It is the 2nd May 2016, the day after London Irish’s relegation from the premiership. I’m sitting in my office and I’m unable to focus on work. My boss needs me to get my head out of my arse and seeing as he is me, I decided the best way to do so is to put down how I’m feeling. A blog is cheaper than therapy and open on a bank holiday, so here goes.
First things first – relegation hurts. It really does. I mean it is an actual physical pain.
It feels likes, at the start of the season, somebody went around and handed out little balls of nervous anxiety for us all to carry around in our stomachs. At times they got bigger, at times smaller, but they were always there. That knot of tension is sitting there just above breakfast and below my chest infection and, even now, it bloody hurts. What we’re going through, fans of Northampton, Quins, Worcester, Newcastle etc. have all gone through before us but it doesn’t make it any easier.
I’m not quite sure why but this year felt different from the get go. Whether it was the delayed start or the influx of new players and coaches, it just did. Prior to the takeover a few years ago, we were really just concerned with hanging in there. The new board had bigger plans and they made bold moves to try and catch up with the rest of the league. Unfortunately, our level of ambition increased just as the premiership got noticeably stronger. The solution to teams violating the salary cap was, incredibly, to raise the salary cap. The premiership is now clearly the strongest it has ever been. Just look at the results in European competition. The gap between the Pro12 and the premiership is growing at an alarming rate. We were trying to get back into the boat just as it began accelerating away.
Hand on heart, I still like the moves we made. We recruited ambitiously on the playing and coaching side. People are always going to second guess but that is the risk you run when you take chances. We showed intent and a willingness to try new things in order to succeed. I’m a big believer in that. The world is full of things that are done the way they’re done because that’s the way they’ve always been done. That isn’t tradition, it’s habit and I’m no believer in habit. So yes, we took a lot of chances in that way. Ironically, you could say our season came undone because we created chances on the field but couldn’t take them.
While yesterday was the final day, really our season ended up in Newcastle. The game up there did rather sum up the season; we were trying things, they were hanging in there, defending brilliantly and looking to capitalise on our mistakes. Their fans were great and this is no criticism of them, rather a defense of us. Newcastle had a plan to get 11th and they did, we dared to dream a bit bigger and things didn’t go our way. That’s life. I’d still rather be the dreamer.
It is my job to be mister positivity. At times, that has been bloody tough. I’m not going to lie. After several games this year, I’ve gone back upstairs to the PA control room in the madstad, sat down and then worked through my damn near encyclopaedic knowledge of swear words. Then I’d drag myself up and head down to the clubroom, wondering how I’m going to raise morale this time. Then I’d get chatting to so many of the familiar faces and my spirits would raise. We’d pick each other up and then I’d go up on stage and do my best to pick up the rest of the room. It isn’t always easy but I can honestly say, its never been forced. I’ve never tried to lie or spin stuff in a way I don’t honestly feel.
It’s important for any club to remember how to speak to their fans. It has to be authentic. Most people in the stands spend their week drowning in corporate messaging, they don’t want it on their Saturday/Sunday. People can smell bullshit and ‘managed messages’ a mile off, which is why it is always best avoided. Whatever I do as the London Irish announcer, whether you love it or hate it, I’d like to think it at least comes across that it is from a real place. I’m not a spokesman in a suit. I’m a bloke in a London Irish hoody who’d probably be sitting beside you screaming if he wasn’t standing down on the field doing it. To be honest, I’m a bloke who actually spends most of his week in one of his vast collection of London Irish hoodies. The homeless guy I pass in the underpass on my way to my writing office every morning calls me London Irish. I’m not ‘a supplier’, I’m an inmate and I’m in here on a life sentence with no chance of parole.
One of the really nice things about my role at Irish is, I get to meet everybody. Fans, players, board. Honestly, I think as fans we are really lucky to have the board we currently do. That’s because, fundamentally – they’re fans too. They share the passion I see in people like the Oakleys and the Rourkes who follow the team everywhere, building their weekends around London Irish games. They came in to try and make this club something better than it was and they have. Relegation doesn’t change that. If we’d have gone down a few years ago, I’d have been seriously worried about our future. Our academy nearly lost RFU funding not that long ago, it was not fit for purpose. Now we’ve got the most England under 18s of any club in England and Theo and Johnny are going to be the 10-12 axis for England next month in the U20 World Cup, that is happening just a few miles from where I currently sit. The three wise men are a big part of this club’s past and a big part if its future. They’re still learning their jobs but the early results have been even better than the high expectations we had for them.
