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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'How difficult must it be to be a Glaws fan and keep frustrations in check?'

Mick Cleary: 'How difficult must it be to be a Glaws fan and keep frustrations in check?'
2 months ago

The champagne moment, the lifting of a trophy, the spray, the joy, the jumping up and down, the singing of silly songs, the banging of boots, the feeling that it’s all been worthwhile and that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will dawn bright and fair – it’s amazing how dizzying yet potentially delusional winning a final can be. You should never look to downplay such things – for what is the point of sport if it is not to accumulate as many such moments as possible, for player and fan alike – but nor should you get carried away by them, take refuge in the exhilaration and ecstasy and ignore the cold reality. Welcome to Gloucester Rugby, a tale of (possibly) two Cups, a dodgy league programme and an utter humiliation in Northampton.

If they can navigate winless Newcastle Falcons this weekend, is the Challenge Cup final more than the sum of its parts? Is it last chance saloon for George Skivington? Can it wipe the slate clean, wash away the 90-0 stain of Franklin’s Gardens? Is there the slightest chance of there being redemption in the north London air, a stay of execution for Skivington? Can 80 minutes of uplift compensate for months of flat-lining? Many Gloucester fans have already made up their minds, have already checked out, the Franklin’s fiasco proving to be the last straw. Skivington is in the crosshairs with many fingers twitching on the trigger.

At one level, the Challenge Cup final against the Sharks at the Tottenham Stadium a week Friday is little more than a consolation prize, a bit of icing on a soggy-bottomed cake. And it is far from a gimme. There will be a crowd, there will be the bright lights of the occasion and there will be a South African team in opposition. Never mind the logistical factors in Gloucester’s favour, a couple of hours drive away rather than a long-haul flight, nor the imbalance in support from the stands. No matter the circumstances, South African sides do not tend to flap the matador’s cloak and allow opponents to simply step through them. Gloucester will have a scrap on their hands.

A young Gloucester side were embarrassed against Northampton, losing 90-0 (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

What will it mean if they do prevail? A lot on the night but not enough to consider inserting gloss into Glos. This has been a drab, matt-finish season. Cup triumphs are not to be downgraded but they have always played second fiddle to league competitions, the true barometer of a team’s worth. In that regard, Gloucester have had another stinker, right down among the dead men in ninth place, adrift from all those above and spared total ignominy by the hapless case that is Newcastle Falcons. That is the stark truth of the matter.

Rather like Friday night’s hosts, Spurs, Gloucester ought to be doing better. That said, whatever the sport, no club has a God-given right to succeed as those of us born under a Birmingham City nightscape can testify. Financial backing makes a difference in football, for obvious reasons, but even then it is the proper, shrewd use of it that is the key factor. In rugby the terrain ought to be more equitable, the playing field more level as a result of the salary cap.

Kingsholm remains one of the most engaging and vivid places to visit on match day with their supporters’ long-suffering affection for the club all too clear. Come wind, rain, sleet or snow, they’ll be there.

Gloucester are not alone in the Premiership in being in debt but the fact of the matter is that they have not maximised natural advantages such as being that rarest of things, a rugby city with a devoted following. They have not had to find and build a fan base as a Sale Sharks have had to do or come to terms with a whole new ball game of top-tier, tooled-up professional rugby as Exeter Chiefs have managed to do so productively over the last decade.

Kingsholm remains one of the most engaging and vivid places to visit on match day with their supporters’ long-suffering affection for the club all too clear. Come wind, rain, sleet or snow, they’ll be there. You might imagine that they would be up in arms at their team’s failure to land anything like the Big One – a Premiership title or the Champions Cup – but there had been a tacit acceptance among the rank and file until the Day of Shame. These are now knife-edge stakes. There has not yet been a clamouring at the gates as there has been at an Old Trafford or sundry other football grounds where there is unease about the club’s fortunes or the ownership.

George Skivington
George Skivington has defended his selection and been backed by the Gloucester board after the result (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

How difficult must it be to be a Glaws fan? How difficult to keep frustrations in check? How agonising to see how clubs such as Exeter Chiefs from what we London-centric folk term ‘the westcountry’ have soared while Gloucester have, at best, trodden water? What have they done right that the Cherry and Whites have not? Well, if the formula for sporting success could be merely copied then everyone would be a 90s Wigan or Chicago Bulls or Champions League Real Madrid. It’s not one thing, one player (much as a Michael Jordan helps), one manager or one commercial infrastructure. Even Double-winning Exeter Chiefs have had to labour to become Exeter Chiefs Mark II (or might that even be Mark III?). How, indeed, did Saracens manage it, and never mind the tittering or harumphing at the back of the class for there was a lot more to the Sarries project that some fast-and-loose accounting.

There is, of course, a combination of factors in play. Notably, the set-up has to be real, it has to be organic. You can’t fake team unity and spirit. Or not for long. You don’t necessarily have to be best buddies (Bath of the 80s and 90s certainly had their spikey fissures but they were all committed to the mission statement) but you do have to believe in the project.

Skivington is well aware that he and his staff have to do better. Another season of under-achievement would test everyone’s patience.

That Gloucester are still in the ball game is not an insubstantial achievement. Tom Walkinshaw had his critics but he ensured the club had a viable professional future. Martin St Quinton has carried on that mantle. There have been high points, notably leading the league table at the end of the regular season, agonisingly by 15 points in 2003, only to fall at the last to Wasps, and there are a couple of Challenge Cups notched on the belt too. Gloucester have churned through a litany of well-considered Directors of Rugby and head coaches such as Philippe Saint-Andre, Richard Hill, Dean Ryan, Nigel Melville, Laurie Fisher and David Humphreys. From old school greats such as the late Dave Sims through to Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman and on to the man-that-Steve-Borthwick-somehow-can-ignore, Zach Mercer, Gloucester have had players on their books that any team would covet.

Where does that leave us? Firstly, with the feeling that opting for a change of management once again is freighted with uncertainty. There is no guarantee it would work even if the emotional balance has tipped that way. Skivington is well aware that he and his staff have to do better. Another season of under-achievement would test everyone’s patience. There are celebrated players arriving such as Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Christian Wade.

The Sharks
Gloucester will face the Sharks in the Challenge Cup final who have endured a disappointing season and have a point to prove (Photo Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

And the Challenge Cup final? A mere footnote? Perhaps, given the recent shellacking developments. Skivington prioritised the competition once it became clear that their Premiership prospects were doomed. There is pressure on getting a result and rightly so. Lose, and the gloom will descend, for the season will have been a washout. Castle Grim will be true to its billing.  Win, and there is that precious commodity of hope to cling to. They need a decent dose of that at Kingsholm although the manner in which they have rallied-round the MND-afflicted Ed Slater shows that they have a proper grasp on real-life issues. Even so, Slater himself will be willing his mates to victory. Victory will bring respite, partial and temporary, but respite it will be. Friday night lights in North London matters.


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finn 69 days ago

as much as the challenge cup is a bit of a nothing competition, winning it would still mean something.

last year it was won by toulon, who are now something like 4th in the top 14? The year before it was won by Lyon a season before they finished 3rd in the league. The year before that the final was contested by Montpellier and Leicester - 12 months before they both became domestic champions. That should give Gloucester fans some hope.

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