its own. His humour, banter and passion for the game summed up what sport at this level is all about. Tuffley eventually won the game with a solitary goal from their captain Ashley Davies and in good old FA Cup tradition adopted the mantle of giant-killers. Officially the crowd was 149 – although as word got around, there were a lot more locals surrounding the pitch during the last 15 minutes screaming at the players or playfully abusing the officials. Given a choice of watching a game like this or a bunch of ‘fly by night’ overpaid prima donnas there is only one option for me every time.

Advertisements

Union versus League

Last night I watched two games of rugby featuring teams for whom I share a passing interest.  Both of my favoured teams won – in what were described by the respective commentators as ‘classics’.  One game involved open running rugby, aggression, wonderful handling skills, controversy and had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. The other game was stop/start, full of aimless kicking and I even had the time to pop into the kitchen; fix myself a drink, cook a pizza, pop to the toilet and still not miss a thing.  Both codes of rugby were on view; but only one managed to genuinely capture my interest.

Both Rugby Union and Rugby League have gone though many changes in the last 20 years. As a lad I would watch league on the television, racking my brains how anyone would want to play or watch such a one-dimensional game and counting my blessings that I had been born in the Rugby Union heartland of South Wales, where Union was king and I had the opportunity to watch genuine world class players with a short bus trip to Cardiff, Newport or Pontypool.  Even the likes of Newbridge and Ebbw Vale provided players for Wales.  Each team had their own style of play, ranging from downright thuggery and forward power, to fluid running rugby with guile and class.  Such a wealth of choice at very little cost. How fortunate I was. For the last 30 years, as fate would have it, I’ve always lived 50 miles away from my beloved Newport. Firstly in Swansea; then in Gloucester.  Nevertheless, up until 10 years ago, when regional rugby was introduced in Wales I would travel to the majority of games involving Newport RFC. Season tickets were always reasonably priced, and away games weren’t too far to drive.  Then things changed dramatically.  Newport Gwent Dragons were formed; Newport RFC fell by the wayside and all of a sudden away games involved trips to Scotland and Ireland, local rivalries went out of the window, games were played on Friday nights at ridiculous times and the people I stood next to every week on the terraces had voted with their feet. I also decided that the new structure wasn’t for me.  A huge gap in my life had opened. How was I going to fill it?

As with all sports, I have always been willing to give Rugby League an opportunity. Various attempts were made to launch the code in South Wales – and I went along on a few occasions. Alas, the variety was missing – even the likes or Steve Fenwick and Tommy David couldn’t capture my imagination. I remember watching Wales versus England at Ninian Park with a bunch of mates back in the early 80s. The game was so dull we came home feeling short-changed, bored to tears throughout and feeling sorry for the Northerners who were subjected to such tripe season after season.  Rugby League had always been a joke to me. I regularly quipped about that it was 80 minutes of men trying to shag the ground. Then one evening back in 2003, when I would usually have been watching or driving back from a match involving Newport RFC, I switched on Sky Sports. I simply could not believe it. What the hell had happened to Rugby League? What were all these new rule changes. ‘Bloody hell!”, I thought to myself, ‘they’re actually passing the ball… and offloading.” The pace of the game was incredible. I had no allegiance to either team and knew none of the players, but what a game I saw. Suffice to say I tuned in every week to Super League that season., and have done ever since. Given an option I generally plump for watching League over Union if there is ever a scheduling clash. Union has become very predictable in recent years. Even the kits all look the same. Why this insistence on predominantly black shirts with club colours as trimmings? Scrums take an age to set and the kicking game has become so dominant that the ‘ball in hand’ time during a game has become minimal. Kick tennis is rife, lineouts are generally farcically non-competitive now that lifting is allowed and game plans are basically the same for every team. One saving grace is the enforcement of the straight put-in at the scrum – as it was becoming very much like watching a rugby league scrum. Yes, that is the one area that still annoys me in League, however judging by the innovations introduced in the modern game, it is likely to receive a major overhaul some time in the future.

Admittedly union wise, watching Wales win three grand slams, last year’s Six Nations and reach the semi-finals of the World Cup has been wonderful – and has made me proud to be Welsh. However it hasn’t always been pretty, I have sat though numerous games bored rigid. If it hadn’t been for my fierce national pride I would more than likely switched it off after only a few minutes and turned over to watch the Rugby League. In fact on a few occasions – I did.