So yesterday was tough but it also said a lot about the club. George Skivington spoke really well as club captain. I don’t know how much it came across to the rest of the room but up close, George’s eyes told a story. There was a lot of raw emotion in there. He loves this club and it has been tearing the guy apart that he has hardly seen the field this year. He’s always been calm and polite but you could sense the frustration coming off him in waves. He was still doing all he could to lead and it is a credit to him that the squad stayed as united as it did. A lot of times when clubs are going down, as happened so publicly with Northampton in their relegation year, the squad becomes divided. Honestly, I get no sense of that. Every squad has guys who are annoyed that they aren’t playing enough – hell, every squad should have that, but there’s been no more of that than normal that I can see. George has captained this club through a difficult time and he has done so magnificently. People who have criticised him on that score have literally no idea what they’re talking about. As far as I’m concerned, when Skivs eventually hangs up his boots, he’ll deserve to be placed alongside the great players who’ve worn that jersey over the last decade. The Danahers, the Hodgsons, the Kennedys, The Mapasuas, The Paices and the Ojos – George sits right up there with them.
Speaking of legends… I also thought Bob spoke well. I’m a strong believer in the big fella. I know this will come across as me banging the drum but it is the truth. I’ve seen plenty of CEOs come and go over the last 10 years. London Irish is a lot more than a job for him. He’s not fluffing his CV out in between the last job and the next job. People talk about spin but Bob is just a positive guy. He’s doing everything he can to make us better on and off the field. Everyone involved at Irish will be looking back at the season and wondering what we could and should have done differently. I’ve total confidence that Bob will learn from the mistakes and work his arse off to get us back to where we belong. There’s absolutely nobody I’d rather have in his role. I also think New York was a great move for the club and I don’t think we’ve anything to regret there.
Here’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. At various point in my life I’ve been really negative, really pessimistic, angry about this, that and the other. Hell, angry at myself too. I see a lot of that in comedy these days. The circuit is contracting, has been for about 4/5 years now. There’s the people who have gone on to be big stars and then there’s a lot of people who didn’t, and a section of them are bitter and resentful about it. “I’m as talented as that person, better than this person etc.” Some of the people who didn’t make it probably are more talented to be honest. Those that made it are the people who typically worked their arses off. People think comedy is an effortless thing, that’s because, when it is done right, that’s how it is supposed to look. It’s the ones who keep going, keep pushing themselves, who make it. That’s a microcosm of all life right there. Sure, the unworthy might succeed to a point and life isn’t fair but ultimately, shut up and work harder. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll be better for having put all the effort in and done all you can because when you move on to the next thing, you’ll shut up and work harder and eventually, that’ll stand to you.
Speaking of character, as soon as somebody can point to another person in the history of sport who ‘retired’ in pre-season and then came back out of retirement a couple of months later to go and play for the opposition – then I’ll agree that London Irish made a mistake not getting a certain someone to sign a contract saying he wouldn’t do that. I don’t believe anyone would have seen that coming. The man behaved appallingly and just because his drinking buddies on the telly gave him an easy ride, that doesn’t change it. As far as I’m aware, we had to pay him for the time he was with us, which is galling. Common decency would suggest giving the money back. It doesn’t make up for the massive opportunity cost we incurred by not having been able to recruit another ten instead of him but still. We were left in a bind – there simply aren’t high quality players sitting around in September looking for work, of course we looked! I’ve since seen him bang on about the true spirit of rugby and it is frankly sickening. His sincerity is as fake as his hairline. I don’t care how many medals you’ve got or how much money you’ve got in the bank, character is the definition of a man and that guy seriously lacks it. This is entirely my own opinion of course. Still, I’d rather have a beer with the homeless guy from the underpass.
So, we’re in the championship. It’s not where we wanted to be but having vented a bit, I’m afraid that pesky optimism is sneaking back in. We’ll get smaller and then we’ll start to rebuild. We’ll lose a few players but we will keep most of the core. Younger guys will get a bit more exposure and they’ll benefit from the experience. It’ll be tough, opposition teams will view playing us like a cup final but still, I think we’ll come out on top. Like Northampton and Quins, we can use the year to grow closer as a club and come back stronger. I met Mick Crossan on my way out of the Madstad yesterday, he was surprisingly upbeat and it cheered me up. There will be some tough days ahead but good people, on the board, in the squad and in the stands(OK stand, West only I believe) are in it for the long hall. It’s shut up and work time.