‘How difficult must it be to be a Glaws fan and keep frustrations in check?’


The moment of drinking the champagne, raising the glass, splashing, being happy, jumping up and down, singing silly songs, banging shoes, feeling like it was all worth it, and that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will shine bright. And fair – it's amazing how amazing yet illusory winning a final can be. You should never try to downplay such things – what good is sport if you're not aiming to accumulate as many of these moments as possible, for players and fans alike – but you shouldn't get carried away, rather resort to joy. Ecstasy and ignoring the cold reality. Welcome to Gloucester Rugby, a tale of two cups (maybe), a dodgy league program and absolute humiliation at Northampton.

If they can overcome a winless Newcastle Falcons side this weekend, is the Challenge Cup Final more than the sum of its parts? Is this George Skeffington's last chance? Can she wipe the slate clean and clean the 90-0 stain from Franklin Gardens? Is there even the slightest chance of redemption in the north London air, and a stay of Skeffington's death sentence? Can 80 minutes of elevation make up for months of flat padding? Many Gloucester fans had already made up their minds, and had already withdrawn them, and Franklin's failure proved to be the last straw. Skivington is in the crosshairs with many fingers twitching on the trigger.

On some level, the Challenge Cup final against the Sharks at Tottenham Stadium every week on Friday is little more than a consolation prize, a little icing on a wet-bottomed cake. He is far from my cloud. There will be fans, there will be bright lights for the occasion, and there will be a South African team in opposition. Whatever the logistical factors are in Gloucester's favour, a few hours' drive rather than a long journey, nor the imbalance in support from the stands. Regardless of the circumstances, South African teams are not inclined to lift the matador's mantle and simply let opponents walk through it. Gloucester will have a scrap on their hands.

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

What does it mean if they win? There's a lot at night but not enough to think about adding shine to Glos. This has been a dull and unglamorous season. The importance of cup victories should not be underestimated, but they have always played second fiddle to league competitions, which is the true measure of a team's value. In that regard, Gloucester had another stink, right among the dead in ninth place, far behind everyone at the top, and avoiding the complete ignominy of the miserable state that is Newcastle Falcons. This is the stark truth of the matter.

And just like Friday night's host, Tottenham, Gloucester must do better. However, whatever the sport, no club has a God-given right to success, as those of us born into a Birmingham night scene can attest. Financial support makes a difference in football, for obvious reasons, but even then the proper and intelligent use of it is the key factor. In rugby, the terrain needs to be fairer, and the playing field more level as a result of the salary cap.

Kingsholm remains one of the most attractive and lively places to visit on a match day, with the affection of their long-suffering fans for the club evident. When the wind, rain, sleet or snow comes, you will be there.

Gloucester are not the only ones in the Premier League struggling with debt, but the fact of the matter is that they have not maximized the natural advantages of being that rarest of things, a rugby city with a loyal following. They have not had to find and build a fan base as the Sale Sharks had to do or come to terms with an entirely new ballgame of top-class professional rugby equipped with the tools as Exeter Chiefs have managed to do so productively over the past decade.

Kingsholm remains one of the most attractive and lively places to visit on a match day, with the affection of their long-suffering fans for the club evident. When the wind, rain, sleet or snow comes, you will be there. You would imagine they would be upset by their team's failure to achieve anything such as a Premier League title or Champions Cup, but there was tacit acceptance among the rules until the day of infamy. These are now stakes on a knife edge. There has yet to be the uproar at the gates as there has been at Old Trafford or various other football grounds where there is concern about the club's fortunes or ownership.

George Skeffington
George Skeffington defended his selection and won the support of the Gloucester board after the result (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

How hard is it to be a Glaws fan? How difficult is it to control frustrations? How painful is it to see how clubs like Exeter Chiefs have risen from what we call the “west country” in London, while Gloucester have been treading water at best? What did they do right that Cherry and White didn't? Well, if the formula for sporting success could just be replicated, everyone would be at Wigan in the 1990s or the Chicago Bulls or Real Madrid in the Champions League. It's not one thing, one player (as Michael Jordan helps), one manager or one business infrastructure. Even the double-awarded Chiefs of Exeter had to work to become Chiefs of Exeter Mark II (or perhaps that is even Mark III?). How did the Muslims actually manage, aside from the laughter and murmurs in the back of the class, Sarez's project was much more than some quick and loose accounting.

There are, of course, a number of influencing factors. It is worth noting that the setting must be real, and it must be organic. You can't fake the unity and spirit of the team. Or not for long. You don't necessarily have to be best friends (sure Bath in the 80s and 90s had their prickly cracks but they were all committed to the mission statement) but you have to believe in the project.

Skivington is well aware that he and his staff have to do better. Another season of underachievement will test everyone's patience.

For Gloucester to stay in the ball game is no small achievement. Tom Walkinshaw had his critics but he ensured the club a viable professional future. Martin St. Quinton has carried that mantle. There have been high points, most notably topping the league table at the end of the regular season, by 15 points in 2003, but eventually being relegated to Wasps, and there are two Challenge Cups claimed on the belt too. Gloucester have managed a succession of thoughtful rugby managers and head coaches such as Philip St Andre, Richard Hill, Dean Ryan, Nigel Melville, Laurie Fisher and David Humphreys. From old school greats like the late Dave Sims to Phil Vickery, Trevor Woodman and even the man Steve Borthwick.In some way that could be overlooked, Zak Mercer, Gloucester had players on their books that any team could covet.

Where does that leave us? First, the feeling that choosing to change management again is fraught with uncertainty. There is no guarantee that it will work even if the emotional balance is tipped in this way. Skivington is well aware that he and his staff have to do better. Another season of underachievement will test everyone's patience. There are famous players coming through like Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Christian Wade.

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

And the Challenge Cup final? Just a footnote? Perhaps, in light of recent bombing developments. Skivington prioritized the competition once it became clear their Premier League chances were doomed. There is pressure to get a result and that is true. Lose, and the gloom will descend, for the season will be a wash. Castle Grim will be true to its billing. Win, and there will be the precious commodity of hope to cling to. They need a good dose of that in Kingsholm though and the way they've rallied around the MNA-afflicted Ed Slater shows they have a proper grasp of real-life issues. However, Slater himself will be ready to bring victory to his teammates. Victory will bring a respite, partial and temporary, but it will be a respite. Friday night lights in North London are important.





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